Humanitarian icons 2.0: Visual tools for the aid community

Véronique Durroux-Malpartida

As 2018 is drawing to a close, the release of a new set of humanitarian icons may well be OCHA’s end-of-year gift to all of us working in digital communications.

From disaster types to clusters to affected people, humanitarian icons come in handy for inclusion in websites, reports, maps, and any other kind of publications such as humanitarian snapshots. “At first the icons were developed because we needed them in our day-to-day work. Then the demand kept growing and we added many more,” says Paolo Palmero, the head of OCHA’s Design and Multimedia Unit (DMU).

The first set of humanitarian symbols released in 2012 became one of ReliefWeb’s most visited pages, with thousands of downloads over the past few years. They were also made available on The Noun Project, an online crowdsourced library of icons used by many designers and publishers, reaching far beyond the humanitarian community.

A complete redesign

The 2018 set includes 295 icons covering topics such as humanitarian clusters, disasters, logistics, security incidents and a whole new theme: user experience/user interface design. Even though some of the new icons resemble their old versions, they have all been completely redesigned. While the first versions grew organically based on internal design needs, the new series has been drawn from scratch following standardized design rules. “They had to be redesigned to make them look similar in terms of visual complexity, to make them part of the same ‘family’,” Palmero explains. It was hard to establish design rules that could be applied to all the icons, but as work on the new symbols was under way, the DMU was developing its new graphics stylebook.

Nine people were involved in the redesign process, as well as in the conceptualization, validation, guidelines formation, and project management. Among them were graphic designers from field operations, including Anthony Burke from OCHA’s regional office in Asia-Pacific. “When used correctly, icons add great value to how we interpret information, and free up much needed real estate on a page where the content may be text-heavy,” Burke says. “Here at the regional level, we use icons almost on a daily basis, in products such as infographics, briefing packs, situation reports and animations… The list goes on. You name it, and it probably has at least a few icons in use,” he adds.

Objective: Consistency

Other UN entities participated informally, offering feedback, comments and requests for new icons, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

For Cristina Ascone, who leads the Graphic Design and Publishing Team at WFP, OCHA-produced icons serve one major goal: ensuring some consistency within the UN system. “Most of our materials will include icons so repeated use will increase recognition and common understanding,” she says.

WFP adopted the 2012 set of icons and then added new ones to fit the organization’s needs, using inputs from OCHA’s DMU to keep the same style. “At the beginning of 2019 we will swap out the previous OCHA set with the newly-designed versions on our intranet for all WFP staff to use,” Ascone explains. They may identify additional icons needed to illustrate WFP's work, which her team will produce and share with OCHA in a feedback loop that will allow for an even broader range of visuals.


A constant evolution

One of the main challenges of conceptualization is to represent certain icons that are not objects. The DMU team didn’t start entirely from scratch though, as they used the 2012 version as inspiration. Some humanitarian concepts and activities, however, are indeed challenging to represent visually. “We can only salute the graphic designer who was given the task of making "gap analysis", “humanitarian programme cycle", and "multi-cluster-multi-sector" into universally-understandable symbols,” IRIN quipped recently about the new “aid emojis”.

The DMU team also encountered difficulties visualizing concepts that can be seen differently depending on the context or the culture. “Some icons like Man and Woman can be understood in a different manner depending on who is looking at them. We decided to call them Person 1 and Person 2 to avoid stereotypical images,” DMU’s graphic designer Javier Cueto explains. “Also, we have planned to create alternates for many of the icons so people can pick the ones that better match their culture, ideas or context. The concept of food, for instance, would have a different image for people from Nigeria or from Fiji,” he adds.

In addition to the alternate versions for different cultures, the DMU is working on expanding the collection with new icons requested by humanitarian partners. The team has about 200 drafts that still need some fine-tuning. And by sharing clear guidelines, Cueto says, they want to allow designers to create icons with the same style that can be added to the set: “Our idea is to open the production to anyone who wants to contribute.”

Access the 2018 Humanitarian Icons

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