In 2012, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs ( OCHA) released to the public domain a set of 250 icons depicting themes of interest to the humanitarian community such as disaster types, categories of affected people, and relief items. Six years on from the release date, and becoming by far the organization’s most popular product, the team decided to update the icon set. The collection had grown organically to meet internal communication needs but had not followed any standardized design rules.
This is a project I worked on during my time at OCHA in the Design and Multimedia Unit formed by four Designers and two Project Managers. I provided strategic direction and guidance on the conceptualization, ideation and style, and of course, participated in the design process of the icon set.
4 x icon designer
2 x project manager
Redefine the visual system
OCHA’s icons are used throughout the range of information products developed by and for the humanitarian community, such as maps, reports, infographics, and websites. This requires a strong and coherent visual style that allows the collection to live and survive in a wide variety of formats and applications. Creating strict style guidelines I helped to define the character of the collection. To start, the team established basic elements that would define the visual language of the complete icon collection, such as color palette, stroke weights, grid, corner rounds, white space and Icon style (Glyph, Outline, etc). As the main goal of the Humanitarian Icons is to be able to be represented in multiple formats we decided to make the collection based on Glyph Icons, otherwise called Solid Icons. When creating such a large collection, grids are crucial to producing a coherent style and solid icon set. We defined our grid to be 48px to 48px.
After these key rules were set, we were able to start on design. While some icons were easy to redesign, others were not clear and had to be conceptually and graphically rethought. Some icons represent a very specific humanitarian concept and were hard to materialize to a recognizable and clear metaphor that speaks for them. We divided the +300 icons between the 4 designers and we met weekly to review and input on each other’s work, both conceptually and technically. The diversity in the team allowed us to look at the icons from very different perspectives and create a collection that was inclusive.
Publication and Guidelines
The new collection was created in a way that allows anyone to design new icons and extend the set with new themes, such as emerging technologies. This is because we followed very precise guidelines and rules to ensure all the icons are coherent and can be replicated. These guidelines are available to anyone in the humanitarian or design community who wants to add new icons to the collection. The team will moderate them and include those that follow the organization's standards. The collection is released to the public domain and is available at Noun Project and the organization site.
This project was the first icon collection I worked on. I contributed to the process of creating strict design guidelines and designed approximately 30% of the whole collection. All the new icons look similar and it is visually clear that they belong to the same collection. Moreover, the original set was extended to include new themes (for instance cash transfer, COVID-19 related icons, etc) and individual icons evolved to reflect changes that occurred since 2012.
UNOCHA has offices and responds to crises all over the world. The icons are based on the inputs received from colleagues in the field, but also address requests from other humanitarian organizations and UN agencies. They cover many themes of interest to the humanitarian community, from natural disasters – such as tsunamis and earthquakes – to relief supplies, such as water containers and shelter kits. They also cover complex humanitarian themes such as “access to people in need” and “protection of civilians.”