The Noun Project is trying to build a pictorial common language

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Session Name: Welcome Day 2 + Building the Visual Language of the Web

Katie Fehrenbacher
Om Malik
Chris Albrecht
Noun Project Video
Scott Thomas

Announcer 01:26
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your hosts of Gigaom Roadmap 2013: Om Malik, founder, Gigaom, and Katie Fehrenbacher, senior writer, Gigaom.

Katie Fehrenbacher 01:38
Good morning.
Om Malik 01:40
Good morning.
Katie Fehrenbacher 01:42
Is everyone feeling okay after the after party?
Om Malik 01:45
Is there anyone with a hangover except me? No, okay. Well, you know we have an exciting day planned for you today; we have a bunch of speakers, and a lot of the focus today is going to be on how visual has become such a major part of experience and communications. We’re going to hear from Kevin Systrom in a little while, but for now we’re going to invite Scott from the Noun Project, and this is just a fascinating project – you’re going to love it – it’s just a fantastic way to think about our world.
Katie Fehrenbacher 02:19
Yes, and then I think we’re introducing Chris Albrecht back to the stage, who’s our emcee for today again.
Om Malik 02:25
Great, come on, Chris.
Katie Fehrenbacher 02:26
And thank you for coming back for day 2 – we really appreciate it – and we’ll see you in just a bit.
Om Malik 02:31
In a little bit, thank you.


Om Malik 02:33
Good morning, Chris.
Chris Albrecht 02:34
Chris Albrecht 02:36
Good morning everybody. I’m going to race through some stuff – if you were here yesterday, you already know it (spoiler alert) – it’s housekeeping stuff. And my monitor is gone. Alright, well we’ll just have fun anyway.
Chris Albrecht 02:46
I want to make sure that as people file in, move in a little bit, if you can – to make room for people so they’re not piled up in the aisle way, and then we get in trouble with the fire marshall – there we go. And, I’m not going to ask you to turn off your cell phones but if you could mute them please so you are as little of a distraction as possible to the other people, that would be phenomenal, thank you.
Chris Albrecht 03:06
If they are taking questions during a session, they will ask you to raise your hand and a microphone runner will come to you so you can ask your question into the mike, because we want people to be able to hear what you have to say.
Chris Albrecht 03:19
And, oh, I skipped over the sponsors – you saw them – thank you very much to the sponsors, without them we couldn’t make this happen. Please visit them over in the forum across the way; check out all the stuff they have going on. It’s a great opportunity to meet with them and find out what they’re doing. We really appreciate them helping put this show on, because it’s been a fun time so far, wouldn’t you say, day one was a lot of fun?

Chris Albrecht 03:40
Yes, it was, yes it was. We’re going to keep it going strong today – even more so.
Chris Albrecht 03:45
Regarding Wi-Fi, if this is your first time here and you aren’t already connected to the network, the network is Gigaom and the password is roadmap 2013, all lower case. Please feel free to hop on there and use it, and while you’re on there, follow us @Gigaom, and tag your tweets. There were a lot of tweets yesterday – really good conversations going on; a lot of great recap from the different kinds of speakers we had. Tag your tweet #roadmap2013, to let them know that you’re here and that you’re extending this conversation out into the ethereal world beyond these four walls.
Chris Albrecht 04:16
We also have a mobile app. You can download it by taking a picture of the QR code on the back of your lanyerd and then you can exchange contact information by then taking a picture of the QR code on the front of the lanyerd. Amazing how that works – technology.
Chris Albrecht 04:29
We’re also live streaming; that’s another reason why we want you to ask your questions into the microphone, so the good folks at Livestream, who are our live stream partner, can watch and hear your question.
Chris Albrecht 04:40
Also, you should know that any session that you like, they’re already up, so if you go to you’ll be directed to the Roadmap page, where you can watch all the video from yesterday. So, if there’s something that you really liked and you want to catch something from it or pass it on to somebody, it’s free to watch, go visit and check it out. All the sessions will be up today as well, so anybody you want to share it with, or anytime you want to watch, you can.
Chris Albrecht 05:03
We’ll also be doing podcasts of these in the coming weeks, so be on the lookout for that as well. We’ll have the audio up and we’ll just have highlights from different talks that have gone on over the two days.
Chris Albrecht 05:14
We’ve got breaks today: 10:30, 12:50 for lunch and an afternoon break at 3:00. I encourage you to visit the Gigaom research booth – which is over in the product area – and where you can find out about our prescription research service where they do deep dives into conversations about the connected consumer and cloud computing and all kinds of great things. It’s a really great offering, so I encourage you to do that and find that out.
Chris Albrecht 05:34
And, also, I just want you to have fun today, because it’s going to be a really nice day with a lot of great talks. And we’re going to get things going with Scott Thomas, also known as Simple Scott, and he is with the Noun Project and he’s going to be talking about building the visual language of the web. Please welcome Scott to the stage.

