Noun Project Hackathons Add Female Icons to the Digital World

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For a designer, finding the right image to convey an idea is essential. When Maura Cottle, creative director at Heat Waves, a female-led digital agency in Los Angeles, needed an icon to represent a female filmmaker, she headed to the Noun Project’s online database, a curated collection of more than two million icons, created by people around the world. 

She searched for “filmmaker” and saw more than forty results — icons of movie cameras, director’s chairs, clapperboards and so on. Only a few of the icons featured people, and they showed a filmmaker with a strong resemblance to the “man” icon on every men’s room sign. His female counterpart was nowhere to be seen. Cottle continued to search and even tried tweaking a few of the icons to make them look more feminine, but after an hour, she still wasn’t happy with the results. She used her client’s logo in the presentation instead.

The Noun Project is aware that many of the visual representations of women online are outdated, and they’re adjusting their search algorithms to surface more results that include female options, “but we also know that doesn’t solve the actual problem. That’s just sugarcoating it,” comments, Sofya Polyakov, the company’s cofounder and CEO.

What the Noun Project really needed was better, more inclusive icons, so they set out to create them. They organized a series of free community events — “Iconathons”—where designers and engaged citizens work together to create new iconography that more accurately represents women today. The first Redefining Women Iconathon was held in San Francisco on March 16, and the second was held at The Riveter, a woman-run coworking space in Los Angeles, on March 23. A third will be held at the School of Visual Arts in New York on April 20.

Noun Project's Redefining Women Iconathon held at the Riveter | Noun Project
Noun Project's Redefining Women Iconathon held at the Riveter | Noun Project

There has been plenty of media coverage in the past few years about how women are portrayed in the movies and on TV, but icons haven’t received as much attention. Polyakov says that’s because they’re so omnipresent, people barely notice them. “They’re everywhere from the billboards that we see while driving to work, to magazines, to apps that we use, to our physical environment such as buildings. When you think about all that content that surrounds us and how much time we spend passively interacting with it, if the female form is absent from that representation and that environment, whether we realize it or not, it’s kind of reinforcing the message that women don’t belong in these spaces.”

Much of the iconography used today is influenced by icons developed in the ‘50s and ‘60s, explains Polyakov, offering the AIGA fleet as an example. Back then, men dominated the work environment — and many of today’s icons seem reminiscent of that era.

Defining leadership, mentor, president and coach at the latest Noun Project iconathon | Lisa Beebe
Defining leadership, mentor, president and coach at the latest Noun Project iconathon | Lisa Beebe

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Approximately fifty people came to the recent Redefining Women Iconathon in Los Angeles, gathering in a bright, open space at The Riveter. One wall was decorated with a neon light shaped like Rosie the Riveter’s flexing arm, a visual tribute to the company’s iconic namesake. It shone an empowering glow over the Iconathon, while also serving as a subtle reminder of how much a simple design can convey.

Working in teams of three, participants sketched out potential designs for 20 “referents” or key terms, and then chose one design as the team’s final submission for each referent. Geremy Mumenthaler, the Noun Project’s design director, urged even the people who don’t think of themselves as designers to pick up a pencil, saying, “Everybody here is capable of drawing these types of things. We don’t need perfection. We don’t need straight, perfect lines. It’s about communicating the idea in its most simple form.” At the end of the Iconathon, teams reviewed each other’s work. The Noun Project  takes these submissions and partners with icon designers to vectorize them and add them to its online repository of free-to-use icons.

Polyakov says, “What we want to end up with at the end of all three workshops is a collection of 60 icons that are across the spectrum. Instead of having 20 icons for entrepreneur, we want to make sure we’re covering 60 different topics and categories.” She adds, “What really inspires me is that we’re going to release all of these images into the public domain. They’re not just going to be on Noun Project — anybody will be able to use them for free.”

Noun Project's iconathon redefines women and places them in the role of CEO, scientist and astronaut | Lisa Beebe
Noun Project's iconathon redefines women and places them in the role of CEO, scientist and astronaut | Lisa Beebe

By putting the icons into the public domain, their impact becomes even more powerful. Polyakov gives the example of a teacher putting together a presentation for their students. “Instead of using the traditional male icon of a doctor, they’re putting a female doctor in there. Instead of using a traditional icon for a CEO, they’re now using a woman icon of a CEO. That kind of stuff matters, because the more we get those visual signals out there, the more we’re able to change the perceptions of people, whether it’s in the boardroom or in the classroom.”

At the Redefining Women Iconathon in Los Angeles, people were asked to define 20 concepts, which included doctor, dentist, CEO, president, scientist, mentor and equal pay. Participants were also given a few industry-related referents — including movie director. The room hummed with creative energy as teams discussed the best ways to express each term visually and sketched out rough designs. A few hours later, the best designs were collected and hung on the wall, organized by referent.

Participants then identified the icons that most effectively conveyed each idea, which would go on to be fine-tuned further. The options for “movie director” included a few icons depicting a woman in a director’s chair or the outline of a woman next to a camera, but the design that got the most votes was a simple silhouette of a ponytailed woman holding a camera on her shoulder. It was designed by Maura Cottle, the creative director, who came to the Iconathon after hearing about it from a friend. She explained that she had previously searched for that kind of icon to use in her work. The next time she searches the Noun Project’s database for a movie director, she’ll have at least one great option — the one she created herself.

Top Image: Icons on the Noun Project site


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