Sharing the world’s visual language

When L.A.-based designer Edward Boatman was studying design in college, he began drawing simple sketches of ordinary objects like cranes, trains and trees. He referred to these sketches as “nouns” since all the drawings represented a person, place or thing. After a while, he began to amass a sizeable collection of sketches. It was then that he started wondering what it would be like to have a sketch for every single object in the world.

Fast forward a few years and Boatman, his wife and a number of collaborators are the force behind the Noun Project, a free and public visual dictionary of the highly recognizable international icons we easily take for granted. The site hosts more than 800 symbols created by the project’s designers, collaborators, and by users from around the world.

As Boatman writes on the site, today the Noun Project “is no longer just a library. It’s also a workshop, where concepts are visualized and shared freely. It’s a new way of thinking where language is seen, not spoken.”

All Noun Project icons are made available free of charge, because, as the site’s mission states, providing them for free is the only meaningful and effective way to share them with the world. That may sound overly altruistic, but the site is also vehemently committed to simplicity. The Noun Project allows anyone to go to the site and effortlessly – and simply – find and obtain the symbols they want. The entire library is now available in 25 languages.

Boatman launched the Noun Project via Kickstarter, one of the world’s largest funding platforms for creative projects. His simple goal: build a site for sharing, celebrating and enhancing the world’s visual language. Since launching in early 2011, 386 Kickstarter backers have pledged more than $14,366, almost 10 times the original $1,500 goal for the project.

All Noun Project symbols are licenced under Creative Commons, which provides licenses for the open sharing of content, knowledge, art and data. And while symbols and imagery in the public domain do not require attribution, the Noun Project highly encourages doing so as a way to provide designers with due credit for their work.

The simplicity of the site is nicely enhanced by the addition of credit information attached to each icon. In some cases the background is quite enlightening. Click on the famously recognizable recycle symbol, for example, and you will learn that it was designed by Gary Anderson, a 23-year-old college student, as part of a contest for art and design students to commemorate the first ever Earth Day in 1970. And the classic and ominous biohazard symbol? It was designed by the Dow Chemical Company in 1966.

Each icon depicted in the Noun Project was created so that it could be understood by all cultures and people around the world. Most are unique, insightful and in their own way beautiful, and they all challenge the adage that form must always follow function.

For the whole story of how the Noun Project got started, click here, and for a chance to buy some cool Noun Project swag, visit their store.