Visualizing Change: An Interview with the Noun Project
The mission of The Noun Project is to collect, organize and add to the highly recognizable symbols that form the world’s visual language so they can be shared in a fun and meaningful way. The symbols are free, simple, and high quality—not to mention truly delightful.
In this conversation with the Designers Accord, we learn from The Noun Project founders, Edward Boatman and Sofya Polyakov, how a shared visual language can be the connective tissue across disciplines and geographies, and why you don’t need to be a designer to be an effective communicator and change-maker.
Designers Accord: The Noun Project strikes a perfect balance between function and folly—providing amazing quality scalable icons for everything from the universal human icon to a sasquatch. Share the background of how your initiative came about—what was the initial inspiration and who’s involved?
Edward Boatman: The Noun Project is one of those ideas that slowly grew and evolved over time. I think the starting point was my sketchbook. One summer I started to draw the things that used to fascinate me when I was a child: Sequoias, Trains, Cranes, Combines and a lot of other “nouns.” After doing this for some time and creating a nice stack of sketches, I thought to myself it would be great if I had a drawing that depicted every single concept or object in existence.
Then a couple years down the road I was working at an architecture firm putting together a lot of presentation boards and I was frustrated that I couldn’t quickly find icons for very common things such as airplanes, bicycles and people. I thought about taking my old noun concept and tweaking it a bit to solve this real world problem I was experiencing.
I started talking to my really good friend Scott Thomas and my wife Sofya Polyakov about building on the original idea. We decided the biggest impact could be made by building a platform for visual communication. Symbols serve as some of the best tools to overcome many language, cultural, and even medical communication barriers. Having designers from around the world engage in creating a visual language doesn’t just create symbols for what already exists, it also creates symbols for what we want to see in the world—things like Community Gardens, Sustainable Energy and Human Rights.
Sofya Polyakov: We launched the site on Kickstarter in December 2010 using mostly symbols that already existed in the public domain, like the AIGA transportation suite and the National Park Service symbols. The response was incredible—we received tremendous support not only from the design community, but also from the autism & special education communities, teachers who wanted symbols to help kids read, librarians, app developers, etc. We were written up in TechCrunch, The Atlantic,Fast Company, PSFK, Engadget, as well as a lot of international blogs. Half of our traffic still comes from outside of the United States, which is something we really value because it’s fascinating to see how people from around the world “see” the same concept. For example, what does a symbol for “Protest” look like around the world? You can now go to The Noun Project and find the answer.
DA: You’ve already built amazing momentum—from sketchbook to meme. What does your team look like and how do you carry this forward?
EB: As the CEO, Sofya is the brains behind the operations side of running the business and also handles all of our marketing and community outreach. Scott and his team at Simple.Honest.Work have done an amazing job managing the design, development and UX of the site. I look after the growing collection of symbols to make sure we adhere to high design and user comprehension standards, and I also work with the international community of designers who are creating them.
SP: We also recently got accepted into the Designer Fund, so we’ve been very fortunate to have incredible mentors and advisors from Twitter, Groupon, Pinterest, Stanford’s d.School, Google, 37Signals, and others. Besides being some of the most talented designers today, our mentors are also incredible people. I honestly can’t think of too many industries where someone so successful, whose time is so valuable, just volunteers their time to help out a start-up. It’s amazing to have so many talented people around you who want you to succeed.
DA: You have over 3,000 icons on the site now—many solicited from people all over the world. How does the submission process work? How do you strike a balance between a symbol being locally relevant but universally understood?
EB: We have a very simple submission process with only a few stylistic and technical guidelines. What we look for are symbols that really capture the essence of the object or idea they are representing. Every symbol submitted is reviewed by me to make sure they’re a good fit for the collection. There are symbols from parts of the world that are very local to that culture, and thus are not likely to be universally understood. For example Cheburashka (above)—which is a Russian cartoon character, or Meeple—a humanoid wooden figure used in a German board game. And that’s totally fine, it’s actually really fascinating to see the visual languages from different parts of the world. It’s certainly broadened my knowledge, there’s a lot of googling going on when I review these. When we come across unique symbols like that, we usually try to educate our viewers about what they are via our blog or a little twitter fyi.
DA: What’s the licensing structure for the icon usage?
