Common Sense Review
Updated September 2013

The Noun Project

Think in pictures with vibrant visual language everyone can understand
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Common Sense Rating 4
Pros
Most of the icons are fantastic, and it's fun just to browse the site.
Cons
Some icons are repetitive, and some schools may not have the design software needed to create them.
Bottom Line
It's a neat, well-executed concept with lots of possibilities for learning, imagining, and creating.
Polly Conway
Common Sense Reviewer
Classroom teacher
Common Sense Rating 4
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 4

It's fun to browse through all the icons people have created. Creating an icon takes more focus, but it could be a great challenge for young artists. 

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer? 4

This language is meant to be shared; if users adopt some of the icons and use them in their own projects, it becomes a social experience.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students? 3

There's a lot of advice about licensing, and the site gives guidelines on creating an icon. It also guides you through the icon-uploading process. 

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How Can Teachers Use It?

You can use the Noun Project in an English, history, foreign language, or art class; its uses are pretty versatile. For example, ask students to create their own set of symbols and then ask them to trade with another student to see how they translate. Students will learn that it's tricky to communicate exactly what you mean through pictures. Ask kids in a Spanish class to create flashcards using Noun Project icons, or ask an ELL class to translate icons into English.

The site may also be helpful for kids with special needs or for non-verbal students; it's been used by educators to successfully teach autistic students.

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What's It Like?

The Noun Project is a website that's creating a global visual language of symbols and icons. With the hope that this language will help people from all over the world communicate, they're accepting icons from numerous artists and designers. Students may be drawn to the goofier icons (a guy on the toilet, a dog sniffing another dog's rear), but there's definitely the possibility for learning or, at the very least, reflecting on what it would be like to only communicate visually. Icons are organized by designer or category; categories include People, Transportation, Animals, Weather & Nature, etc. Each category is then broken down further into subcategories.

If you download an icon for your own use, you must either attribute it to the designer or pay a fee (usually $1.99) to purchase it unattributed. If someone purchases your design, the money will be deposited directly into your PayPal account monthly. The Noun Project uses Creative Commons licensing to give designers the creative rights to own and share their work as desired.

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Is It Good For Learning?

Students can learn that not all languages are verbal; people have used symbols to communicate for thousands of years. They can also think critically about icons the world may be missing. If they decide to create their own icon, kids will learn design skills as they go through the process of drawing an image and making it into a file they can upload and share with others. Students will use their imagination to think about what icons they'd like to invent and how to best represent a word using a picture. It's also fun to guess what each icon means before you click on it! Be aware that you need to have your own design software to create an icon -- the Noun Project provides guidelines and advice, but it's ultimately a repository for content and not a design tool.

Hundreds of artists and designers have contributed their own icons to the project, and the language they're creating is quite a sight. Some of the icons are silly, like the cupcake- and donut-laden Sugar Suite collection. Some are beautiful, and others are very clear visual representations. The project itself is a huge, ambitious undertaking, and it's neat to see it grow as more people add their symbols. Some icon sets are repetitive; trendy mustaches and food items pop up everywhere, while more serious icons may not get the attention they need. Practical uses include helping autistic kids communicate; a fist icon from the Noun Project was used extensively during the Occupy Wall Street protests.

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