Check Out These New Emojis for Foodies

written by Tom Philpott posted with permission by Mother Jones

On a frigid Sunday morning in Manhattan this past March, several dozen people, many of them design students, gathered at the School of Visual Art’s building in Chelsea. Their task: to perform a bit of pro-bono marketing for non-corporate food producers—the kind of small and mid-sized farms that grow produce without poisonous chemicals and tend their animals on pasture, not in fetid, polluting feedlots.

The meeting, organized by an innovative Los Angeles-based design firm called theNoun Project (whose founders my colleague Tasneem Raja interviewed here) and an accomplished New York-based sustainable-food advocacy group called the Grace Communications Foundation (the force behind the Meatrix video and Sustainable Table), was modeled on the techie concept of a “hackathon”—a bunch of people getting together to solve some problem. But whereas hackathons typically result in computer code, this “iconathon” would produce images, known as icons, that can wordlessly express concepts like “grass fed” and “heritage breed,” free for anyone’s use under a creative-commons license.

 

I was invited to help set the table, so to speak, with some remarks. I noted that the food system that has sustained the US for decades—and which is vigorously spreading to other parts of the globe—is failing. Diet-related diseases are mounting and workers are rebelling against the industry’s poverty wages. Meanwhile, I pointed out, the two most important US crop-growing regions, the Midwestern corn belt and California’s Central Valley, are both undergoing slow-motion and devastating ecological crises, involving soil and water, respectively.

After I harangued the crowd, I figured my work was done. Turns out, it had only just begin. The Noun Project

Yet despite these catastrophes, Big Food remains ubiquitous and highly profitable. One reason why, I suggested, is that like any smart industry, the food giants invest a portion of their annual profits bombarding the public with marketing. In 2012, fast food chains spent $4.6 billion advertising their goods, led by a cool $971 million from McDonald’s. As for the processed-food companies, Kraft alone spends about $683 millionhawking such delicacies as boxed mac ‘n cheese in the US; and Coca-Cola drops nearly a half billion dollars pushing its sugary drinks.

Those elaborate efforts paint a big smiley face on a grim landscape; and it is yourjob, today, I informed the assembled designers, to strike a counter blow on behalf of food producers who refuse to play along. Be their shadow marketing department, I exhorted them, their down-low Don Drapers, give them powerful images they can use to quickly tell their stories in a marketplace dominated by burger-peddling clowns.

I was quickly assigned to a group, whisked to a table, and confronted with markers, blank sheets of paper, and a list of topics to illustrate.

And with that, I figured, my work was done. After all, I can barely sketch my own name legibly, and the closest I’d ever come to participating in a hackathon was to watch The Social Network. But rather then repair to one of Manhattan’s excellent new-wave coffee bars, as was my secret plan, I was quickly assigned to a group, whisked to a table, and confronted with markers, blank sheets of paper, and a list of topics to illustrate.  It turned out that each of this Iconathon’s ten or so groups consisted of at least one designer along with a concerned citizen and a subject expert—a role played in my group by me. Each group was to go down the topic list, come up with ideas for each, and present them at the end.

Before I knew it, I was immersed in discussions about how chickens and pigs can’t be “grass fed,” because (unlike cows) they can’t thrive on grass alone; and how “aquaponics” means growing plants and fish in a closed nutrient loop. I even surprised myself by throwing out image ideas—and was delighted to see a design wizard in my group sketch them out quickly with a few strokes of a pen. I savored the give and take—the messy, fun, thesis-antithesis-synthesis process of brainstorming vague ideas and then moving them into concrete existence through consensus. As a writer, I work alone; the Iconathon reminded me how energizing it is to collaborate with people of diverse skill sets and perspectives—a lesson I last learned while helping run Maverick Farms. Here’s what it looked like:

Photo: The Noun Project

In the end, after much discussion and a tally of votes involving entries from each group, we settled on our favorite images. The Noun Project’s ace designers, working with volunteer designers who attended the meeting, cleaned them up and have now released them. Our efforts didn’t solve the nation’s food-related problems or come close to balancing out Big Food’s marketing heft. But it’s a start. Here they are, and you can download them here:

Icons Help Reduce Food Waste

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What does your favorite local restaurant do with their food scraps? Do they simply toss the scraps in the trash or do they organically recycle them? You might not think this is important, but food waste is a major contributor to green house gases and global warming.

Because of this massive problem Noun Project teamed up with Hennepin County Environmental Services in Minneapolis, MN to host an Iconathon focused on developing badges of honor that reward local businesses for participating in recycling programs. We thought if people knew which restaurants donated their food scraps to a local food shelter, or what businesses recycled their organics by participating in local composting programs they would choose to support those businesses over others. We wanted to give participating businesses a competitive advantage to further incentivize organics recycling.

