The Noun Project Signals The Power of Visuals Over Words

Written by

Edward Boatman and Sofya Polyakov have crowd-sourced a visual dictionary.

Sofya Polyakov and Edward Boatman, right, founders, with Scott Thomas, of The Noun Project.

Around 150 years ago an etymologist named James Murray initiated a massive crowdsourcing project: the creation of a descriptive dictionary of all the words in the English language based on submissions gathered from volunteer readers (one of whom turned out to be a madman). The fruits of that project eventually became The Oxford English Dictionary.

Five years ago an architectural designer named Edward Boatman, together with life and work partner Sofya Polyakov and fellow designer Scott Thomas, took a cue from Murray, applied it to visual language and launched The Noun Project, a Kickstarter-funded web site that aggregates, catalogs and curates pictograms created and uploaded by designers from all over the world, for use by anyone that wishes to download them.

Currently the site is home to over 100,000 symbols, depicting masses of “nouns” (from hundreds of variants on a tree to child soldiers and drones) as well as concepts and adjectives (“too loud”, below). The icons were intended for architects and designers needing symbols for trees, people, bicycles and so on for their presentation drawings. As time wore on, the creators found their symbols had wide appeal; users include teachers wanting to make presentations to students, doctors needing visual aides for patients unable to communicate their ailments, and institutions including the United Nations.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 12.32.17 PM

The clear and striking site makes for fascinating viewing. You can scroll down through thousands of visual interpretations, all in black and white and simple line or solid images. You can also find collections by prolific contributors whose work The Noun Projects love, along with profiles of those designers.

For example, Polish freelance graphic designer Cezary Lopacinski tells NP cheerfully, “I think that graphic design can save the world. A well designed font can speed up reading a book and reduce ink consumption. A well designed road sign can make a drunk driver avoid a car crash. A properly designed drug label can prevent overdose. . . . If some of my icons help resolve somebody’s problem, it would be awesome.”

But the Noun Project, recently launched as a Mac App (meaning you can now drag and drop the symbols instead of downloading), also raises questions. For example, does it pay designers who would typically charge for their design services? What makes The Noun Project different from Emoji? What images are non gratis at the site and, is the rising dominance of visual language killing the written word?

Read on for some answers from a conversation with Edward Boatman and Sofya Polyakov that took place recently at KCRW.


DnA: How do you define the Noun Project?

EB: It is a crowdsourced visual dictionary of over one hundred thousand pictograms that people can download and use to help visually communicate information. We like to think we’re building a dictionary where words are defined not by other words but by visual definitions and the reason we see that as being important is because visual communication is in the digital era becoming the preferred mode of communication.

DnA: I understand your original inspiration for this was the Oxford English Dictionary which was essentially a crowdsourced product of the nineteenth century. Was it the words or the crowdsourcing element that inspired you?

EB: It was the crowdsourcing element of it which I thought was so interesting — that someone could have an idea or a vision and they could bring along other people to help contribute to this mission and it could be a community effort. . . and to think that Dr James Murray who was in charge of the project did this back in the 1880s and that he got people all around the world contributing definitions for these words.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 12.33.12 PM

DnA: A dictionary theoretically contains every word known to mankind within that language. Is that what you’re trying to create — an encyclopedic dictionary of symbols that represent every word? 

EB: It doesn’t need to necessarily be as formal as a dictionary or an encyclopedia, and if you visit the site it might not be your first impression that this is a visual dictionary, but that’s the model — where someone can arrive to our site and type in any word that they want to visually communicate, and we offer up a visual metaphor that communicates that idea in an incredibly clear concise way.

DnA: It’s called a noun project but it includes verbs?

EB: Yeah, absolutely. Most of the icons on the site represent nouns – cars, trucks, planes, trees, and other objects. When we first started, I created it to kind of solve a pain point that I was experiencing.

I was working at Gensler architecture firm, and like a lot of other architects I was having to put together presentation boards that visually communicate different ideas, and I couldn’t find an easy-to-use online library that could help me download and visually communicate different ideas through iconography. I talked to a few other designers and they expressed the same thing. So it originally started as something useful for other designers. We launched on on Kickstarter back in 2011, and we very quickly realized that there’s so many types of people that need to visually communicate information just beyond designers.

DnA: Such as who? 

EB: Teachers are a good example. They need to communicate information to their students. Doctors need to visually communicate information to their patients. It’s business professionals that are putting together presentation decks– they need to be able to clearly communicate and sell an idea, and visual communication is a great way to do all this.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 2.09.21 PM

DnA: So say I’m an elementary school teacher and I want to give a presentation to my kids and it’s something to do with the environment and I want some images of the sun or the wind or trees. How do I go about getting these images?

EB: You simply go to the Noun Project dot com. You type in any word you want to visually communicate through a simple icon. We offer up those images and you click download, and in that download file there’s a PNG or an SVG, which are different file types and you can drag these into a powerpoint presentation or an Illustrator file — whatever program you’re using to create that content — and you can use it however you want.

So for example, type in tree and then we offer up hundreds of different trees, deciduous, conifer all different types.

