How the United Nations Uses Icons to Help Support Humanitarian Efforts Around the World

UN OCHA Humanitarian icons, available on Noun Project

We caught up with Javier Cueto from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to learn about their humanitarian icon collection and how iconography helps support emergency response efforts worldwide.

Hi Javier! Tell us about the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA for short, is the part of the United Nations Secretariat responsible for bringing together humanitarian agencies to ensure an effective response to emergencies. OCHA’s vision is of a world that comes together to help crisis-affected people rapidly get the humanitarian assistance they need. Our mission is to coordinate the global emergency response to save lives and protect people in humanitarian crises. We advocate for effective and principled humanitarian action by all, for all.

You recently released an updated collection of Humanitarian Icons that are in the public domain and free for anyone to use. Why did you create this collection?

When a disaster strikes, it is vital that humanitarian organizations can gather reliable data on the location and needs of affected people, and determine who is best placed to assist them. This often requires presenting complex information in a way that everyone can understand. Icons are vital to achieve this.

We created our first icons in 2008 and released a collection in 2012. The icons didn’t follow any design rule or guidelines, so they didn’t visually fit together well. We decided to redesign all of them in a more consistent way, following the same pattern. Now they all look like they belong to the same family. We also needed to update some icons to reflect wider changes that have occurred such as technology developments, with the mobile phone icon.

Cell Tower icon, Mobile Phone icon, Internet Icon, Public Broadcast icon

How are these icons designed to be used?

We use OCHA’s icons in a range of information products developed by and for the humanitarian community, including in maps, situation reports, infographics and websites. Clearer information means better decision-making and a more efficient humanitarian response.

How do you decide which issues to represent? What is your process for deciding which icons you’ll design, or redesign, with each collection update?

OCHA has offices all over the world. Our icons are based on the inputs we receive from our colleagues in the field, and staff in other humanitarian organizations and UN agencies. They cover prominent humanitarian response themes, from natural disasters — such as tsunamis and earthquakes — to relief supplies, such as water containers and shelter kits. They also cover themes in what we call complex emergencies (in other words, conflicts) such as “access to people in need” and “protection of civilians.”

Tsunami icon, Relief Goods icon, Water Bottle icon, Protection icon

How do you see these icons being used out in the world?

For the past six years, each day on average, 300 icons are downloaded from our collection on Noun Project. People use these icons in many different ways. For instance, the international humanitarian response is organized into thematic sectors known as clusters. Each sector covers a different area (health, education, etc.) and each one has a dedicated icon to represent it. So, you will find these icons in thousands of reports, infographics, and maps. Take the shelter icon — it will be used to show how many people need shelter; how many have received it; how much funding is needed to meet full shelter requirements; and so on, to inform our collective response.

How do you plan to expand on the collection in the future?

The idea is to keep growing the collection to keep up with external developments, for instance by adding new themes like ‘emerging technologies’. In this new release we have followed very precise guidelines to make all the icons look like they are part of the same set. We will make these guidelines available to anyone in the humanitarian or design communities who wants to add new icons to the collection. We will moderate them and include those that follow our standards.

Thank you for sharing with us Javier! You can see the entire collection of 250+ humanitarian icons from UN OCHA available for download on Noun Project here.


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