The Noun Project

Thanks to a quick note on Richard Byrne’s blog I have become aware of a platform called The Noun Project and started thinking of the many use cases in education.

The Noun ProjectThe project’s aim is to build a global visual language that everyone understands, and we all know how powerful visual communication can be.

If you reflect on it for a bit, symbols are everywhere around us and help us through everyday situations, not only when looking for a restroom but at the airport in hospitals, schools – everywhere. The fact that we rarely take notice of these symbols in an active way probably only underlines how important they are in many aspects of our lives – imagine them gone! Hence, building a library of icons for everything makes sense.

Certainly, there are other options like Google image search, but if you go on the website you’ll quickly see that Noun Project is all about simple and reduced, yet clear icons, sorted into different topics like climate, humanitarian missions, healthcare etc. And as I pointed out before, some icons have simply become the standard. Think about the envelope symbol used for iconizing mail for instance, why reinvent it?

That’s how new items are created. The designers take already existing standard icons and develop new ones by adding elements.

The Noun ProjectThe icons in the library, sometimes referred to as a visual Wikipedia, are free to download as long as you agree to properly attribute the creator. If you can’t (or don’t want to) attribute, you can purchase the icon for $1.99 royalty free.

The community can also contribute and upload designs on the condition they agree to submit these under the different Creative Commons licenses. I should mention that though different designers have been working on the different icons and the project is constantly growing, all icons look elegant and consistent.


How to use the icons with your students?

Visual language can be especially powerful when it helps to overcome traditional language barriers.

I can imagine this particularly helpful when you’re working with students who are non-native speakers or are new to country or language. At the beginning, signs are easier to understand than sentences in a foreign language and you could even use these sets of icons to teach vocabulary or practice basic phrases and sentences. The icons could very well lead the way to more profound language acquisition.

The same is of course true for young learners who are also drawn to visual learning. Whether in their native language or for foreign language acquisition, the teacher can work with the icons to build vocabulary and use them in story telling. Let your students choose several icons and make a story line by combining them. Another fun and creative scenario could be to take two students and give them a set of icons each, then ask them to develop a dialogue.

These could also be a great starting point for classrooms with special needs children or for older students that may have language difficulties. Here, the language barriers are not due immigration or being at a beginner level with a foreign language. I think of autistic students for instance who generally have difficulties to express themselves through language, using icons to foster their creativity can help them acquire important communication skills. Also, having curricula that contains consistent signs can be very helpful for this group building on improving skills.

Lastly, another situation visual learning can play a large role, is when working with hearing impaired students and you don’t know sign language yourself? I think one more helpful and enjoyable solution to non-communication is to have different sets of icons and images available to engage in a basic conversation.


If you are interested in using The Noun Project in your classroom, the project has a special page for educators with more information.


For me, the remaining question is whether these pictograms are truly universal and can be understood by everyone around the world. I think, there must be local variations or at least preferences. I haven’t researched this in depth but it would only be natural that Western and Eastern cultures receive visual icons in different ways.

Though the platform doesn’t give an answer or steer on this question, the community gets involved by translating the symbols, and I imagine if a translator is confused by a symbol e.g. didn’t understand it, his/her feedback would be taken into consideration. If you like, you can also get involved into the translation and be part of the project.


What are your experiences using visual communication with students? And what tools do you use build learning without direct language?


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