iconathon header

Over the last couple of months, several cities across the United States participated in a series of collaborative design workshops with the aim of generating icons and symbols that visually convey concepts frequently needed in civic design that would communicate universally recognized concepts to the city inhabitants. Called Iconathons, the workshops were created through a partnership between Code for America and The Noun Project, whose idea was to provide a fun and creative way for people to give back to their cities.

Iconathon designers

Our country’s demographics are constantly evolving, providing the government with new challenges to quickly and effectively communicate its services, often across language barriers. Symbols, defined as something which represents an idea, a physical entity or a process but is distinct from it; its purpose to communicate meaning. Many of the symbols we encounter on a daily basis are widely used throughout public spaces, within education, health care, transportation and recreation, some of them even understood on an international level. The symbols born out of the Iconathons, which will be released to the public through the Noun Project website, can be used in new civic web applications, printed materials and in public signage.

Each participating Iconathon city was given a specific topic and set of civic concepts to choose from to design. The design workshops consisted of five hours of rapid symbol prototyping by small groups of graphic designers, public issues experts and local volunteers. The mix of participants was the aspect of critical importance. As The Noun Project founder, Edward Boatman states,

“It’s really important to have people who care give us feedback on the symbol design because a lot of times designers will design in a vacuum. They’ll design a symbol that’s very elegant, but it might not necessarily communicate the concept very well.”

Symbols are something most people take for granted, seeing them, viewing them and ultimately, utilizing them without even really noticing. As designers, though, symbols are of paramount importance as an entire project’s message can be communicated in a single, simple, little circle or square. The same value designer’s place on them is shared by those they are placing them for, because without a successful translation into the visual realm, the message is lost, and clear, universal communication (which is the ultimate goal) becomes muddied.

Iconathons, as a drive to increase communication, should be one to take note of. In cities like Los Angeles, new food and health symbols were created, which could very well help provide more access to healthy foods. In Seattle, the symbols were focused on community, helping to create an actual creative community for the day. In Boston, the educational themed Iconathon stressed the importance of symbols in the everyday lives of students, aiding the learning process across the nation. In New York, symbols were created to enhance public space, inspire culture and fuel action – the energy that New York thrives on.

gluten free iconathon sketches
gluten-free sketches |

community center sketches
community center sketches |

bike share sketches
bike share sketches |

The culmination of all these events resulted in unifying people – creative thinkers, designers, innovators, community members, and passionate voices – to provide invaluable insight on universal communication. The 2011 Iconathon tour is now complete but the creators are hoping to organize another one next year. Want to get involved? Perhaps you can hold your own Icon Camp!


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