What: The Noun Project is a design-conscious digital repository for symbols. The team’s mission is to build a global visual language that anyone can understand, use and share. With over 16,000 icons submitted by their community of global designers and 5 million page views per month, they are well on their way.
Where: Los Angeles & Chicago.
What was the hunch that got you started?
Edward: The seed of the idea began when I was in college, sketching things that fascinated me as a child – sequoias, trains, cranes, and combines. At the time, I was also reading The Professor and the Madman, a book about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. This is when I thought: “it’d be really great to have a visual dictionary that represents every object in existence”. In reality, it wasn’t until I was working in an architecture firm that I realized who our customer might be: designers, architects, illustrators and anyone else who regularly uses iconographic representations in their work. It was then that I acted on the hunch, brought in Sofya Polyakov and Scott Thomas (fellow co-founders), and it wasn’t long before we were launching The Noun Project, the world’s most extensive digital platform for visual communication.
What have you learned, have you pivoted at any point?
Sofya: When The Noun Project launched in December 2010, the team thought that the resource would be useful for designers and people in the creative industry. We quickly learned that many other industries could benefit from this type of visual communication. We’re now having regular conversations with the autism community, business professionals who want to use symbols in their presentations, and doctors, who [particularly in emergency situations] need to communicate with patients who speak little or no English.
What is your company culture like?
Sofya: We are definitely a company of the Internet age! We have a team in Chicago and a team in LA, and we communicate through Campfire (a real-time chat tool for business). The Chicago office focuses on the UX/UI and the site development while the LA team focuses on community building and running the day-to-day business.
What are your plans for monetization?
Edward: One of our biggest strengths is our global community of designers who contribute to our library of symbols. Currently we have a licensing model that rewards this behavior: customers who want to use our symbols (without attributing them to the original designer) pay a small fee. These profits are then split between our company and the person who designed the symbol. We’re also in the process of building an API that will allow others to stream and use symbols in their own applications. Lastly, we also run sponsored events called ‘iconathons’ where members of the public get together to design symbols around a certain theme. We’ve run these events with The New York Times, Wikipedia and various arts and community organizations, with past topics ranging from education, to investigative journalism and food to democracy.
How have you worked with brands in the past and what might they learn from your company?
Sofya: We recently worked with MailChimp and Media Temple on sponsored symbol collections – a unique form of native advertising that allows brands to visually communicate their ethos and values in ways that customers will remember, share and use.
Ultimately though, I think brands can learn that in today’s highly connected, fast-paced world, people and companies need to communicate in ways that everyone can quickly understand. Words alone can’t do this, but symbols can transcend cultural and language barriers and deliver information quickly and with impact. It’s about helping people visually communicate and tell stories in fun, powerful, and memorable ways.