The Noun Project Communicating with Symbols

We get into the vast world of icons in this episode. Iconography is everywhere. Who better to talk about icons than folks from The Noun Project. The Noun Project is an enormous catalog of symbols that are created and uploaded by designers around the world. With millions of users, the Noun Project is arguably the largest resource to find symbols on the web.

I paid a visit to The Noun Project’s headquarters where I had the pleasure of talking to co-founder, Edward Boatman and Design Engineer, Geremy Mumenthaler about what the Noun Project is and why it’s such a valuable resource.
Interview by Cesar Contreras

Edward: I’m one of the co-founders of The Noun Project and my current role is Chief Strategy Officer which entails a lot of different roles. I work a lot on community initiative things. I also work on building out the directions of our new products and really always kind of making sure that the company is always staying true to its mission of creating, sharing and celebrating the world’s visual language.

I went to school for Interior Design and Architecture so that’s what brought me out here from the Midwest to Los Angeles. It was a job at Gensler which is a pretty big architecture firm. That was my introduction to the creative profession and it was there that some of the seeds of The Noun Project or the idea of the The Noun Project was born.

I used to draw a lot on my sketchbook and I was drawing all different types of subject matter but I couldn’t find a subject matter that I could draw on a consistent basis that I could stay inspired by and so it kind of bothered me.

I had this idea of why not draw the things that used to fascinate me when I was a child because I had this idea that when something fascinates you when you’re a kid it’s not because someone else is telling you that it’s cool, you just have a core, intrinsic reason to think of that idea is interesting, or that object is interesting; you’re just drawn to it in a very natural, primitive way.

And I thought that that idea was really interesting and powerful so I started to draw the things that fascinated me as a kid. So I started to draw sequoias, backhoes, cranes, trucks, bulldozers, steamrollers…And I found out that I actually still really liked drawing those things. When I would draw them, I would draw them not from a physical picture but from a mental picture.

Because of that, I had a very simplified style to them. They almost took on like an iconic quality to them. They’re only communicating the essence of that object or idea. I started to notice that they were all nouns, right? Like truck, sequoia, bulldozer, crane…And so I thought to myself, “It would be really cool to have a drawing of every single noun in existence.”

And that idea wasn’t being thought of a business case. It wasn’t even being thought of as how this could be useful for someone else. It was just a conceptual idea that I thought was interesting for own self.

I started reading a book called “The Professor and the Madman” which is the history of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and this was back in 1870. What I thought was so fascinating about it is they essentially used crowdsourcing to compile the first Oxford English Dictionary.

The people that were running this project back in London found publications that had an international circulation but essentially ad space in those publications, put out a call to action saying like, “Hey, we want to document and define every single word in English language. We’re looking for volunteers to help us. If you’re interested, let us know.”

So they compiled an army of volunteers and he would then send those volunteers pieces of paper that had a word on it and those volunteers would then find a sentence that was using that word and then offer up the definition and mail it back to the person in London. And they would go through these definitions and if they were good, they would straight into the dictionary. Some of them would need tweaking and they would tweak them and put them in the dictionary, but that’s how the first Oxford English Dictionary was compiled. It was totally around crowdsourcing.

That obviously dovetailed really nicely into the concept that I was thinking about. I thought instead of me just doing this, why not open source it and build a community of like-minded people around this idea where we can create this crowd-sourced dictionary where words aren’t defined by other words but they are defined visually. And because they’re defined visually, it’s universal language that everyone could understand. And so that’s how the concept got further at that moment.

And then the final piece of the puzzle was when I was working at the architecture firm. I just couldn’t find an easy to use visual library that helped me communicate my ideas. I found that the traditional libraries for that, like iStock and Shutterstock which is really complicated and hard to use. I thought that this concept that I had been thinking of, if the content wasn’t just hand-drawings but were actually vector icons, then this could actually be not just a fine artistic concept but could actually help creatives around the world and help people communicate information. And so that’s where the value came into it. That’s how the business case for it evolved. Kind of putting all three of those stories together is how the evolution of Noun Project came to be and we launched it the beginning of 2011 on Kickstarter.

“Noun Project provides a very easy building block for people that would traditionally consider themselves non-designers or non-creatives to very quickly get into the process of being able to visually communicate an idea of creating a very simple design and design it for themselves.”
– Geremy
Edward Boatman & Geremy Mumenthaler during the Noun Project interview

Icons, they communicate just the essence of an idea and because of that, they can communicate an idea in a blink of an eye. Because they can communicate an idea so quickly they’re perfectly tailored for the type of communication that’s happening the world where you have to communicate an idea very quickly. People’s attention spans are very small these days. So much more of our communication is happening through mobile devices so there’s not a lot of screen real estate.

Icons can communicate a big idea without using a lot of screen real estate so they’re perfect for that. And it’s this form of communication that’s been around with us for as long as man has been around. I just think that we all have a primitive connection to this language.

