The Noun Project is a collection of 17,000 icons created by Edward Boatman and Sofya Polyakov to enable "anything to be communicated visually through symbols." It began as a collection of sketchbook drawings. Mother Jones interviewed Boatman and Polyakov:
MJ: You kept this collection on paper?
EB: Loose pieces of paper. It was very ragtag. It was just very much a concept at this point. And then when I was working at [design firm] Gensler in Santa Monica, I was putting together a lot of presentation boards for clients and I needed a way to communicate graphically—sometimes abstract concepts, sometimes concepts as simple as a bicycle or an airport—and I just couldn't find a library online that could provide me with the content I needed. I talked to a lot of other designers with that same gripe, and so I took this old concept that I had back in college and steered it toward solving this real-world problem. We started as a resource for designers, but very quickly we got a lot of teachers reaching out to us, and people dealing with kids with autism. We realized that being able to communicate an idea through a symbol is powerful for pretty much anyone.
MJ: Why autistic kids?
Sofya Polyakov: A lot of autistic children tend to be visual learners and visual communicators. We started to learn about this because of the Noun Project. One of the things that caretakers or parents will do is put together a visual storyboard of your day. It'll have a symbol for get out of bed, brush your teeth, have breakfast, put on clothes, put on your shoes, to help them get ready in the morning, for example. For one of our Iconathons we worked with the Boston schools—they have a lot of children with special needs, so they'll use visual clues as well. For a child navigating a new school, having symbols for places like the cafeteria or gym or your classroom area is very helpful.