Do you know The Noun Project?

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This blog was originally posted on February 26th, 2015.

At the end of last year, I went to hear students in PWR 2 at Stanford (that’s the second year writing class) participate in a conference, during which they gave presentations based on their research this term. As I expected, the presentations were all fun to listen to and packed with information: the students were dressed up and doing their best to get and hold their audience’s attention. (Of course, I wouldn’t be a teacher if I didn’t have some suggestions for improvement—and all the presenters I heard could have used more work on transitions: “and now,” for instance, isn’t a very helpful transition for listeners, especially if it’s repeated over and over!)

But the presentations were all engaging, and after a while I began to notice that some of the students were using very intriguing icons to mark call-out items or ideas on their slides:  no bullet points for these speakers. After the presentations were over, I asked one of the students about it and she said, “Do you know The Noun Project?” I did not.

But now I have checked it out and discovered that the Project was founded by Edward Boatman, Sofya Polyakov, and Scott Thomas in 2010, when they produced a catalog with several hundred non-copyrighted icons. Since that time, the Project has grown exponentially; now designers around the world contribute new symbols and icons. Their website (see announces their goal as “Creating, Sharing and Celebrating the World’s Visual Language,” inspired by Edward’s insight that “It would be really great if I had a drawing of every single object or concept on the planet.” Such drawings, symbols, and icons can help foster communication across languages, cultures, and space.

The student I spoke with was using a fish from the Project to act more or less like a bullet point, only more interesting—and appropriate since she was talking about marine biology.  Good idea—but once I was on the Noun Project site, I could imagine many other uses for these symbols, which the creators refer to as “a silent language that speaks louder than words.”

I’m not sure I would go quite so far: I don’t think visual symbols will replace words any time soon (and besides, words are themselves visual images when they are written down). But they work beautifully with words to help get messages across clearly and succinctly. Check out The Noun Project website—and be sure to click on the short video embedded on the home page!

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.