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ICOON for Refugees

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on June 7, 2016
This article was updated on October 21, 2017

In 2015 Berlin-based designer Gosia Warrink was interviewed on a local television station about a picture dictionary called ICOON that she had designed for tourists several years back. Travelers who were unable to speak the language of the country they were visiting, or who were illiterate, used her dictionary in order to communicate, by pointing to the images. This sparked the imagination of a few Red Cross workers who were dealing with the mounting refugee crisis in Germany. They contacted Warrink who donated more than 2,000 copies of ICOON for travelers so that refugees could use them to communicate their needs.

But Warrink, who in a parallel life transforms wallpaper strips into art and creates aesthetic pieces of streamlined oxidized copperplate cutouts, soon realized that she couldn’t absorb the cost of printing for the number of books required, and that most importantly, the book needed to be adapted for the needs of refugees. A new book required “many new symbols like halal, diseases (scabies, polio … trauma) also for headdresses (hidschab [hijab], burka) and, very very important for me, new symbols for peace and democracy,” said Warrink.

She decided to sail into uncharted territory: “ICOON for refugees is the first big charity work for me and my small publishing house,” she said, referring to AMBERPRESS, which prints the ICOON books.

The Red Cross, other aid workers and friends, some of whom were doctors, helped Warrink with her research as she created the necessary symbols. In October 2015 she launched a successful crowd funding campaign. 30,000 books were printed and sent to aid organizations helping refugees before Christmas. Warrink was also able to make an additional free app for android and a leaflet with 300 symbols that can be downloaded free of charge on her website.

A few months ago Warrink navigated another, equally successful crowd funding campaign for a second edition of ICOON and reprinted another 20,000 books, which are already almost all gone. A third edition is planned for June or July.

For Warrink, who had no particular experience in the field, what was initially a project to rework a book, has taken on epic proportions. She recently spoke about ICOON for refugees as an example for design for a better world; her studio has created new symbols for the Center of International Peace Operations for a guidebook used on international peace missions, a poster for teaching purposes with 180 symbols and the corresponding word in German is available for download on her site, and she has designed a complete signposting system for a large refugee emergency site at the Cologne airport.

Her studio is also focusing on a project for refugee children in cooperation with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (Foundation). They are creating a welcome poster that will be used in schools: symbols for plants, animals or food, for example, from the children’s countries of origin, with the aim of building bridges between what is familiar, and the new country they are living in now. “By recognizing familiar things, they will be able to feel that the new world they live in is not as strange as they might think. The poster will be developed into a coloring book, which will also will be helpful for learning German,” said Warrink.

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Her most rewarding moments, she said, are “phone calls or emails from people who are working with my books and want to thank me because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do their jobs and help refugees.”


Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.


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