We’re happy to announce these badges are beginning to appear on storefronts of businesses throughout Minneapolis, and we hope this trend spreads nationally!

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The Design

The design process for the badges started by learning about the various forms of organics recycling.

  • Recycling – separating products that can be re-used
  • Food to Human – donating unused food to local food shelters
  • Food to Farm – donating food scraps to local farmers to use as animal feed
  • Composting – mixing food scraps with soil to create organic fertilizer

Once the various forms of recycling were identified we then started to investigate different shapes for the badges and how these shapes could work together as a set. This was critically important because many businesses would be displaying a combination of the 4 badges. We experimented with many shapes, but in the end we decided on using a simple square because of its modular properties. We then used the golden rectangle to divide the square into the graphic and text sections.

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With the basic shape of the badges determined, we then focused on how to graphically communicate each one of the forms of recycling. We wanted the designs to be understood in a blink of an eye so we made the graphics simple, bold, and playful.

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For the recycling badge, we leveraged the existing learned association between chasing arrows and the notion of recycling to create a dynamic energetic composition.

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The composting badge uses a gently curving horizontal line to represent the soil line. Underneath the soil we included simple versions of a carrot, apple and a fish.

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The food to human badge shows an outstretched hand receiving an apple. We thought showing an open hand was a great way to communicate generosity, giving, and service.

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The food to farm badge shows a simplified pig eagerly staring at an apple. We chose a pig because the majority of recycled food is fed to hogs.

Finally, you can see we included the logo of Hennepin County in the upper left corner of the design. This instantly gives the badge credibility and shows the county is involved in the verification process. When these badges scale to other municipalities their logo can be inserted in this corner.

It is our hope these badges can become a catalyst that accelerates the adoption of organics recycling not only in Minneapolis but in cities all across the world. Thanks to all the participants of the Iconathon, Hennepin County Environmental ServicesUniversity of Minnesota and Public Interest Design for making this a reality.

 

Sustainable Food & Farming Iconathon

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Agriculture has changed dramatically in the past few decades. Multinational corporations dominate an industry once made up primarily of small farmers, with vertical integration threatening those who remain. The majority of the food we eat is produced by a handful of companies, using technologies designed to increase efficiency, but often at significant cost to public and environmental health. Practices like industrial scale meat production and increased reliance on chemicals in crop production have drawn criticism from environmentalists and animal welfare advocates, as well as from consumers. More and more people recognize the importance of ecological farming practices and are joining the sustainable agriculture movement.

In an effort to help communicate the importance of sustainable farming, we are teaming up with GRACE Communications Foundation and Mother Jones to host an Iconathon around this important topic. The goal is to create a set of universally recognizable icons that will be used to help increase communication around food issues. Sustainable food experts from TEDx Manhattan, GRACE, and Mother Jones will work side by side with volunteers and designers from School of Visual Art‘s MFA Interaction Design, SVA|NYC program to create these icons. The final icons will be released into the public domain for use in journalism, local/sustainable food marketing, online sustainable food directories and mobile applications.

The publicly open design workshop will take place on March 2nd at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The Iconathon is free to attend, but space is limited so please RSVP.

Iconathons are organized to engage the general public in the design process and participants include both designers and non-designers. No design or art skills are necessary, all are welcome to participate.

Image by Christopher Paquette

Climate Change Awareness Game Icons

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Climate change is a huge global challenge that we’re all faced with. Last month more than 12 million people in the Philippines were affected by Tsunami Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record. Homes and crops were destroyed, many people were left with nothing and have to start rebuilding their communities from scratch. How can we address issues like natural disasters that are out of human control? Maybe the answer is through education.

In many cases, people are suffering due to avoidable reasons, often because they lack knowledge of disaster preparedness. With the increase in weather-related disasters people need to be educated on how to prepare for such disasters. Pablo Suarez, Associate Director for Research and Innovation at the Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre, is tackling this problem by teaching people with fun, participatory games.

The Climate and Gender Game is used to raise awareness of climate adaption strategies. During these games participants experience real life scenarios and must make quick decisions based on made up forecasts. The decisions they make are followed with hypothetical consequences. People work in teams and learn first hand how to make smart, reactive decisions for potential weather disasters. They learn how to make smart farming choices that will impact their income and ability to provide food for their families. There are rewards, winners, and losers. While playing the game people are laughing and having fun, and most importantly learning how to make effective choices. It beats a boring power point any day!

