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Q&A WITH EDWARD BOATMAN

INTRO TO THE NOUN PROJECT 

In today’s globally-connected economy, we rely on round-the-clock communication. On the whole, we seem to be communicating more frequently and in more ways; but what are we really saying, how are we saying it, and why does it matter? Enter The Noun Project. A website with a mission to simplify communication through thousands of icons. A visual library of sorts. One of the original darlings of Kickstarter, The Noun Project beat their $1,500 goal by 1,000% crowdsourcing a cool $15k.

That was 2010; today The Noun Project is over 100,000 icons strong, and has shifted the traditional ideals of conversation with simple B&W visuals. The Noun Project is breaking down language barriers, helping to bridge the gap across business, design, technology, education, travel, even disaster relief, and more. Recently we caught up with Edward Boatman, Co-Founder and Head of Community for The Noun Project – he gave us the download on what’s happening in their LA outpost.

Q: WHAT IS YOUR ORIGIN STORY?

A: The Noun Project was one of those ideas that grew and evolved over time. During my early days as a design student in college, like many, I drew in my sketchbook every day. I soon found that I wasn’t inspired by any of the subject matter I was drawing… so I decided to start drawing the things that fascinated me when I was child. When something fascinates you as a kid, it’s because your instincts and intuition tell you that it’s interesting. I thought this idea was powerful. I started to draw cranes, trains, sequoias, and many other machines. I quickly noticed all of these drawings were nouns, and then I had this idea of creating a drawing for every noun in the English language.

In parallel to my intrigue with nouns, I started to read the book The Professor and the Madman, which chronicles the making and history of the first Oxford English Dictionary. I found it fascinating that they used crowdsourcing to collect definitions for the words. I thought I could use this same process to collect visual definitions or pictograms of every single concept or object in existence. Essentially a visual dictionary of everything.

Q: DESCRIBE THE NOUN PROJECT IN ONE SENTENCE.

A: We’re a crowdsourced visual dictionary with over 100,000 pictograms that anyone can download and use. 

Q: CREATING, SHARING, AND CELEBRATING THE WORLD’S VISUAL LANGUAGE.

A: It’s important for businesses to have a purpose other than simply making money; for us, the mission of “creating, sharing, and celebrating the world’s visual language” is our north star. We believe the adoption and relevance of visual communication is only going to increase in the future. It’s our job to help inspire a global community of designers to create this visual language. It’s also our job to make this language as open, easy to use, and accessible to as many people as possible.

Q: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE ICON (CURRENTLY)?

A: I saw the icon (pictured below) on our site a few days ago. I enjoy it because it perfectly captures the smooth elegant curves of the Apple Watch. I also like it because it shows as technology advances, the visual language used around that technology has to grow and advance as well. Language and communication is never static, it’s always evolving and growing.

Q: WHAT SHIFTS DO YOU SEE IN TECHNOLOGY, DESIGN, AND MEDIA?

A: Nowadays, everyone is a creator and can create visual content. Design tools are becoming easier to use than ever before. Five or ten years ago if you wanted to create a customized thank you card you would have to use a powerful complex program like Adobe Illustrator. Now there are a whole host of apps you can use on your iPhone to create a beautiful customized card in less than 5 mins.

Another shift we see is the rise of visual language. Many people get confused when I mention this trend, as they think I’m speaking to the demise of written language. That’s not the case. Written language will always be an essential tool for communication. However, as our communication channels continue to evolve and get pushed through the tiny screens on our mobile phones and even smaller screens on wearables, the language we use has to evolve as well. It has to become more economical from a time, space, and reach perspective.

For example, sending a smiling emoji in response to a question, is faster, uses less screen real estate, and can be understood by a larger audience than if you were to manually type out a written response. Pushing this trend even further are platforms like Snapchat where not only is imagery the primary unit of communication, but  you can draw on top of the images to alter and amplify their meaning. This ability to customize images with drawings and emoji and then easily share them with others is leading to visual slang, a shift all its own.

Q: DESCRIBE THE MOST INFLUENTIAL APPLICATION OF THE NOUN PROJECT.

A: I don’t know if I can say one application is more influential than all others, but I do believe that our easy to use library of visual metaphors can help people express themselves in new and creative ways and I believe this is hugely impactful. Take for example the iPad app Adobe built using our API, its called Adobe Voice. Anyone from a first grader to a salesman can open this application and use our vast library of over 100,000 pictograms to tell a story in a fun and engaging way. You might say we’re giving people a visual voice… some for the first time.

Q: ADVICE FOR THOSE DREAMING OF LAUNCHING A START-UP?

A: The company’s core mission – your company – has to be aligned with YOUR core interests. If it’s not, the process of starting a business will burn you out. There are so many ups and downs along the way, that you’ll need a deeper desire than to simply make a lot of money to carry you through the hard times. 

Q: DESCRIBE A TYPICAL DAY AT THE NOUN PROJECT OFFICE.

A: We’re a team of 13, all located in Los Angeles. We’re a very flat organization – ideas for features or initiatives can come from any team member. Everyone has the opportunity to shape the future of the business. We also think it’s important to build team morale and culture by doing activities outside of the office, so there are frequent trips to the ice cream parlor across the street and monthly visits to the art galleries in the neighborhood. 

Q: ANY SPECIAL COLLABORATIONS IN THE WORKS?

A: Yes! You can expect The Noun Project book next year. I can’t say too much more about this… stay tuned. 

Q: TELL US ABOUT YOUR COMMUNITY-BASED DESIGN WORKSHOPS: ICONATHON

A: Iconathons are hackathons for icons. We partner with a sponsoring organization that wants to have icons created for specific concepts, then we lead a public workshop where we collaborate to create those icons. For example, we recently partnered with Duke University to create icons that visually communicate various innovations in education.

Q: WHERE DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION?

A: This is a tough question. I believe a core characteristic that all creative people share is their ability to truly observe their surroundings. A quote by conservationist and author, Rachel Carson encapsulates this idea, “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. For most of us that clear eyed vision is dimmed or lost before we reach adulthood.” As creatives, if we maintain this clear eyed vision, inspiration can be found anywhere. A succulent’s geometry can be the inspiration for your next fabric pattern, a few words your customer says can lead to a new insight, and something as simple as people watching can spark a new iPhone application.

Q: WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE NOUN PROJECT? 

A: We have a really exciting roadmap in front of us. We believe that visual language is much larger than just iconography so we are working on products that reflect this belief. Exciting times ahead.

TO SEE MORE

Visit The Noun Project, to see their full library and learn more about how they are changing the way we communicate. Follow the whole crew on Instagram @nounproject