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Iconography as part of the UN’s humanitarian efforts: OCHA releases new humanitarian icons

01 Mar 2020



COVID-19 icons now available in the collection.    

In 2012, OCHA released to the public domain a set of 250 icons depicting themes of interest to the humanitarian community such as clusters, disaster types, categories of affected people, and relief items. These icons were developed because at OCHA we understand that during the response to an emergency it is critical to share and understand complex information in a timely, visual, compelling fashion.

Icons — with their easily accessible, universal visual language — are vital to achieve this. Since their first release, OCHA’s Humanitarian Icons have been downloaded more than 300 times per day and have become by far the organization’s most popular product. Their users include UN agencies, NGOs, general public designers, and of course OCHA offices from around the world.

Today, we are releasing a completely revamped set of 295 (and counting) icons, the end result of a long and meticulous redesign process. While the 2012 collection grew organically as we developed illustrations to meet our internal design needs, the new series has been drawn from scratch following standardized design rules.

Because of this, all the new icons look similar in terms of visual complexity and appear to belong to the same ‘family.’ Moreover, the original set has been extended to include new themes (for instance cash transfer) and individual icons have evolved to reflect changes that occurred since 2012 (in technology, for example).

Together with the icons, available in a variety of common formats, we are releasing the detailed guidelines we developed to design them so that users can extend our collection to fit their own needs.

How icons are designed to be used

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. Better and clearer information means better decision-making and therefore a more efficient response in humanitarian crises.

How we choose which issues to represent

OCHA has offices all over the world and is constantly working on coordinating the humanitarian response. Our icons are based on the inputs we received from our 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.”

Next steps

The idea is to keep growing the collection, for instance with new themes, such as emerging technologies. In this new release, we have followed very precise guidelines and rules to make all the icons look like they are part of the same set. These guidelines will be available to anyone in the humanitarian or design community who wants to add new icons to the collection. We will moderate them and include those that follow our standards.

You can also view and download OCHA's new icons at: