Sofya Polyakov is one of the masterminds behind The Noun Project, the web’s go-to source for well-designed, simple icons. Noun Project icons are completely free to use, even commercially, under a Creative Commons license. But don’t think that the designers don’t use The Noun Project to make a living; they do. “For a lot of our designers, this isn’t just their passion; it’s their job,” Sofya said. “They donate high-quality work because when that work gets used, it means free marketing and advertising for them.”
And The Noun Project isn’t just Sofya’s passion; it’s her job too. Users can pay a small fee to have the attribution requirement for an icon waived, and those fees keep both The Noun Project and the designers in business.
If you’re not familiar with The Noun Project, your life is about to get a lot easier. The Noun Project is a huge archive of downloadable icons — simple, concise drawings representing everything from toothbrushes to Scotland. The icons are available in vector formats, meaning that it’s easy to adapt, resize, or color them without sacrificing image quality. The quality of the design work has made The Noun Project the first place to look for icons for software, signs, infographics, and much more. And every image is free to use.
Sofya Polyakov is cofounder of The Noun Project. She explains how her team discovered Creative Commons licensing: “We came to a point where we realized that we needed to decide what license to apply to icons. We knew that we needed a license that would be applicable worldwide, and that we had to maximize usability of the icons themselves.”
According to Sofya, The Noun Project wouldn’t work if there were a lot of complicated rules and restrictions on how the icons could be used. “It’s so easy for somebody to go to a website and rip off its designs. We can’t compete with that. We had to make The Noun Project as easy as possible, or no one would use it. We needed a license that was as liberal as possible. That led us to Creative Commons.”
If you design an icon for The Noun Project, you have two choices: the CC0 public domain declaration, which waives your copyright as completely as possible under the law; and the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY), which lets others use it for any purpose, commercial or noncommercial, as long as they attribute you.
Sofya sees CC BY as the perfect sweet spot: keeping the icons as free as possible while maintaining the recognition that designers need. “For a lot of our designers, this isn’t just their passion; it’s their job. They donate high-quality work because when that work gets used, it means free marketing and advertising for them.”
And The Noun Project isn’t just Sofya’s passion; it’s her job too. Because users can pay a small fee to have the attribution requirement for an icon waived, and those fees go to keeping both The Noun Project and the designers in business.
“The local department of transportation can’t exactly attribute a designer on the side of a bus,” Sofya says. “Or people in the advertising world, who don’t want the attribution to distract from the ad. There was clearly a need for an option to pay not to have to attribute.”
And Noun Project designers jumped at the opportunity. According to Sofya, 98% of Noun Project contributors have opted in to the feature. “And every month, we pay out a nice chunk of money to the designers. Everyone wins.”
And therein lies The Noun Project’s secret. Permissive licensing has made its designs extremely popular, and that ubiquity has created a market and revenue stream for designers.
What’s next? The Noun Project is growing into a community of designers setting their sights on big, real-world problems. Through Iconathon events, Noun Project designers are applying their design skills in areas like investigative journalism and healthcare reform. Iconathons are about more than making nice-looking icons, Sofya explains. They’re about making big issues easier to understand. “How do you explain the new healthcare laws to someone who doesn’t know English, or can’t read?” she asks. “How do you make that information truly accessible to everyone?” And of course, all of the designs produced at Iconathons enter the public domain through CC0.
“Creative Commons makes it easier for people to put their ideas out there and share them with the world,” Sofya says. “By sharing your creations and giving others permission to use them, you’re actually expanding global knowledge. And that’s pretty exciting.”
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Sofya Polyakov (Team Open) was written by Elliot Harmon for Creative Commons. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
The illustration of Sofya Polyakov was created by Luke Surl. To the extent possible under the law, Luke Surl has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights under the CC0 Public Domain Declaration.