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



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!



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.



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.




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



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.



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.



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.


Innovation in Education Iconathon at Duke University


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: IconLocal Independent Iconathon workshops


Since launching Iconathons two years ago, we’ve heard requests from people around the world wanting to host their own design events.  We’re excited to introduce IconLocals – independently organized Iconathon workshops held on a local community level.  The Noun Project created IconLocals to allow independent organizations and civic minded people to host self-organized workshops.  We believe this will help spread the social design movement around the world.

IconLocals are a great opportunity to host an event around a civic topic you’re passionate about.  But just like with any event, organizing an IconLocal requires a time commitment and hard work.  You’ll want to make sure the participants attend an interesting and insightful event, and the symbols created communicate their intended concept elegantly.

To help you get started, we’ve created an application questionnaire that will take you through some of the important points to think about when considering hosting an IconLocal.  Once we know you’re committed to hosting an exciting event on an important topic, we will provide you with guidance and materials to help organize & promote your workshop. We look forward to working with you and announcing the new events on

Check out our new IconLocal page to get started! #IconLocal

*Image of Istanbul copyright by Moyan Brenn

Noun Project included in Top 100 Leaders in Public Interest Design list


The Noun Project is very honored to be included in Public Interest Design’s list of the Top 100 National Leaders working at the intersection of design and service.  It is such a privilege to be included among the visionaries we so admire.

The list features some of our favorite organizations and people we’ve had the pleasure of working with, such as Jennifer Pahlka (Code for America), Jake Barton (Local Projects), Candy Chang (Neighborland), Valerie Casey (The Designers Accord), Heather Fleming (Catapult Design), and Liz Gerber (Design for America). And of course former president Bill Clinton.

We feel very strongly that a visual language that can be understood by all people can help create positive impact around the world.  We look forward to continuing our mission of “creating, sharing, and celebrating the world’s visual language.”

See the full list on the Public Interest Design website.

Code for America’s Iconathon Season

The Noun Project is excited to once again partner with fellows from Code for America to host a series of Iconathons for their cities!

Please join us in welcoming this year’s 2012 Code for America fellows Diana Tran, Emily Wright Moore and Angel Kittiyachavalit.  Iconathon was started a year ago through a joint effort between The Noun Project and Code for America’s 2011 fellows Chacha Sikes and Karla Macedo, and we look forward to hosting this year’s CfA Iconathons in San Francisco, Austin, Honolulu and Chicago.

We would love to hear your comments about what topics you think are most relevant to those cities.

Jennifer Pahlka is the founder of Code for America, a non-profit organization that matches software geniuses with US cities to reboot local services.  Check out her inspiring TED talk below.

Iconathon Wrap Up and Introducing Icon Camp

We really enjoyed working with Code for America in planning theIconathon events and meeting so many talented civicly engaged people in each city that hosted us.  Thank you to everyone who attended Iconathon, Designed for Good, and helped us get the word out about the events!  We know that the symbols created will have a great impact for the communities that use them.

As we conclude our cross-country tour of Iconathons, we wanted to share with you what was accomplished and how you can get involved.

Iconathon Team

The Iconathon Team

Event Overview

If you haven’t attended an Iconathon in your city, here’s an overview of the events.  Each city’s Iconathon had its own civic theme (San Francisco – 311, Los Angeles – Food & Nutrition, Chicago – Democracy, Seattle – Neighborhoods, Boston – Education, New York – Transportation).  The events started out with a presentation by an expert in each city’s theme.  For example, since Boston’s Iconathon focused on designing new symbols for Education, we invited Lee McGuire, Chief Communications Officer for the Boston Public Schools, and Deb Socia, Executive Director of OpenAirBoston, to provide participants with an overview of some of the challenges that will be addressed through the use of these newly designed symbols.  The Education symbols, for one, will enable better communication for children with learning disabilities, autism, illiteracy (such as refugees and children affected by homelessness), or for whom English is a second language (see our previous blog for more info). Speakers like Amanda Shaffer from Occidental College’s Urban & Environmental Policy Institute also explained some less commonly used terms, such as the “Food Security” and “WIC” concepts used during LA’s Health & Nutrition Iconathon.

This was followed by a presentation in which our Creative Director, Edward Boatman, discussed user comprehension and how it applies to symbol design. The presentation will be available for viewing once we launch User Submissions, as we found it very helpful in explaining best symbol design practices.  Then we kicked off a two-hour design charrette where designers and non-designers worked together in teams of three to five to create new symbols for concepts such as Pothole, Fair Trade, Equal Rights, Citizenship, Student Attendance, and Bag Search.  Each Iconathon ended with group presentations about which symbols were designed, what design challenges the group faced, and an overview of which symbols were successful in communicating their intention.

What We Learned

Designing symbols is no easy task, especially when the referents designers are trying to define are broad in scope (such as Mentorship, Freedom of Information Act, Public vs. Private Ownership, or Sustainably-Produced).  Therefore, it was essential that we communicated reasonable expectations at the beginning of each Iconathon.  Not every term was going to be defined, some are easier than others, and some need extra time to work out the bare essence of what turns a concept into an easy-to-understand symbol.

We also found it beneficial to have different skill sets in each break-out group.  When our participants arrived at the event we asked them to select a name tag that best described them.  The options were:  1. graphic designer, 2. cool person who cares about civic design (a non designer), and 3. an expert in the chosen Iconathon theme.

When we formed the breakout groups we tried to make sure every group had all three skill sets present.  We found this approach worked very well because the topic expert could give context to the discussion, the non-designer could give honest non biased feedback on how well the symbol sketches were communicating the referent, and the designer could execute the design.

Below are some examples of works in progress, as well as some of the completed symbols that will be part of the “Civic Symbols” suite that will be released into the public domain this Fall.

Food Bank

Guerilla Gardening

Introducing Icon Camp

We found this year’s Iconathons to be exciting and inspiring, and are looking forward to getting even more people and organizations involved next year.  During our travels through different cities we heard from a lot of participants who wanted to host their own local Iconathon events in order to create and share civic symbols for themes such as Social Services, Women’s Health, and the Arts.

Therefore, we’ve decided to continue our partnership with our friends at Code for America and introduce “Icon Camp”, a movement of independently-organized Iconathon events held on a local level.   Icon Camp was created to allow designers and civic minded people to continue the spirit of Designing for Good by applying the tested and tried features from this year’s Iconathon.   Please visit Host an Icon Camp to find out more about how to organize a local Icon Camp in your community!  Symbols created during Icon Camp can be submitted to The Noun Project, and if they meet the stylistic and technical requirements, will be placed into the “Civic Symbols” category under a public domain license.


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