DnA: Do you to curate? Do you decide which tree you like or do you welcome all trees?

EB: We have we do have a person on staff full-time that is curating this library because when you are dealing with crowdsourcing you do have to have limits or else your product is going to become diluted and you can’t really build a brand around that.

Original Noun Sketches
Early sketches of symbols (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: Say I want my tree to be colored but the nouns are all black and white. 

EB: Yes, they are all black and white. We did that because, one, we wanted to put some firm parameters on the aesthetics of the project from the beginning. And two, we found the black and white image is the best foundational building blocks from which a designer can take that image and then they can customize it with color. It’s actually more work for them if they start with a colored image because maybe it’s red but they want it to be yellow. Then they have to change that. Whereas if it’s just black and white they can change it to whatever color and whatever style they want. We have done user testing over and over again, and we’ve heard so many designers and so many creatives say that they really appreciate the fact that it’s just black and white because it allows them to alter and to customize the image as quickly as possible.

DnA: Do you reject icons that are too amateurish?

EB: Yeah, and you know, whenever you get crowdsourcing you’re going to get inappropriate body parts — not inappropriate but just inappropriate for our site.

DnA: So pornographers need not apply to this site?

EB: No, it’s interesting because if a body part is done in a very anatomically correct way, and it’s trying to serve as a visual definition and not offer up some social commentary, then we accept those.

DnA: So that’s where a doctor could use it.

EB: Exactly, there are these funny conversations that happen every day around this.  Sometimes our our moderator will be like, hey, I don’t know if I should accept or reject this penis, and then we kind of have to gather around and rule, well, yeah I think that’s good. So I think we should we should accept it.

SP: We have had a few very well executed Kama Sutra sets that have been submitted, and it’s challenging because the designer did an amazing job, but we kind of have to balance with who is using our site. A lot of educators are using our site and we have to decide, is this going to potentially cause some issues down the road for somebody who’s teaching and in a classroom and having their children search for a concept on the Noun Project?

EB: We have thought about putting an 18 year + filter on The Noun Project. I do think eventually we will want to iconify those concepts. There should be visual definitions for those ideas. I mean we have definitions that represent very serious concepts like waterboarding, war, landmines, a child soldier, so those definitely aren’t kid-appropriate.

So I think an 18-plus filter would probably be nice.


DnA: So do users pay and credit the designers?

EB: All of our content is licensed under Creative Commons which is a really awesome license that allows content to be shared very easily online. All you have to do is either give credit to the designer, or purchase the license.

But we started hearing when we released this model that a lot of people did not want to credit the designer; they didn’t want the attribution to kind of mess up their visual composition and they kept asking us, hey, is there is there any way that I can just pay a few bucks to remove that attribution? And we heard this so often that we thought it might be a good business model. So now we allow people to pay $1.99 to remove the attribution and then we share that revenue with the designer.

DnA: This is quite a radical model, because up until crowdsourcing of design a graphic designer can make quite a lot of money from creating symbols and logos and this seems to be upending that. 

EB: That business is going to remain where you commission a designer to really look at your brand, your ethos, the problems you’re trying to solve, what you’re trying to communicate, and then craft a visual mark around it. That that’s not what we’re providing; we’re just providing the language that you can use in all of your projects quickly and efficiently.

SP: And most of our users are actually designers themselves and they’re using it as a building block to get their idea out there and to see if it’s feasible. So once they go to create a final product they actually end up editing the icon and putting their own creativity into it. They’re all open to be reused and repurposed and adjusted.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 2.28.00 PMDnA: Now we all know people just love emoji. How does emoji compare to what you’re doing?

EB: They’re just different type of icons, and with the Noun Project, they’re in a location where they can be seamlessly added to a stream of communication. So it’s the same fundamental idea, where you’re using visual communication to replace verbal communication. What is really fascinating is that language is being compressed into symbols or into less words.

I was just at the Huntington Library, and I was looking at all these old books and manuscripts, and what really struck me was there were no pictures, just dense text and really beautiful long words, and you don’t see that in today’s world.

In today’s world people’s attention spans are so low that they need to be able to digest an idea in a millisecond and words actually aren’t that good at that. Images do a much better job at that and Emoji are really on that trend. And as more and more of our communication happens through these small screens you need to communicate an idea without taking up a lot of screen real estate.

DnA: You can more or less present an idea through these symbols. But you don’t do social commentary through your icons, is that right? 

EB: Because our content right now is black and white iconography, it lends itself more to just static imagery, where you’re just communicating the essence of an idea. But there’s certain symbols where there’s social commentary overlaid. For example, when Mitt Romney in his last presidential election responded to a question with ‘I’ve got binders full of women’ that phrase ‘binders full of women’ became part of the lexicon. And within a few hours, sure enough we got a ‘binder full of women’ icon. Just an icon with just a simple binder with a woman on it. I mean it was about as good a way to communicate as I can think of. And same thing when Miley Cyrus twerked at that awards show. We got icons for twerking. So as new words, new concepts get added to the lexicon they become iconified which I think is really interesting.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 12.03.17 PM