Noun Project Video 05:52
In the beginning, humans created symbols – symbols that explained their world, recorded history, and stood the test of time. Then, we created languages, and things got complicated – many words, one symbol. Symbols have shared culture and spurred innovation; they’ve helped us understand the universe and make our planet a better place. The Noun Project community is building a global, visual language that is helping to unite the world – a language understood in New York, in Tokyo, Bangladesh and Brazil; a language that allows quick and easy communication, no matter who you are or where you are; a language that connects people and saves lives; a language that encourages progress and inspires hope and equality.
Noun Project Video 06:40
We are building a silent language that speaks louder than words. A silent language visible to the world – one word, one symbol at a time. The Noun Project: say something.

Scott Thomas 06:55
Thank you. That video’s awesome. It’s great, I don’t even need to say anything – it just said everything for me. But what I want to do is I want to start by walking through one part of that video to begin my talk, and then I’ll go a little bit deeper into what the Noun Project is – some of the things that we’re working on and some of the things that we’re doing. I do want to thank Om just for having me here. It’s really great to just be on the stage and share this with so many amazing people that are building, really, the technologies that are changing the world. So, it’s just great to be a part of this conference.
Scott Thomas 07:32
I want to start by talking about language. Language is – as we all know – pretty essential to life. In time, it’s defined our borders, our cultures, and really, the people that we share a common understanding with. If you think about it, it’s what separates the English from the Swedish, the German from the French. It’s languages that have really defined these borders, that we know of. And if you think about language a little bit deeper, words are actually a thing that divides us even further – big and tall, small and short, black and brown.
Scott Thomas 08:07
Sometimes, I think about, What was it like before words? Words have divided us in such a way, what was life like before words actually existed? And, to think about that – just sort of reflect on it for a moment – it probably wasn’t any better. Imagine two tribes coming together for the first time, seeing each other while out on a hunt, with spears, and all of a sudden, they begin trying to communicate to the other in their native tongue, trying to talk, trying to share an idea. What was the point where that common ground was formed? Was it through body language, by pointing at an object? Or, was it by drawing something in the ground? What was that moment?
Scott Thomas 08:49
We know that for twenty thousand years, humans have used drawing as a way to communicate ideas; to share their experience of the world. We see it in great stories of victories – cultures that want to tell what happened to generations to come. Maybe it was just to teach young men how to hunt for the first time, or just to share a common understanding with people that don’t speak the same exact language.
Scott Thomas 09:17
As time went on, languages began to evolve, and as languages began evolving, so did our writing systems – the ways in which we represent the concepts in the world. So, the world’s visual language of pictograms – those tiny little objects that were communicating ideas – slowly started to form into a set of characters, the first being an ideographic character set. What that basically means is that the character has a certain amount of semantic meaning right in it. It’s the natural evolution of the pictographic to a more simplified form. If you think about it, imagine trying to share all of your experiences in the world through having to draw. It would take a lot of time. It would have taken so much time that cultures needed a way to simplify that. The perfect example is the Chinese character for ‘tree’. Tree, when drawn in ideographic form, looks almost exactly like a tree. The character itself has the semantic meaning baked right into it – you look at it and you see ‘tree’. So if you group those symbols together, you naturally form another term for ‘forest’ which is right next to it.
Scott Thomas 10:23
Of course, the ideographic character set wasn’t without its flaws. If you have to have a character for every single concept in the world, the number begins to skyrocket; the characters that you have to remember become a lot, which creates this really large learning curve between those that know the language and those that don’t know the language. This creates class systems.
Scott Thomas 10:47
Luckily, humans have had a real tenacity for wanting to communicate. So, if they weren’t able to learn all of those characters, they could still listen to a pattern that exists in every single language. That pattern is a set of sounds that we hear, and so you could create a character for every single sound that somebody speaks. This is known as syllabic writing, and it was a great innovation. And in fact, if we just think about Japan, for example – Japan is really interesting because they use not only the Chinese character set of kanji, but they also have hiragana, which is a syllabic form of writing. They also have a couple other alphabets as well – katakana – and they also use English characters.
Scott Thomas 11:36
But one of the things that’s interesting is that with syllabic writing – as you begin to use syllabic writing – it takes a lot of characters. So, it may reduce the number of characters that you need to remember but it increases the number of characters that you need to write. So in Japan, people are still using kanji as a sort of short cut; as a visual element that can shorten or make it a little bit quicker to communicate. This cues the next major innovation is writing which is phonetic. It was created by the Phoenicians; it was later adopted by the Greeks, and then the Romans and pretty much all of us. This writing system is pretty unique in that it completely abstracted the meaning from the character – just completely untied them – there’s no semantic meaning in a character at all. Characters are nothing but abstract concepts – they mean nothing. And it’s grouping them together that creates sounds, which create words, which create the concepts that we know of in the world. It’s a pretty great innovation.
