An Icon System For Dealing With Superstorms And Earthquakes

The Noun Project teamed up with the Red Cross Global Disaster Preparedness Center to design a set of icons for communicating during disaster situations.

It’s impossible to ignore the increasingly frequent–and progressively more destructive–curve balls our put-upon earth keeps throwing at us. From superstorms and flooding to earthquakes, natural disasters are a distressing reality, and our collective response is ever evolving. What if there were a way to unify how we communicate on the ground during these urgent times?


The Noun Project is the brainchild of cofounders (and husband-and-wife) Sofya Polyakov (CEO) and Edward Boatman (creative director), and Scott Thomas of Simple.Honest.Work. The basic concept was born back when Boatman was a design student; he began to fill notebooks with sketches of “seemingly ordinary objects,” like trains and trees, which he referred to as “nouns.” His dream to someday create a database of every known object was put on hold until post-graduation and after a stint at an architecture firm, when he and Polyakov tweaked the idea and decided to form the Noun Project as a forum for a new international visual language in the public domain.

Since launching, they’ve hosted a series of Iconathons, open design workshops in the Hackathon vein that tackle a particular topic each time, such as food banks and guerrilla gardening. The Red Cross collaboration was in the works for about a year before finally taking place at a one-day event back last October. In the preceding months, Polyakov and Boatman developed the concept with the team behind the newly launched Red Cross Global Disaster Preparedness Center, learning how they and other agencies such as Ushahidi could use iconography in publications, websites, apps, and GIS (geographic information systems).

An expansive collection of 100 terms was narrowed down to a more manageable list of 30 referents to be “defined” during the workshop. Rather than restrict attendance to those well-versed in the how-tos of effective visual language, everyone from educators to civic leaders and volunteers to government officials were encouraged to take part. “We structure them to ensure that people with little or no perceived design chops are able to contribute their ideas by working alongside designers,” Polyakov says. “We also keep the process to pen and paper, so as long as you can draw a stick figure, you can participate.”

Multiple charrettes were established based on relative skill sets, and each focused on a selection of referents, which were then presented to the group. “It’s great to see people really open up about their ideas at this point, because everyone realizes that it really comes down to: ‘Does this symbol make sense? Why or why not?’”

The selections were refined and vectorized by volunteers, then made available on the Noun Project site for free download and use for any purpose. Upcoming Iconathons include a wide range of partners, including the Metropolitan New York Library Council, to create assets for the libraries, archives, museums, and nonprofits under their umbrella (over 250 total!).

And, of course, there’s always new opportunities to pursue. “One of our dream Iconathons would be with the United Nations,” Polyakov says. “Given the scope of their work all around the world, we would love to be able to contribute to their efforts through iconography.”