The “iconathon” that’s changing digital gender representation

4 min read
Tyler Woods
  •  Jul 29, 2019
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Type the word “governor” into Google Image search. What do you notice?

Or maybe you think of a generic politician type with a tie, American flag pin, perma-smile, kissing babies or getting behind a podium to make a speech. But definitely a man.

You can try this exercise with “leader”, “mayor”, “CEO” and more. Each search result returns a disproportionate number of men.

But there’s at least one search engine that returns a woman first for key “leadership” terms: The Noun Project, a library of icons open and available to the world online.

Founded in 2010 in Los Angeles, the Noun Project was founded by Sofya Polyakov. Designers, web developers, PowerPoint makers, and anyone in need of an icon can go to the site and search the library of more than two million files. 

“We believe the more that you see women represented in leadership positions, whether the audience is children in the classroom or people seeing it in a boardroom at a Fortune 500 company, it shows that this is a place where women are welcome,” Polyakov explained recently by phone. “When you don’t see yourself represented visually, there’s a message inherently being sent that you don’t matter, you don’t exist.”

The Noun Project will alter its search algorithm, sometimes manually, to ensure that icons of women and underrepresented people show up high in the search results for different keywords.

“When you don’t see yourself represented visually, there’s a message inherently being sent that you don’t matter, you don’t exist.”

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All of the icons are available for free under a creative commons license with a small tag at the bottom which credits the designer and the Noun Project, or for $2.99, with no tag and the ability to edit and customize the icon. In the paid option, a share of the fee goes back to the designer of the icon as a royalty payment for their work.

 As the project gained steam over the years, more and more designers began to send in their own icons they designed to add to the library. 

“We launched it originally as a way for people to have access to icons that are in the public domain but were not easily accessible,” explained the Noun Project’s cofounder and CEO, Sofya Polyakov, by phone recently. “There are some great collections, including by the AIGA (the American Institute of Graphic Arts) and elsewhere, but a lot of them were on CD-ROM or in books.” 

(Want to read more about diverse representation? Check out this resource for diverse stock photos.)

But the project isn’t just about design—it’s also about representation. Yes, it is a for-profit business that now earns enough revenue to support a staff of 20 people in Culver City. But its focus on the representation of women, people of color, and non-binary people are what make it not the Noun Store or the Noun Depot, but rather the Noun Project

The Noun Project’s presidential icons

The Noun Project’s programmer icons

Still, most of the icons in the library, scraped from the public domain and that come in from designers, show men in leadership positions. To combat this, Polyakov and team mobilized and hosted “iconathons” in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, bringing together designers for a day of creating icons featuring women and people of color for the Noun Project library.

“It’s something our community has been passionate about,” Polyakov said. “We’ve had people call us out on social media after searching for CEO icons and they’re like, ‘Why are they all of men?’ and I agree with that. That’s why it’s important for us to drive the content we want to see on our platform in addition to the content that’s given to us.”

At the Iconathon in New York this spring, dozens of designers, mostly women, came out to draw new icons—also mostly of women. The participants chose their best designs and tacked them up to the walls of the room, and the group voted on the best ones, for inclusion in the Noun Project database. The icons featured female photographers, female drummers, female creative directors, female DJs. 

Proposed icons at a recent Iconathon in San Francisco

“One of the privileges we have working as designers in 2019 is that there are a lot of really smart and inspiring people shining a light on inclusion and exclusion in design,” noted Susse Sonderby Jensen, a senior experience designer at Adobe, who was one of the event’s speakers.

“We have an opportunity and a responsibility to take action when we see exclusion. I think it’s important for us to create a safe space where we can enter into a dialog around these topics because there isn’t an easy fix.”

Over the years, the Noun Project has become international. One thing about icons that’s different from writing is that they communicate ideas, nouns in this case, without the need for translation. Polyakov said that the site is now used by millions of people from all over the world.

An in-progress icon for “Software Engineer”

All that traffic also means that the royalty payments for some of the most popular icons really adds up. Polyakov said that there are now some designers who are making tens of thousands of dollars a month in royalty payments from the Noun Project.

“We have some pretty massive royalty payments, and we have creators from around the world,” she said. “If you think of [how] the American dollar translates, some of these payments can make a big difference.”

That sounds great, but it doesn’t come without some complications. As designers have started to make real money from Big Icon, the company has run into problems of plagiarism and copying: icon scammers. Staff at the Icon Project must inspect each icon that goes up on the site, not only to make sure the icons are of high quality and fit the company’s ethos of inclusion but also to make sure they’re not forgeries.

The Noun Project has come a very long way since it was founded by Polyakov and her husband, who worked for years out of their one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles and who bootstrapped the company from their own savings. 

“We intended it to be a business from the very beginning because we did not have any alternative. Passion projects are for those that can afford it,” Polyakov explained. “We took a risk and started a company and now we employ people and contribute in our own small way.”

The demand for icons continues to grow, and the Noun Project is actively hiring and will continue to organize iconathons, so the story is certainly not over. Or, to put it another way:

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