Scott Thomas 12:31
So, throughout history, we’ve had four major innovations in writing: pictographic, ideographic, syllabic, and phonetic. This has made up all of the languages that we hear in the world – just those four types of writing. But I honestly think that we’re still in great need for that other language – for that pictographic language. We’re looking for ways to transcend borders; to be able to communicate very quickly and concisely, as well as make sure that the barrier to learn that language is very easy for a very large population of the world to be able to understand it. Because, as globalization increases, those borders that I talked about early on quickly begin to be erased, and it’s so important that we have one way to be able to communicate.
Scott Thomas 13:24
Let’s think about our mobile devices, just for a second. These things are revolutionary for a multitude of reasons, but one of the amazing things is how simple they are to use. Your age doesn’t matter, your IQ doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what language you speak. Almost anyone in the world can pick up that device and use it. We see young kids using these things all the time. Think about how absolutely profound that is. And I think one of the reasons is the amount of visual language that is actually used on that device rather than our written languages. Anybody that builds product knows that it’s a pain in the ass to translate every single word; so if you don’t have to, it makes life so much easier; so much more simplified.
Scott Thomas 14:09
So if it’s true that this language is so important and we’re using it in all of our devices, then why is there not a repository of this language? There’s no place where this information’s being collected. The written and verbal language has had the dictionary, but our visual language has no single source of reference – why is that? It may be due to the fact that for these things we don’t actually need a translation. It’s so innate, it communicates so quickly and effectively, that we actually don’t need a dictionary for it – which is probably the reason why, throughout history, there’s really been no single collection. But, there are moments when that visual language cropped up as being incredibly important throughout human history. And I’m not going to go back too far, but let’s just go back to the 1930s. There were individuals named Gerd Arntz and Otto Neurath, in Vienna, creating a system called isotype. What was great is they were actually developing this system to help young children learn.
Scott Thomas 15:12
There’s probably a lot of people in this room who, being designers, are likely visual learners. It’s easier to soak up information if you’re looking at something visually. And so, they realized that if they had symbols to represent concepts, it would be easier to teach children languages and different concepts. As time went on, they actually started to use this language and merge it together with data – with quantitative data – to start things that are kind of like infographics. They used symbols to communicate data points, which then made it far easier – as World War II was quickly on the rise – to communicate to a continent of people that all spoke different languages. All of Europe spoke different languages, so it was really, really hard to communicate quickly and effectively, concisely, what was actually going on at the time of World War II.
Scott Thomas 16:05
Another time was at the rise of air transportation. The AIGA and US Department of Transportation realized that they should create a set of symbols that would ease the woes of international travelers – so as they came into our ports; as they came into our airports, there would be a way that people that didn’t speak English would know, This is how I get to baggage claim. We’ve all experienced that before, especially if you’ve been to China or Japan and you’re like, Need to pick up my bag, don’t know how to get there – right? And that’s the nice thing about these symbols. Most countries have adopted them and it’s very easy for us to find our way around.
Scott Thomas 16:43
I think the visual language simplifies one of the most basic elements of being human – the ability to communicate with people, even if language isn’t an option. That ability to connect – how to get from point A to point B. I think that that’s a really interesting moment when you start applying that to our networks – when you start applying that to the web, and you think, The web is a place that is connecting the world globally, so why are we building products that are so focused on our individual country; on our individual language?
Scott Thomas 17:20
Think about the experience that you have if English isn’t your native language and you land on a product that isn’t speaking to you. This is really the motivation for creating the noun project. Some of you may use it; it’s become a great resource for designers, architects, as well as educators and executives. Applications range everywhere from foreign language learning applications to helping autistic children communicate with their parents. We’re also just helping executives create better Power Point presentations, so there are a lot of uses for this product, but there are so many more opportunities for how we’re using this in our applications and in our services.
Scott Thomas 18:02
To realize the kind of grand vision that I’m talking about – I’m talking about a repository of the world’s visual language, which is a fairly abstract and a fairly big dream – there was no way that we could design every single symbol. In fact, this was tried in history. You guys might have heard of a Radiolab episode where they’re talking about a bliss language system, where the individual tried to create a drawing for every single concept in an effort to help people learn visually as well. But he really tried to control the language and say, this is the symbol for this and this is the symbol for this.
