The Noun Project

I find myself more and more impressed all the time by The Noun Project, the online resource for crowdsourced pictograms. Its goal is to build “a global visual language that everyone can understand” and “to enable our users to visually communicate anything to anyone.”

When I first became acquainted with The Noun Project several years ago I thought that mission statement meant that the site intended to flesh out the commonly used ISO graphical symbols that we see so often in public signage, extrapolating what amounts to a widely understood visual glossary into a full pictorial lexicon. Basically, I thought they were going to build a whole world around Helvetica man.

Icons for Everybody

That didn’t quite happen, but something more interesting did. The Noun Project has blossomed into a vast library of visually diverse pictograms, generated by designers all over the world. It’s true that relatively few of the icons here stray very far from the reductive, streamlined language of ISO graphical symbols, but within the constraints of creating widely recognizable, geometrically concise, black and white icons, there is a pretty terrific range of expression. Certainly, there is far more visual playfulness here than you’d see on the signage in most international airports, which is the rough rule of thumb that I’ve always used to evaluate whether an icon was ‘universal’ or not — and yet you can imagine many of even the most offbeat icons here working in that environment just fine.


Take this grilling icon, for instance. It’s professional, compact and visually economical — but also frankly a little silly, with its gently wavering line work and somewhat suspicious representation of grilled food (what is that figure holding, exactly?). This isn’t just user generated content diluting the original mission, steering the original vision ever so slightly off course; this icon was designed by one of the site’s co-founders, for goodness sake. They’re having fun over there.

The Noun Project’s site itself is a work of minimalist beauty, but it’s also on the verge of expansion. Social features like following and rewards appear to be in the offing, and the site has prominently previewed forthcoming subscription plans. (If you register today, you’ll get a discount on pricing.) I’m not sure I need the social features, but I’ll happily pony up at least the US$5 minimum subscription fee to support the wonderful work being done here.