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.

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

Iconathon: a New Design Initiative to add Civic Symbols to the Public Domain

We are very excited to tell you about our recent partnership with Code for America, a non-profit organization that pairs passionate web talent with city governments to make government more open, efficient, participatory and civicly engaged.  Our initiative is to collaboratively design a new set of civic symbols for the public domain.

What We’re Doing

In August & September 2011, several cities across the US will participate in a series of design charrettes — day-long collaborative workshops — called “Iconathons”.  The aim of Iconathon is to add to the public domain a set of graphic symbols that can be used by both the public and the private sectors to easily communicate universally recognized concepts to a diverse group of people.

Iconathon events will include design charrettes, workshops and networking opportunities for designers, urban planners, city staffers and developers, and anyone who is passionate about civic design. Participants will sketch ideas and concepts during the events, and refine them from their home or design studios while continuing the collaboration process through social media.  See CFA’s practice run here.  All designs will be submitted to The Noun Project so we can curate them based on technical and stylistic guidelines.  Any symbol that fits the design standards will be uploaded to our site for anyone to use.

Why We’re Doing It

With America being in the midst of a fast-paced demographic shift, and US census showing growing diversity, the government has a new challenge of quickly and efficiently communicating its services to a constantly evolving constituent base made of different cultures, ages, religions, and languages. Symbols serve as an integral part of overcoming this communication barrier, and are already widely used throughout various public spaces to represent objects and ideas within education, health caretransportation, and recreation. Through facilitated design sessions, Iconathon participants will generate icons and symbols that visually convey concepts frequently needed in civic design. The symbols created can be used in new civic web applications, printed materials and in public signage.

More Iconathon Event Details

Each city hosting an Iconathon will have it’s own theme that will include about 30-50 civic concepts to design.  Iconathon will kick off on August 6th at CFA’s headquarters in San Francisco, and will include events in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and possibly Boston and Seattle. Below are each city’s themes:

San Francisco: 311 (service for SF City’s residence)

Los Angeles: Food & Nutrition

Chicago: Democracy

Boston: Education

New York: Transportation

We hope you will attend an Iconathon in your city, or participate by contributing your own civic-minded symbol.  Do you want to come to an Iconathon event but are worried you can’t draw?  Don’t fret, read this and come along!

If you would like to sponsor an Iconathon, please email us a

For more information and updates go to or follow us on Twitter @Iconathon.  Please send any questions or comments about Iconathon to

Design for GOOD :)

How Iconathons Came to Be

One day at Code for America, Chach was looking at an app she was making for to help community group organizers in Seattle. She thought about how Code for America fellow Jeremy Canfield had the fellows do a post-it note braindump of all of the concepts in cities after our month. We had this 13 page list of every sub-topics in cities – from legislation to education, public safety, arts, transportation, emergency response and many others.

Fellows Karla Macedo & Michelle Koeth had been trying to figure out how to further develop an idea they had for “RedesignGov” – which would be a place for city governments to share the needs that they have with designers looking to serve the public good.

All of the Code for America fellows had been obsessed with the Noun Project. This is because the Noun Project looks like the future!

The Noun Project is a beautiful open online library of SVG vector graphics of universal symbols. We put these symbols in our apps.

But when we searched this very new project (they only just launched in December 2010 after a successful Kickstarter campaign) we noticed that there were not any results for concepts like ‘health’ or ‘education.’

At some point, Chach & Michael Evans (mevans) talked this out and then decided that it needed to happen.

So Chach sent an email to the other Code for America fellows, to maybe do a hack day for an icon-a-thon on a Labs Friday. Everyone liked this idea.

Karla +infinity’d it.

I think that we liked the idea of contributing back to a resource that we used.

Thing was, we didn’t know the Noun Project.

So Matt Lewis wrote fanmail to the NounProject, mainly because we were talking about how much we love them, and we wondered where they lived and if they were real people and if they were nice. (They are all of these things. :) And they are based in Los Angeles.)

Sofya Polyakov wrote us back, we all clicked, and thus the Iconathons were born. Turned out that the Noun Project had been working on their user submission process, so it was good timing. Edward had some great ideas and had heard of a design charrette where designers, experts and others had gotten together to create new medical symbols. We thought this sounded great.

We did a practice run of the Iconathon with many of the Code for America summer interns. We started blogging & documenting and refining the process. We are still refining the process.

6 weeks later, we have done 2 incredible Iconathon events in San Francisco & Los Angeles, and have 4 more planned as part of an official series of collaborative events to make new civic symbols for the public domain.

People are already planning Iconathons in Europe & the United States. We’ll do another one in Oakland for Social Services at the end of September, and basically just plan to keep doing them.

Later this fall we’ll release the first “Municipal Symbol Suite” – which can be reused by anyone to help improve our visual communications in cities. So stay tuned!

Added by Chach Sikes on Tue, 08/16/2011


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