Back when I first began studying graphic design, I found myself interested in dingbats. I collected several hundred free ones, ranging from the informative (e.g. Wingdings) to the absurd (Weird Al Yankobats), and spent hours scrolling through them for no apparent reason. I had no intention of using them; most were of questionable quality, but they were fascinating nonetheless.
In hindsight, what I was doing was attempting to become fluent in the visual language we humans all seem to understand. A good symbol transcends so many barriers, such as language, culture and even physical disability. What we all picture in our heads when we think of the word ‘banana’, for example, is pretty similar no matter who we are. And that’s where functional symbols come in remarkably handy for visual communicators. Who hasn’t needed a good, clear set of directional icons for a mud map or wayfinding system? If you haven’t, you’re bound to one day.
The challenge is finding this so-called ‘good, clear set’. Trust me, this is no simple task. Sure, there are thousands of freely available symbols, but by the time you finish searching, you may well have reinvented the (graphic) wheel yourself. That was the case up until about a year ago, when The Noun Project went live. Today, it’s a treasure trove of more than 800 searchable, quality symbols, and it’s a trove that is growing every day.
Los Angeles-based co-founders Edward Boatman and Sofya Polyakov are on a mission to ‘share, celebrate and enhance the world’s visual language’, by providing all of us with access to a vast collection of symbols in a single library. This elegant, user-friendly collection has another big advantage: it’s free to use for everyone. All the symbols on the site are considered ‘free content’ works. Many of the initial inclusions were already in the public domain, with more recent additions being contributed by designers under Creative Commons licences.
The Noun Project recently launched its public submissions page, which has revolutionised the site. It has gone from a static online library to a living, breathing entity influenced by the global community. Polyakov explains, “The icons created by the public represent the ideas we wish to see in the world – ideas like Urban Farm, Peaceful Protest and Human Rights. They’re indicators not just of a concept, but of a hope. The communicative power isn’t just utilitarian anymore. It’s social.”
Clearly, there’s a whole lot more to The Noun Project than the standard food, travel and business icons you might expect. In fact, recently the Occupy Wall Street protesters took a liking to the ‘protest’ symbol. The symbols have been used for everything from movie posters to short films, presentations, newspaper illustrations and infographics. Perhaps most inspiring though is the news that teachers and parents of kids with learning disabilities are using the symbols to assist in overcoming communication challenges, especially in children with autism.
Of course, this wonderful resource could not grow and flourish without some level of curation. We would be left with the same old double-edged sword: too much content, not enough quality. The symbols do all seem to have been designed with sensitivity to form and intent. This is no accident, as each design submitted is evaluated before it is made available to the public. The site also provides a handy set of guidelines for budding symbol designers.
“The biggest advice we can give someone about designing an icon is to focus on representing the bare essence of the object or concept, and only use the essential facts of the object or idea you are creating a symbol for,” says Polyakov. “This is not an easy task, but that is what makes it fun. We believe symbols should also be elegant. If we get a symbol that we think has potential, but needs some refinement, we contact the designer with suggestions on how they can improve the symbol so that it fits into the collection.”
If you’re not sure where to start, using a noun as the basis of the design can point you in the right direction. Polyakov goes on to explain, “When designing new symbols, if you don’t start with a very specific ‘referent’ for which symbol you will be representing, you are likely to end up with a symbol that is not very clear. The vast majority of the symbols in the collection represent nouns, and that’s where our name comes from.” This seems to make sense. Nouns, after all, are ‘naming words’. These symbols are visual ‘names’.
The latest addition to the site is quite clever – the ‘noun store’, where you can create your own custom ‘noun’ design on a t-shirt, button or iPhone case. And there’s plenty more on the horizon. When asked about future of the project, the founders are excited by its potential. “Over the next 12 months, our goal is to exponentially grow the collection, while maintaining the highest quality of design and keeping The Noun Project free, simple and fun to use,” they say. “Besides growing the collection, our focus will be on increasing user participation, so that there is more interaction between designers and the site.”
It’s been a while since I’ve sat up all night looking through dingbats. Now that I’ve discovered The Noun Project, I can while away a few good hours scrolling through its symbols instead. More importantly, it’s great to know that someone out there is nurturing this growing visual language of ours, and we can all be a part of it. The collection is sure to grow to massive proportions, but the functionality and usability is what will make it increasingly relevant for designers. I’m looking forward to seeing some Aussie symbols in the mix. ‘Snags’ anyone?
From desktop magazine.
Images are copyright by The Noun Project.