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We hosted an Iconathon to create symbols that will help people navigate through decisions in the climate change game. Since these icons are intended for use during a game, they have a more playful aesthetic than out traditional Iconathon symbols. The characters show more emotion and have personality to emphasize the good or bad possible outcomes.

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The symbols are now available for free download as public domain. Thank you Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Centre, Pablo Suarez, and our civic minded volunteers that helped create these icons.

Innovation in Education Symbols

We are happy to announce the release of some amazing, new icons! In October we hosted an Iconathon with Duke University and the Innovation Co-lab to make symbols that visually communicate the changing landscape of education. As more and more people around the world gain access to technology and the internet, the more opportunities people have to educate themselves. Inventions like Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC) allow anyone to take college level courses from some of the most prestigious Universities, for free! We teamed up with Duke, the Innovation Co-lab and volunteers to create icons that communicate and explain these new innovations in education.

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We started off the event with an inspiring and illuminating talk by Julian Lombardi, assistant vice president with Duke’s Office of Information Technology. Julian asked us to re-evaluate the current education system. What is the real value of a college degree if one can learn the same skills and information online? Julian affirmed that universities will have to adopt to the new realities of a world connected through technology.

New concepts like Flipped Classrooms and Blended Learning are utilizing the internet to make class time more effective. Open access information gives people the chance to educate themselves in order to provide for their families and communities. And things like Mircolectures are becoming more prevalent for teaching information online.

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The Innovation Co-Lab is a creativity incubator which facilitates events like this Iconathon that encourage students to take a more active role in their technology experience and participate in shaping the future of learning at Duke.

Thanks to Michael Faber and the Innovation Co-lab for making this event possible. And a huge thank you Julian Lombardi and all our volunteers!

The entire set is available for download and all the symbols have been released into the public domain.

Innovation in Education Iconathon at Duke University

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We were recently contacted by Michael Faber, the IT Innovation Program Manager at Duke University, with a great idea for an Iconathon. Michael runs a program called the Innovation Co-Lab – a creativity incubator that focuses on how emerging technologies are reshaping research and academics within higher education. The program aims to elevate and inspire Duke students who are solving problems through the rapidly changing technological environment.

Michael came to us with the idea of holding an Iconathon around the new, technology-orientated teaching models practiced at some of the top universities. Right now one of the hottest topics in education is the use of massive open online courses (MOOCs). These are open access classes aimed at large scale interaction and participation via the web. Duke is a leader in this new space and was one of the first schools to offer courses in all areas of studies to people around the world to enroll for free.

This distance learning is an online revolution, making education accessible to all parts of the world. People who would not normally have the chance to take university level classes now have the opportunity to enhance their skills and gain valuable knowledge from some of the best schools. These programs are exciting because they create global communities of people around a shared intellectual endeavor. More importantly they are helping people better their lives, their families lives, and improve their communities.

Technology is also affecting the physical classroom in higher ed institutions as well, not just in the world of online education.  Educators are incorporating technology into traditional teaching methods including “flipped classrooms”, game-based learning, and badge systems to revolutionize our expectations of how we learn.

The icons generated at this event will help with the multilingual interactions between peers, students, and teacher assistants. We’re hosting the Iconathon on Saturday, October 5th to help create a visual language for this education revolution.

Iconathons are organized to engage the general public in the design process and participants include both designers and non-designers. No design or art skills are necessary, all are welcome to participate. The Iconathon is free to attend but tickets are limited, please RSVP.

Event Details:

When: Saturday, October 5th from 11am to 4:00pm (lunch provided)

Where: Perkins Library (Room 217), 411 Chapel Dr,Durham, NC 27705

RSVP: Space is limited, RSVP for free tickets.

New Health Care Icons added to public domain

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We recently had the pleasure of hosting an Iconathon at the Denver Art Museum in the beautiful Denver, Colorado. We teamed up with the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing to create icons around the topic of expanding healthcare access and coverage. The goal of the event was to create a set of icons that will help people quickly navigate across the new healthcare system set up by the Affordable Care Act.

Members from the Medicaid community, including technical workers, providers, stakeholders, and other state employees participated in the event. They collaborated with designer volunteers and sketched ideas for concepts like Integrated Health Systems, Preventive Health Care, Coordinate Patient Care and more.

The symbols generated will be used in a variety of applications, including training materials and brochures. The icons will help the Department and others in the Medicaid and health care community communicate important Health Care Access and Coverage ideas visually, reaching across language, cultural and socioeconomic barriers.

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A huge thank you to the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing and all the volunteers who participated.

The entire set is available for download as public domain.

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