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The Noun Project: Using Iconic Design Tools for Social Change

Catapult Design explains how they've used The Noun Project's icons as they work on design projects for social change.

Ever need an obscure icon for your infographic? Need to make a universally-understandable sign? Only have 20 minutes to contextualize your product visualization with a simple picture? Do you dig Pictionary? Or are you sick of battling with watermarks or creating amorphous stick figure monster icons?


Check out The Noun Project (GOOD profile), a platform for creating and sharing a global symbolic language. Catapult Design has used their resources on several occasions within our design work, and we will go through two clear examples, but first, here's a bit of background.
The Noun Project hosts a library of ever-growing and iterating icons on their site that anybody can access, use, and contribute to. You need to acknowledge their creators through an easy process of attribution (check their usage page for details) but their ethos is ‘open’ and they are all about capturing and continuing a symbolic conversation (pictorially, of course).
They also host Iconathons all around the U.S.—group lock-in, brainstorming, icon-hacking mash-ups that are run by The Noun Project members to output a new set of icons around a pressing theme. (They did some cool stuff after Sandy; check the iconathon.org site for details and upcoming events). I am itching to get to one, as much to meet the crowd as to make some symbolic magic happen. The site, and the events, are meant for an audience well beyond designers. Ultimately The Noun Project is opening up icon creation, access, and use to a much greater audience, and encouraging a flexible pictorial literacy.
Catapult Design first tapped The Noun Project's resources when making a research tool for a project investigating water access and use in rural India. I needed to get an understanding of symbolic literacy in Rajasthan villages. I etched a series of icons onto interlocking wooden tiles (some of them gleaned from The Noun Project) and intentionally left a lot of tiles blank.

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In each village we visited in Rajasthan, I asked people to experiment with the tiles in three ways. First, I asked people to identify what the icons referred to, and then I asked people to explain a story using the tiles. Finally, I asked them to draw some tiles of their own. The intention was to experiment with ways of discovering symbolic literacy, as well as to use those findings to inform any instructions or guides we would have to make relevant to our water project.

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The next time around was much more topical. Literacy Bridge, an organization empowering children and adults with tools for knowledge sharing and literacy learning, contacted us to help them solve an issue with their Talking Book. The Talking Book is an audio computer that shares locally-relevant knowledge and improves literacy in areas with limited access to literature.

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Literacy Bridge interacts with communities in Northern Ghana that have no word for ‘arrow’ in their lexicon. The organization needed to be able to instruct the user to press a button relative to a spoken instruction. We experimented with a bunch of different icons and shapes, some of them from The Noun Project site, some of them created by us, and a few lifted from other sources. Thanks to the timezone difference between California and Ghana, the feedback loop was quick. While we slept, Literacy Bridge would report back the responses they got from the field. Then we would adapt the icons according to their suggestions, and the next day they would be tested again.
We worked our way through icons that had issues involving the spoken instructions of the device, icons that implied tasks that were too specific (‘fish’ = food), that had too much potential religious connotation (‘plus’ = cross), or even that had too much local political association (‘umbrella’ and ‘rooster’ are local Ghanaian political party symbols). We are continuing to help Literacy Bridge achieve an appropriate interface through their piloting stage, as they test Talking Books in the thousands.
We plan to continue developing new research games and other design resources, and to continue using The Noun Project to help us when we need the right icon. It’s an excellent resource, even if I still can't find an icon for ‘design’ on the site (nor an icon for ‘icon’)—but I’m hitting my sketchpad to work on it. I’m also going to get in touch with The Noun Project and suggest an iconathon themed around rural life (on all continents). Oh, and maybe I can put in a festive wish for a ‘silhouette bank’ as well?
Thanks, Noun Project. Keep up the good work, and we will see you at the next Iconathon.
Images courtesy of The Noun Project, Catapult Design, and Literacy Bridge. A version of this post previously appeared on Catapult's blog.\n
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