Scott Thomas 18:35
What we wanted to do is to make sure that we were developing a platform that allowed anybody to contribute to that language – in the way that Wikipedia has been able to create such a large collection of human knowledge – what if we use that same energy to create the world’s visual language of symbols and icons?
Scott Thomas 18:54
The nice thing about an open source, crowdsourced language, is the ability to see that there are many different ways to communicate one idea – and that’s great. Having that single repository, though, we can quickly begin to understand some of the differences and some of the changes that occur over time. What’s the best way to communicate this idea? That may come down to personal decision, but obviously, with a little bit analytics, we can understand use behavior, we can understand patterns in certain geographies, we can learn that for ‘restaurant’, there’s a symbol in the East that works far better than that in the West.
Scott Thomas 19:33
If you think about it, this is a language that’s constantly evolving and changing, and so we can also measure the effects and changes of that language over time. Just take, for example, the phone icon. We all touch this thing to make calls today, but are our children’s children actually going to know that the phone had something other than a handset? Probably not. Or, this icon, which I don’t think any of us are saving to anymore, so I don’t know why we’re still using it.
Scott Thomas 20:02
So this language definitely needs to be constantly on the edge of what’s changing. And if you think about the web, we’re constantly creating new systems. We’re constantly creating new ways to communicate an idea. It’s really interesting, because we probably all know what that thing means, right, ‘menu’? But my mom has no idea what a stack of pancakes means in the upper left hand corner of a screen. And so, it’s interesting, as we develop these new concepts and these new ideas – how do we actually begin to understand them, how do they change over time; how do we make sure that the world knows that this means this?
Scott Thomas 20:41
If you think about even a light bulb – that symbol’s changed – that classic image of, I have an idea, you think of that rendering, of the Edison-style filament bulb that sits above our head. But the shape, the form, is constantly changing – from compact fluorescents, to LEDs; who knows what’s going to be here tomorrow.
Scott Thomas 21:03
Speaking of ideas, we wanted to make sure this language was used, and one of the important ways to do that is to offer it for free. Of course, a lot of people here in the valley kind of freak out at the word ‘free’. It’s a really horrible business model. But freemium, I think, is a really new and interesting model that you can use to get people to start using your products and services. We made sure that all of the symbols and icons are either in the public domain or are under Creative Commons by attribution. So any of you can go to the Noun Project and download that symbol for free as long as you attribute the designer.
Scott Thomas 21:41
I am totally aware though, that attribution can be kind of a pain. Sometimes it’s problematic – where do I put the attribution, where do I say this icon was designed by this person? Especially on a poster or t-shirt. So we also are offering the opportunity to buy that icon as well. So you can buy an icon license, and we give part of the revenue back to the contributors. So now it acts as an international market place for icon designers to essentially upload their ideas of what a particular design means, and if somebody buys it, we’ll split the revenue with them.
Scott Thomas 22:14
We’re making it even easier. Right now we’re about to launch premium accounts, which we’re pretty excited about. So, you can download at will and we’ll actually just pay the designers that you’re supporting for those symbols. So it will be even easier if you have an agency or a studio or you guys are designing a lot of products.
Scott Thomas 22:31
And the power of this language is never going to be fully realized until we really open up and we make sure that any of those symbols – any of those icons – can be accessed via an API. So, all of the creators in this audience, and creators around the world – when developing an application – can use this language in their products and in their services. That should be coming really soon. I’m really excited about it.
Scott Thomas 22:56
Let’s get to another point here, and it’s that if you’re going to do something, it’s really important that you do something for good. We recently teamed up with the UN humanitarian aid efforts around the world – so that way, we could distribute icons that help in times of crisis – as well as hosting events like Iconathons, where we’re working with the American Red Cross and other organizations – both profit and non-profit – around the world to develop sets of symbols that might actually, just one day, save a life. And I think that this is something that every company should make sure that they’re doing. By bringing designers and non-designers together, generating ideas, we created icons for things like skill-share or food shortage or search and rescue. The hope is that maybe these icons will just save a life one day.
Scott Thomas 23:42
In our globally connected world, one thing that we’re seeing is that language is still actually acting as a major divide. How many times do you see somebody tweeting, or somebody posting to Facebook in a language that you don’t understand? Or take this guy for example. Without a working knowledge of Arabic, do you have any idea what he’s saying about Facebook? Because I don’t.
Scott Thomas 24:03
But luckily the individuals surrounding him are using an international symbol that we all recognize: the international symbol for peace. And I think that if we are about to develop technologies and do things that are constantly going to make the world a better place, and make us a truly globally connected society, then we need a language that brings us together towards a common understanding. And that’s what we’re doing. I look forward to building this language with you. Thank you.