SP: We wanted to keep the licensing structure as easy as possible, so before launching User Submissions we narrowed it down to three basic Creative Commons (CC) licenses. The designers uploading symbols can select from CC BY, CC0 and Public Domain. CC BY allows you to let others download, use, copy, share, modify and build upon your work, as long as they follow the proper attribution information you provide. We’ve come up with some basic Attribution Requirements to make sure designers get the credit they deserve. CC0 – No Rights Reserved is a public domain dedication tool which allows the designer or owner of a symbol to declare the work free of copyright. This allows for maximum dissemination and use of the work. The Public Domain Mark is a tool that allows you to identify a work that is already in the public domain and is therefore free of known copyright restrictions. An example of this would be an original work of the United States Government (for example theDOT transportation suite), or works that have already been released into the public domain (such as the Iconathon suite).
DA: What are some of the strangest or most delightful icons you’ve received?
SP: We get anything from standard icons like “Bicycle” or “House“, to the really fun ones like Sasquatch (Bigfoot), Afro, and Unicorn, to more unique symbols that are difficult to find elsewhere – like Burqa, Kiwi bird,Sikh, and Levitation. One of our favorites from a design perspective isSardines.
DA: It’s clear this kind of visual language is an incredible asset for designers and architects. Have you heard of any unexpected uses by other groups?
SP: Absolutely! When we first launched the site, we thought it’d be very useful for designers and architects. We were pleasantly surprised when we started receiving fan mail from groups way outside of who we imagined using our site. The most gratifying probably has to be the fact that our site is used by the Autism community, because children with Autism tend to communicate most effectively using visual communication. Visual communication is also very important to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) patients, and anyone who has speech and language challenges, such as cerebral palsy and people who lose their ability to speak after suffering a stroke.
We were also surprised by how many people from the business community use our symbols. We get a lot of traffic from business professionals who use symbols in presentations to quickly illustrate their ideas during meetings. We’re building a feature that will make it as easy as possible for anyone to use beautiful designs, whether the person is a graphic designers or someone putting together a client pitch. Design matters – it can say a lot about your work quality, and whether or not a client realizes it when they see a bad design in a presentation, it can leave a negative impression on them.
SP: Iconathons are facilitated design workshops organized by The Noun Project in partnership with organizations and sponsors across the country. The aim of Iconathon is to add to the public domain a set of graphic symbols that can be used to easily communicate concepts frequently needed in civic design. Because the vast majority of symbols are meant to inform and guide the public, we believe that it’s important to involve the public in the design process to ensure that new symbols have the highest level of user comprehension. This is the foundation of the Iconathon design philosophy.
We are big proponents of civic engagement in our personal lives, and we noticed that there were not a lot of symbols out there that represented ideas in civic design. At the same time Code for America’s fellows were experiencing a lack of symbols they needed for the work they were doing for cities, so they reached out to us. We organized a small series of design workshops just to see if the idea had legs, and the response we got was extremely positive—we ended up doing an Iconathon marathon through six cities at venues like the MIT Media Lab and the School of Visual Arts in New York, and had amazing speakers like Jake Barton from Local Projects, Lee McGuire—the Chief Communications Officer for Boston Public Schools, and Amanda Shaffer with the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College.
We’re at it again this year. We just held a Neighborhood Revitalization Iconathon at Code for America’s headquarters in San Francisco, where we worked with the Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation to come up with a set of symbols for the revitalization efforts going on in Central Market & Tenderloin neighborhoods. Next up is an Iconathon focusing on the Los Angeles River. It will be held at the LALA Gallery which supports great street artists like JR, Roa, and Shepard Fairey. The gallery is a beautiful space in an old 1940’s meatpacking facility, right next to the River.
Besides contributing much-needed civic-minded symbols to the public domain, Iconathons also bring together people from all aspects of the community. Participants include educators, non-profits, civic leaders & volunteers, government officials and designers. Iconathons are specifically designed to let the public participate in the design process and to further increase their understanding of the civic topics they engage with. Previous Iconathons have created public domain symbols for concepts like “human rights“, “food bank“, “electric car“, and “sustainable energy“.
DA: You have energized this idea of a collaborative activism and social responsibility through collaboratively building shared visual language. Is that your vision for The Noun Project?
EB: Yes, this is definitely part of our vision. Symbols many times are meant to inform and guide the public, and because of this we feel very strongly that the public should be involved in the process. It’s also very important that anyone can have the ability to add to this visual language, and that people create symbols for ideas they want to see more of in the world. Because when you create a symbol for an idea, you articulate that idea in a new way – in a way that everyone can understand – and this in turn can create new possibilities for how that idea is shared and expressed. Just think about all the unique ways peace has been communicated through Gerald Holtom’s Peace icon.
DA: The Noun Project seems to blend the aspirational and practical in a really delightful way. What’s your ultimate goal for project?
EB: We want to give our users the ability to visually communicate anything to anyone.