Scott Thomas

Scott is the founder of the design powerhouse Simple Honest Work, and known for his work as the Design Director on the 2008 Barack Obama Presidential Campaign. This work was beautifully documented in Scott‘s highly successful crowdsourced book Designing Obama. In addition to fundamentally changing the relationship between design and American politics, Scott is more recently recognized being one of the co-creators behind the Noun Project, which for the past two years has pursued the not so simple goal of establishing a shared visual language for every human being on the planet.

Icon of Scott ThomasWe spoke with Scott about his work on the Noun Project, which he will be covering in depth during his Evening Keynote on Saturday, April 6.

IAS: What is the historical context of the Noun Project?

ST: The noun project started as, and remains, an incredibly lofty ambition. We are talking about 17,000 years of history in communication; it‘s the foundation for everything. As tribes have come together over history, if they didn‘t speak the same language they would communicate using visual symbols. In terms of the way in which we communicate now, technology insures that our world continues to get smaller in a sense. For that reason it‘s becoming more and more important that we have ways to communicate without relying on the spoken word of one particular “tribe.”

IAS: Why did you and your collaborators set out to build the Noun Project?

ST: As the owner of a design firm, I always want support people exploring their own passion projects. But for me, there needs to be greater purpose to the work we‘re doing. There are lots of opportunities for people to get backed by venture capitalists to build another damn photo sharing application. And that‘s fine, because those applications have value, but in the sense that the Noun Project is a startup, it also has a purpose related to the social good that is more than just acquiring users or some other such metric. It‘s longer term planned execution path that reflects that greater purpose.

IAS: How has the Noun Project itself progressed over it‘s life?

ST: It‘s been going on for a couple of years now. It‘s very new to some people, but it‘s gone through three large iterations. In the way that we are building it, we are taking a lean startup approach and self-supporting this as much as we can. I run Simple Honest Work as a consultancy while also allocating design and development resources in house and spending the time and effort to eventually roll out the Noun Project as it‘s own company.

In the beginning we were designing on the fly; this whole thing started out as a four hour hackathon! When we stepped back and looked at it holistically, we realized we hadn‘t approached it as cohesively as we might have. We would design a feature, every few weeks. We wanted to get features out the door, listen to what users were talking about, and then fold those ideas into our plan. We‘ve definitely taken Eric Reis(link)‘ gospel to be lean, to listen to users, and not spend a year or two just building the thing.

IAS: What‘s happening with the Noun Project right now?

We were just in touch with National Geographic. They are developing a timeline for pictorial language throughout the history of human beings, and the Noun Project is going to be represented on that timeline. It‘s a huge honor to be recognized this way.

Learn about the Noun Project

Made on (mt) – Episode 19 – The Noun Project from (mt) Media Temple on Vimeo.