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Designs on words

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The Noun Project tries to convert every noun into an icon to build a global visual language that everyone can understand.

What would one call a straight seesaw with two people standing on either side? Human rights. What about a head that has mechanical gears in place of the brain? Mental health. And this one's easy. A man in a tight blazer and bowtie, who has extended his arms, crossed his fists and is poised like a dog about to pee. That's 'Gangnam style', alright.

This round of Pictionary was inspired by a selection of symbols designed and collected by three Americans who do not take it personally when they receive sketches of the male organ in their inbox. After all, the aim of their online database - The Noun Project - is to convert every noun, proper or otherwise, into an icon.

"Our mission is to build a global visual language that everyone can understand," says Sofya Polyakov, who runs the business side of the website that launched in December 2010. "We want to enable our users to visually communicate anything to anyone. " The database, which is free and open to all, currently boasts about 7, 000 symbols of nouns ranging from 'coffee', 'Eiffel Tower' and 'burqa' to the headscratching 'global warming' and 'sustainable energy'. Some words, in fact, have multiple symbols - if you type 'bicycle', you will find at least 42 different versions.

The initiative is rooted in the belief that in most situations, images are more powerful than words. "Most important pieces of information that we encounter on a daily basis - health and safety information - is almost always communicated visually, " says Polyakov, adding that symbols can transcend cultural and language barriers and deliver concise information effortlessly and instantaneously. Unfortunately, this vital language is "underserved, undeveloped, and unorganised", she says, justifying the need for The Noun Project, which wants to change this situation by building an imagebased system of communication and combining it with technology to create a social language that unites the world.

The idea of building a visual dictionary took shape at the peak of the recession in 2010 when Edward Boatman, one of the portal's founders, lost his job. Boatman, an architect, had during his client presentations noticed that high-quality symbols were difficult to come by, and decided to build a database that would be easily accessible on the web. He was joined by two other founders - Polyakov, who oversees business management, public relations and marketing, and Scott Thomas, the design director for the 2008 Obama Campaign, who focuses on the website design. With the help of funds raised on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, the website was launched in December 2010 with a set of icons designed by Edward as well as existing public domain symbols from the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) iconic 1974 transportation suite, the National Park Service icon suite, and the Hablos Juentos medical suite.

Boatman - who believes that for a symbol to be well designed, the object needs to be stripped down to its bare essence - works with a community of designers to come up with icons. Once he has an idea of which symbol he would like to design, he starts by identifying the essentials of the object or idea. He always asks what can be removed from the design while still allowing the symbol to communicate the idea. For instance, while creating a symbol for LED lighting, he identified two critical elements: light and a microchip. Visually communicating these two elements was the challenge. Of course, nouns that do not have a literal object associated with them like Biohazard are the most challenging.

"When designing symbols, it's always critical to listen to user feedback. If a design you're working on is not communicating an idea effectively, then it is not a successful design, " says Polyakov, adding that the team strives to create multiple icon representations for every noun in the dictionary, even symbols that are hard to find elsewhere, like 'burqa', 'yoga', 'abduction', 'imposter' and 'Kiwi bird'.

Besides Boatman and his group, the website also invites and boasts submissions from designers around the world, who are expected to follow a few stylistic and technical guidelines. The icon for Gangnam style, for instance, was created by Arjun Mahanti, a designer from San Francisco. Non-designers also contribute to the database by uploading existing symbols that are in the public domain or they can attend Iconathons - public design workshops facilitated by The Noun Project - and contribute ideas while professionals do the design work.

Given the universal nature of these submissions, some symbols such as Cheburashka - which is a Russian cartoon character - or Meeple, a humanoid wooden figure used in a German board game, tend to be indigenous. "When we come across unique symbols like that, we usually try to educate our users about what they are via our blog or on Twitter, " says Polyakov.

Every symbol submitted is reviewed to make sure it is a good fit. The symbol for "conception" was accepted, as it did "an excellent job of illustrating the phenomenon while still being child-friendly", says Polyakov. Some other icons were not as palatable. "We have received several submissions depicting a penis, " reveals Polyakov. "Even though the designs were nicely executed, we unfortunately had to reject them since we have a lot of kids and educators using our site. "

Educators, in fact, form a significant chunk of the users. They use these symbols in schools, whether on the classroom wall to remind kids to listen or in hallways to warn them not to bully. They also use them to encourage kids to complete sentences or to build stories. Even ESL (English as Second Language) teachers benefit from the database that helps teach English and communicate with children. In fact, about a year ago, Polyakov recalls, an Iconathon was held with the Boston school system to help the latter communicate with parents who didn't speak English and needed help deciding between different school options for their kids.

It was these users, in fact, who reinforced The Noun Project's belief in the power of visual language. " When we launched, we thought it'd be very useful for web and app designers, architects and people in the creative community. But we were pleasantly surprised when we started receiving fan mail from groups way outside of those we imagined would use our site, " says Polyakov, citing the fact that the database is used by the autism community because children with autism tend to communicate most effectively using visual communication. Visual communication is also very important to ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) patients and anyone who has speech and language challenges, such as cerebral palsy patients and people who lose their ability to speak after suffering a stroke.

The Noun Project is also testimony to the significance of symbols in social causes. The website has worked with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the American Red Cross on symbols for disaster management and relief. These symbols are used in apps, websites, maps, in guidance and training materials as well as on the ground when responding to emergencies.

Apart from this, a lot of artists have used symbols in surprising ways. Viktor Hertz, an artist in Uppsala, Sweden, created a series of classic movie posters using iconography. "We want to make The Noun Project not only the best place to find great icons but also the place you go to in order to chat with fellow designers, to request icons that are missing, and to see who is downloading which of your icons in what parts of the world, " says Polyakov. One of the downloaders was a man from Pretoria near Johannesburg, who got 20 symbols etched on his arm as a tattoo. Or a collective noun if you will.

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