Reflecting on the Iconathons

[Reposted from Code for America Blog]

As the world watches over the city that never sleeps, I too find myself sleepless — even after such a productive day — on the eve of the 10 year mark of September 11th. So I get out of bed and begin to type the thoughts that are so steadily racing through my mind. In the background I can hear the sounds that make New York so iconic, no pun intended. Tired from a productive day of  ’iconathon-ing’, design charrettes, navigating the city, and now nearly two months after the initial kick off event, I realize how far we’ve come. I can’t help but smile in realizing that six cities including: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Boston and now New York we’ve created 100 symbols sketches with the help of at least 150 people.

While each event varied in location, the intended final outcome always remained the same. To create a space where designers, creative thinkers, and topic enthusiast could create civic symbols for the public domain. In San Francisco, we began the series with 311 services as our theme of choice, where eager local designers and a government worker who’d driven from the state capital on a Saturday morning shared their passion and opinions.

The following weekend at the Los Angeles Iconathon attendees got a chance to hear Amanda Shaffer (Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College) set the stage for designing around food and health symbols. These symbols could very well help provide more access to healthy foods. Discussions about obesity and general health in America flooded the space as the community co-created.

In trying to create a universal visual language in a democratic format, it only made sense that we try Democracy. So we headed to Chicago with Democracy as our theme. There we had the honor of working in SimpleScotts studio. Despite the thunder, rain, slightly remote location on public transit, and a sick guest speaker, we had a full house. As attendees entered the space drenched from the downpour I shook hands with some of the most enthusiastic groups of people. SimpleScott came to the rescue with his talk on the importance of simplicity in trying to convey a message, in relation to his work with the Obama campaign. The remainder of the day at the Chicago Iconathon we covered symbols such as human rights, citizen, private ownership, and many, many more symbols of Democracy.

Seattle’s event was a modest, but fruitful one with only a handful of participants who covered a wide range of symbols focused on community. Icons such as home owner, bake sale, neighbors and block watch captain where created. Hosted in Seattle Art Institute, we had Jared Nickerson share his creative process to get the groups creative juices flowing. With community members, organizers, and a few skilled designers they created a creative community for the day.

After a great tour of west coast cities, we found ourselves on the east coast with an equal representation of innovative people, hosting our Educational themed Iconathon in the MIT’s Center for Civic Media. Our welcoming words came from Boston Public Scools Lee McGuire, Chief Communications Officer followed by another Boston innovator, Deb Socia, Executive Director OpenAirBoson. And lastly Ideo’s Kristy Tilmanreminded us of the importance of symbols in students’ lives. Together they shared their stories of hope for the icons that were to be created that day. We had the chance to brainstorm concepts that could potentially be used on a day-to-day basis in the learning process of children in Boston and across the nation. We created symbols as obvious and necessary as student and backpack and as complicated and interesting as quite zone, reading zone, report card, and band.

Our last and final Iconathon for this series brought us to New York where I can actually hear some of the symbols we conceptualized come to life: subway tunnel, maps, bridge, hybrid, neighborhoods, detour, helmet, and lastly “check bag” — a symbol that means more today than it might have 10 years ago.

Jake Barton, founder of Local Projects, shared his thoughts on how our work could enhance the public space, and Frank Herbbert, director of CivicWorks at OpenPlans, summed up the success of these events, the culture they inspired, and what fuels our actions: “open source is [our] ethos…” Again and again we heard the terms: universal symbol, cross platform, cross culture, and usability. Everyone understood that we have the imperative to design better, together, as our community grows and becomes more diverse. The world is changing and so are we.

The New York Iconathon marked the end of the national effort from the Noun Project and Code for America to unite creative thinkers, designers, and passionate voices with informative speakers who provided invaluable context to the creation of universal symbols. But we don’t suspect this community will stop there; there’s already interest to continue “iconathoning” in other cities and even other countries. In the spirit of Code for America, they are taking a notion and turning it into a seamless language.

I’d like to thank all those who came out across the nation to help design an icon or two. And just as important as the icons is the community, and everyone who showed up helped create the environment for it to come together. So as Frank stated earlier today, “let us raise our hands in empowerment.”

Posted on September 10, 2011 by Karla Macedo

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