An Interview with Edward Boatman, Co-Founder of The Noun Project


The Noun Project is a seemingly infinite collection of black-and-white symbols put into the public domain. As the founders put it, it is an attempt to organize the world’s visual language into one online database. Edward Boatman, one of the project’s founders, is also its sole gatekeeper. Each symbol on the database was either collected off the Internet or created by designers around the world. Boatman approves every submission to the project and assigns each icon a word — a noun, of course, either an object or a concept. The images are often surprisingly evocative, despite their simplicity, and unlock a potential for wordless communication for anyone with an Internet connection. 

Boatman was working in architecture design when he noticed it was surprisingly difficult to find basic, high-quality symbols on the web, even for common transportation symbols used by the government. The Noun Project was launched shortly thereafter in December 2010. Now the scope of the Noun Project is limitless. As Boatman told me, the project could create a symbol for, potentially, every noun in the world. Boatman (and co-founders Sofya Polyakov and Scott Thomas) are looking ahead to making the project a sustainable business. 

I talked to Boatman about the purpose behind the project, design for social good, and some of the challenges in creating a visual database that’s always growing.


SS: The Noun Project has thousands of icons. What are you looking for in a good image?

EB: Simplicity is key. One thing I always try to articulate for best design practices in a symbol is this idea of only analyzing the essential facts of the object or idea. It’s really fun. First you have to analyze it, and then once you analyze it, you have to identify the attributes or the elements of that object that you want to represent. Then you execute that into a design that’s elegant and has great proportions. One of the more important things in the design is that it can scale up or scale down and still read well. You don’t want to put too much detail in there, because a lot of these symbols are seen at pretty small scales...