The best ideas, like the best song lyrics, feel familiar from the moment we encounter them. (We say, “I should have thought of that!”) The Noun Project, a growing library of free, downloadable icons symbolizing objects and concepts, feels like one of those ideas. So simple it seems obvious, and so useful you can’t believe it didn’t exist before.
Founded by the husband-and-wife team of Edward Boatman and Sofya Polyakov, along with designer Scott Thomas, The Noun Project launched in 2010 with a catalog of a few hundred icons and has since grown by leaps and bounds. New symbols are submitted daily by designers around the world, and the Noun Project team recently crowdsourced the translation of its library into 25 languages.We spoke with Edward and Sofya by phone about the childhood fixation that sparked the idea for their visual archive, the struggles of launching a start-up without any experience, and the unexpected rewards of seeing your project take on a life of its own.
It sounds like the Noun Project was born out of a personal obsession of sorts – can you tell me about that?
Edward: I’ve always done a lot of sketches of all kinds of different concepts, buildings, and objects, and I kind of just got bored of what I was drawing. Then I had the idea to draw the things that used to really fascinate me as a child. If something captivates you as a kid, there’s a very intrinsic reason. So I started to draw these really simple, cranes and trains and sequoias and all these silly things, and I found out that I still really enjoy drawing them.
So that was how the idea for the Noun Project got started, I thought to myself: “It would be really great if I had a drawing of every single object or concept on the planet.” At that time, I was working at an architecture firm, and I had to make a lot of presentation boards for clients, and I always needed really high-quality symbols for trains, bicycles, and trucks. But I couldn’t find a website that could provide them.
And looking at my silly machine sketches, I thought: “Why not keep that concept but steer it toward solving this real-world problem that I was experiencing at my architecture job?” That’s kind of how the idea grew.
What was your background prior to the germination of the Noun Project?
Edward: My background is in interior architecture from Iowa State University. My first job out of school was at an architecture firm. I was disillusioned pretty quickly, but I didn’t really see a way to change the situation.
What was the source of that disillusionment? The bureaucracy of working on client projects, or…?
Edward: Yeah, just the bureaucracy… and coming from design school, if the professor points to something on your project, you know every intimate detail of why you made that decision and what the design thinking was behind executing the idea that way. At my job, there were so many times where someone would just grab me and say, “Hey, can you pick out some colors for this?” and you would know nothing about the project. It didn’t really feel like the right way to design. I believe that when you design, you really have to be with the problem for a long time to develop an elegant solution, and it was just very difficult to do that there.
So when did you really commit yourself to really taking action on the idea behind the Noun Project?
Edward: Both Sofya and I had never started a small business or been entrepreneurs before, so there was a big learning curve with getting it off the ground. We started by writing the business plan. We also read some books that helped us move the concept along. One was 37signals’ Rework. I think that helped a lot with simplifying our vision and getting us to really focus on small steps. One of those small steps was gathering up the collection of symbols for the website, and once we started that, we began to experience all the other little problems that we were going to need to solve to get the website launched. Gathering the symbols was really the catalyst that gave us some traction and momentum. And that led us to the Kickstarter campaign.
How long were you gathering those symbols?
Edward: About a year. Another huge catalyst was that I got laid off during the recession, so, once that happened, I thought: “Let’s try to give this a go!” If I hadn’t been laid off, I probably wouldn’t have started it.
Does your original business plan have any relation to what you guys are actually doing now?
Sofya: I think that even though most likely your company will never follow your business plan to a T, it’s important to have something written down. There are a lot of things that we were able to think through just by writing the business plan. If I could do it all over again, I do believe we got too caught up in trying to solve every problem that could potentially arise — and, really, you just never know which way the company is gonna go until you really launch it.
Edward: I think our first business plan is now sitting under a pile of junk in our credenza. That said, there are key, viable parts in it — like where we really took the time to write out the mission. That was just incredibly valuable, to really articulate what the mission of the Noun Project was. And that’s still our mission today.
Can you summarize it quickly?
Edward: It’s sharing, celebrating and enhancing the world’s visual language. It was also helpful to identify the problem, and articulate how we were going to solve it. So, basically, me seeing the problem in the real world that designers didn’t have an efficient way to download high-quality symbols for their projects, and then also having a general idea of how we thought we could monetize that and turn it into a business.
So what’s kept you guys going so far, what’s been the most exciting thing?
Sofya: For me, probably because I’m not a designer, I’m more interested in the human aspect of it. When we put together our original business plan and launched, we were thinking this could target the creative community, designers, etc. But it’s just amazing how many different uses have emerged. We get a lot of emails from teachers who use the symbols in their classroom, or people who work with children with autism, who tend to be visual learners. We just never had any clue about those possibilities before launching.
Edward: From my perspective, it’s just really exhilarating to know the Noun Project has a life of its own. It’s also scary, but that’s what makes it fun — not really knowing what the next even three or four months is going to look like. I mean, you can kind of envision what it’s going to look like, but you don’t really know. For example, Code for America called us up with the Iconathon idea, and we said, “Let’s do it!” Now we’re looking at traveling to other countries to do Iconathons. Being that nimble is really exciting. When I was working at an architecture firm, you could probably map out your next 5 years.
Have you encountered any nouns yet that can’t be drawn?
Edward: I think pretty much any concept can be “iconified” if you will. It’s just that some are harder than others, and managing that process is pretty fun, and also determining whether its appropriate or not. For example, within the first three weeks of launch, I got a penis symbol. It was a well-drawn but I decided it wasn’t appropriate for our audience, because there are a lot of educators and children.
Sofya: During the Iconathon, we stumbled upon some terms that were incredibly difficult to represent visually, one of them was “college readiness.” But that’s a large concept, I don’t know if you would qualify it as a noun.
Edward: I can’t recall any others, but waking up in the morning and seeing new symbols that I have to either approve or deny is a really fun thing. Recently, we had a South American drink that was submitted, called a “maté.” I actually made the mistake of denying it because I didn’t know what it was. Luckily, the designer emailed me and said, “I showed this to all my friends and everyone instantly recognizes what it is.” Then, he sent me a wikipedia link. The reason I didn’t understand it was just a cultural difference. It was really interesting to see that come to the surface. Sure, the world is shrinking by the day, but there are still very large cultural differences.