One the exciting things about doing the noun project, obviously our initial target market was designers, but everyone needs to be able to effectively visually communicate in today’s world. So whether you’re a salesperson putting together a pitch deck for a new product, you need to build it to visually communicate so Noun Project can help them communicate their idea; whether you’re a teacher needing to simplify a concept for your students, iconography is a great way to take a complex idea and simplify it. And so we found that this visual language is relevant for a lot of people beyond just the design community.

Geremy: I’m a design engineer at Noun Project. I work on everything from sketching and concepting interfaces to building prototypes, doing a lot of testing and user-research and then taking all of those findings and helping implement that design and interface work back into Noun Project as a product and seeing Noun Project as a concept come to life and put in front of people.

Traditionally I’m a designer. I went to design school, did a lot of branding and that kind of stuff in my past. But the work I do at Noun Project, since we’re a small team, I work on a lot of different things. And design engineer allows me to bounce back and forth between those two worlds of like, are you working on the code base or are you working on the designs themselves. I kind of just float between all of those worlds and help the rest of our team who are amazing in all those different pieces really put everything together.

Edward: Noun Project is a crowd-sourced visual dictionary. The business model follows more of a marketplace model, so on one side, on the supply side, we have designers from around the world that are uploading pictograms; and then on the demand side, we have people that need to quickly visually communicate a concept and they need a pictogram for the projects that they’re working on, and that consist of anything from what developers that are building a website to graphic designers that building a logo to teachers that are putting together a presentation for their students to salesman that’s putting together a PowerPoint deck for their product.

That’s the overview, that’s the landscape of the company. In terms of how you contribute, it’s pretty simple. One of the things that, when I look back at the evolution of the product, it’s kind of an unintentional consequence but something that I think is really important is that when you’re going to have crowdsourcing as a part of your business or your platform, you need to give the people that are uploading that content a very small sandbox to play in, at first, initially. Because if you don’t, then they’re going to be uploading all different types of content and it’s going to be very hard for you to keep your brand consistent. And so when we first started allowing uploads, it had to be black and white content. It had to be an icon. It had to visually communicate to a specific idea. Those are still our guidelines today.

It’s pretty easy to upload an icon to Noun Project. It goes through a very simple moderation process and one really great thing is that a lot of designers just have these icons sitting on their machines and their hard drives somewhere, collecting digital dust, and by uploading it to Noun Project, you’re allowing people from all over the world to actually use your creation and you can make money doing that which is pretty awesome.

The concept of the icon I feel like it’s more important than the execution of it, so how well does that icon capture the essence of the idea it’s trying to communicate. And then secondly, how strong is the execution of that. We have some designers that you can look at their work and very clearly they don’t have full grasp of how Illustrator works or how Sketch works that the vector itself isn’t that well-crafted but the concept behind it is really, really great.

I like to say that everyone can play the game of Pictionary. I think everyone knows how to be able to take an idea and synthesize it down to its core components. I think that’s the most important aspect of it.

And then secondly, we also look for, again, if that pictogram is executed in a way that’s high quality.

Geremy: We get hundreds if not thousands of submissions of icons a day from people all over the world which is I think one of my favorite aspects of the community that we build of creators is that they’re coming from a very diverse background of languages, of culture. Just lots of different diversity there. So that content comes en masse to us for us to sort through and curate on to the site. So new stuff gets added every day and in large quantities. [laughs]

Edward: You just need to be able to communicate an idea in a blink of an eye in today’s world. I think everyone’s attention spans are lessening every single day, right? We’re bombarded by so much information that when you communicate you just need to communicate the essence of your idea in a blink of an eye, and pictograms are a phenomenal way to do that because they can just take a very complex idea and distill it down to its core components and that allows you to just digest that idea and decipher that idea just in a blink of an eye. I really think that’s one of the core reasons that you see pictograms being used in so many different places.

Also, the internet is just making the world flat, and using a language that can be understood by everyone, I think is really important and pictograms form this visual language that are universally understood. That’s another really phenomenal reason why it’s important to use them.

Geremy: There’s still a dialect or a different cultural depictions of things. Creating a universal language in our perspective is more about having that framework for people to share ideas and discuss together but there’s still nuance to it.

One of our examples we use in a lot of presentations and stuff is like you want to communicate the idea of a restaurant so what do you use? A lot of people in North America may use a fork and a knife. That’s great and kind of bred into our culture that you see that very standard fork and knife icon, you know that there’s going to be somewhere to eat. And in other parts of the world, that’s not necessarily the culturally accepted representation of place to eat. They can have lots of different form factors.

So we see that type of stuff pop up all the time and it’s not really about saying there’s one single icon to represent a core idea but it’s a lot easier for those icons to spread out and have a little bit of understanding across cultures than necessarily you would with just a single word because the way you interpret an image is much differently.

Edward: The thing that I’m most proud of is that I think Noun Project provides a very easy building block for people that would traditionally consider themselves non-designers or non-creatives to very quickly get into the process of being able to visually communicate an idea of creating a very simple design and design it for themselves. I think if our product can help non-designers makes themselves think that they’re more creative and have more creative confidence, then I think that’s really exciting value that we’re adding. We see that a lot. We see that from business professionals using our platform, to teachers using our platform. Someone just posted a picture on a Twitter of…someone created a sign, I think that was in Europe or something that was helping guide refugees just using simple pictograms. That’s one area that I think for sure Noun Project is impactful.

We definitely have this view that visual language is larger than just iconography. Visual language can consist of different types of visual assets such as photos or illustrations, UI elements, patterns, GIFs…All of that content falls into the umbrella of visual language so we’re working on some product and some features that reflect that belief.

Geremy: When people submit icons to The Noun Project, when we first opened that up, we got a lot of people who were really interested. Yes, we have lots of designers, some of the best designers in the world have used and contributed to Noun Project, but also that first group of people, maybe it was their first icon they’ve ever designed. Because they wanted to participate in this idea and community, they came up with an idea, they downloaded Illustrator, they made a vector icon, and they submitted it. We wanted to make sure that the content on the site matched our quality level.

So that way, anyone using the content from there could feel confident in using it. So when stuff that wasn’t necessarily up to that par, we would say, hey thank you so much for submitting this thing. We’re not going to put it on The Noun Project. This icon, it doesn’t meet the requirements and X, Y, or Z. But then we would also give them, and Edward was doing this personally for a long time, he would hand-write feedback on that icon and be like, “This coffee mug you submitted, it’s a great concept. We need icons for coffee mug. This one in particular, it doesn’t really showcase. It kind of looks like a blob or whatever… You’ve got too many vector points going on here. Here’s a couple of resources on how to maybe do this a little better the next time.”

We were denying I think about 70 percent of content that was coming through. We were only getting 30 percent of these stuff that was coming through on at the site, so over just a few short months, I think even those designers who were submitting their first icon, they would resubmit and it would be better, and maybe they would get denied again and we’d go through this dance of not only grabbing amazing designers, great iconography that they had on their desktops, but we were also in a way helping a lot of people who were interested in communicating at that level become really great icon designers by having that round of feedback and giving them resources. Once they create a content that was up to our standards that we can put on the site, we celebrated that fact and we shared it and other people used it. That feedback loop kind of brought us to where we’re at now where we just have so many people who are submitting content and they want to participate.

I think, yeah, there’s a monetary aspect of it, right? Like you can make money being an icon designer. But I think for majority of our creators, it’s more about participating in that language and having something out there and that available for people to use that helps them communicate. So it helps those teachers communicate that history lesson a little bit more simple and a little bit more clear. It helps protesters all around the world communicate their concept to people who don’t speak their language.

I think we have a couple of really powerful images that really hit it home to me why something like Noun Project is important is you have people and they’re protesting for something and they just look like a mob protesters trying to figure out what they’re doing. You see this on the news cycles all the time, right? Just a generic people protesting something, their signs are written in a language that I don’t speak, and full of alphabet that I don’t read. That’s confusing. And then you juxtapose it to a group that’s using a little bit of iconography to help their mission…”Oh, human rights. Cool! I can rally behind that.”

This is something really simple that if it was just in their native language, I’m sure it will help their cause but having some more of that more universal language allows me to really understand what they’re talking about and empathize and it brings the world a little closer together.

Edward: We’ve definitely tried to make that process of finding and downloading a pictogram on The Noun Project as easy as possible. I think our licensing model is pretty innovative. All of the content on The Noun Project is licensed as either Public Domain or Creative Commons Attribution 3.0. That is a choice of the creator. They can either license it as Public Domain or Creative Commons.

If it’s Public Domain then you’re essentially waiving rights to that for eternity. Anyone can use that icon. Walmart can take that icon and put it on their billboard and you don’t make money off of it and they’d be perfectly allowed to do that. Creative Commons attribution, anyone can download the icon, they can use it forever however they want. They can even make money from it. But they would have to say, for example, Designed by Geremy Mumenthaler next to the icon.

When we first launched that, people immediately started writing and saying I really want to use this icon. I love it. But I’m putting it in a polished project and I don’t want to say Designed by Geremy Mumenthaler. Can I just pay him a few bucks to waive that right? And we heard that over and over again and that’s how we developed our licensing models, really just kind of listening to our community and how they wanted to use the content. And so, that’s how the business model evolved. For each icon that is purchased through Creative Commons, we share that revenue back with the designer.

Geremy: We could have really quickly at that moment decided that okay, people want to pay for this stuff. Let’s kind of throw up some gates, put some watermarks on stuff and only allow it available for purchase. But one of the things that…Edward, you were very adamant about when we were starting to build the product out of this concept is that this language that we’re building should be available for everybody to use.

And so, as it remains today, you don’t have to purchase the content from our site to use it. There’s stipulations like you have to give credit to the creators and those types of things but this I think has allowed it to have a much further reach and allow people like a lot of our teachers, I’m sure, aren’t necessarily purchasing the rights to use the content for their lectures or whatever, but it gives them a voice to use that content.

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