What might an icon for “encyclopedia-worthy” look like? An update from the Wikimedia Iconathon.

Posted by , Interaction Designer – Wikimedia Foundation.

Symbols serve as some of the best tools to overcome language and cultural communication barriers. The aim of the first Wikipedia Iconathon was to create a set of graphic symbols that convey vital concepts to editors and readers of the world’s largest free, collaborative encyclopedia. The Wikimedia Foundation design team organized the event with The Noun Project, with support from Muji in the form of sketch materials. This is a brief update from the design team, as we work on digitalizing the first iteration of icons from the event.
On a rainy Saturday morning, 6 April 2013, the mood among visitors at the Wikimedia Foundation office was upbeat and determined. Educators, volunteers, civic leaders, typographers, designers and Wikipedia editors joined us and Noun Project staff, coming together to collaborate on a set of 20 icons that represent key Wikipedia terms and concepts.
We began by discussing the core challenges of creating this visual language. First, it needed to work across 330 languages. Second, we had to avoid local concepts or metaphors — such as hand gestures, animals, and local humor — that people from other regions may not be familiar with. If icons conveyed directionality, they would have to be adapted for different writing directions, such as right-to-left languages like Hebrew or Arabic. To preserve cross-cultural understanding, it was critical that we come up with a universal representation, regardless of whether the reader is from Germany, India, or Botswana.
After the general discussion of our objectives, we formed groups and looked closely at our assignment. The concepts we needed to visualize ranged from being self contained, such as “rapidly changing article,” to systems like “anonymous” and “registered” users, “administrator,” and “bots.” Participants unanimously considered abstract concepts like “encyclopedia-worthy” and “no original research” to be the most challenging icons.
As the groups discussed each icon and got to sketching, Wikipedians provided context for the symbols as, answering questions like the following (among many others):

    • Is there more than one context of use for the icon?
    • Does it convey status or trigger action?
    • Should it invite inquiry or is it an entry point when a user scans a list?

We were committed to getting it right, even if it meant pulling out laptops to look at all the sample interface elements. We didn’t expect to get into the thick of interaction and behavior, but it helped align the team on tone, detail and playfulness.


After a few hours, we collected the sketches and pinned them to whiteboards around the room. Edward Boatman (co-founder of The Noun Project) moderated an intense group discussion.  Experienced editors helped evaluate concepts in the unique Wikipedia way of community-driven decision-making. We identified patterns across sketches and focused on connotations. For example, anonymous users don’t occupy a persistent identity, but they are an important part of the community, so a negative undertone was inappropriate.

We hope to expand the audience of participants to work with the remaining concepts and enable more people  to submit their ideas for Wikipedia icons. Given that The Noun Project receives more than 300 icon submissions a day from graphic designers, we’re confident we can leverage their network and their experience to develop engaging icons that are useful for Wikimedia projects.

Currently, we are digitizing the first set of icons that participants in the Iconathon collaboratively selected from our sketch stack. The next step, which we are really excited about, is socializing the icons with the Wikimedia community and getting them to respond and iterate on the concepts that we put forth.

Feel free to join the conversation on-wiki or in the comments, and stay tuned here for future updates. You can view more photos of the event on Commons here and on Flickr here.


Investigative Journalism Iconathon at The New York Times


A couple weeks ago we ventured to New York City for an Iconathon at The New York Times building – a suitable venue for creating symbols around the theme of Investigative Journalism.  Our goal for this Iconathon was to make symbols that will help visualize information and data in the news, as well as create symbols that can be used by reporters to discuss current events. A mix of journalists, editors, graphic designers, web developers and civic-minded participants volunteered their Saturday to help accomplish this goal.

Chrys Wu (Hacks/Hackers NYC), Scott Klein (Editor of News Applications at ProPublica), and Matt Ericson (Deputy Graphics Editor at The New York Times) started off the day with insightful presentations on how symbols help to share information with the public through new age journalism. In today’s digital era, symbols are frequently used on mobile news apps and interactive websites to effectively communicate information about current events in politics, government, environment, technology, etc.  Given the abundance and depth of information for a lot of these topics, visual graphics help tell these stories in a way that is easy for anyone to understand.


(Presentation by Matt Ericson from The New York Times)

After the presentations we split into teams and generated ideas for concepts like Gerrymandering, Wire Tap, Fracking, Dark Money, Abuse of Power, and Drone.

We ended the day with a group critique to discuss which ideas were the most successful at illustrating each concept. The open discussion allowed everyone to compare sketches and work in a collaborative effort to choose the most comprehensive symbols. The best ideas from each topic will soon be transformed from rough sketches into graphic icons that will be free to download as public domain.


A huge thanks to all of the volunteers who participated, The New York Times for sharing their phenomenal space with us, Knight-Mozilla OpenNews for sponsoring, and ProPublica and Hacks/Hackers NYC for helping to organize the event!

More photos from the Iconathon are on Flickr.

American Red Cross Iconathon Review

A couple weeks ago we had the pleasure of creating symbols on the topic of Urban Disaster Preparedness with some great volunteers and the fine folks of the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C..

Omar Abou-Samra (Senior Technical Advisor for the Global Disaster Preparedness Center), Ian O’Donnell (Senior Information Architect for the Global Disaster Preparedness Center), and Robert Banick (GIS Coordinator for International Services) kicked us off with great presentations on how the Red Cross uses symbols to communicate complex concepts to populations that speak different languages, as well as on maps used internally to quickly organize and summarize important information in times of disaster response.

We worked on symbols for concepts like Evacuation Route, Food Shortage, High Ground, and Earthquake.

At the end of the Iconathon, everyone gathered up to share their opinions and views on what designs best represented a given concept.

Thank you to everyone who came out and participated, and the Red Cross for hosting the Iconathon in such a beautiful historic space!

More photos from the event are on Flickr.

The original artwork from the American Red Cross headquarters: “The Spirit of America” by Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952).

Down by the L.A. River

This past Saturday in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles about 60 passionate and dedicated citizens came together to spend an afternoon celebrating the LA River.  Our goal for the LA River Iconathon was to create new ways to visually communicate vital information about the river, and we’re happy to announce we were successful in accomplishing that goal.

In the months leading up to the event we worked with several river organizations to create a list of river-focused concepts that needed to be visually defined.  The list included everything from Dangerous Current to Urban River.  The workshop kicked off with a presentation from Omar Brownson, the Executive Director of LA River Revitalization Corporation.  Omar talked about the long term vision for the river, which includes some exciting buildings and parks that are planned for the future.  Next up was the legendary river advocate Lewis MacAdams, co-founder and President of Friends of the LA River.  Lewis captivated the audience with river stories from his past, and his dedication to the river was an inspiration to all of us.

After the presentations everyone broke into small groups to brainstorm how to best visually communicate each concept.  We were so impressed with the quality of the ideas and how passionate everyone was about working together to change the river in a positive way.  After the breakout sessions we had a group critique where we discussed which concepts best communicated each referent.  The sketches created during the event will be transformed into finished vector icons that anyone can download and use from anywhere in the world.

Through facilitating the Iconathons we have been amazed time and time again by how many people want to roll up their sleeves and create their own positive impact on their communities.  It’s easy to become disillusioned and disappointed in our world with all the bad news out there, but through grass roots events like Iconathons, that perception can be easily changed into one of hopefulness and endless opportunity.

We would like to thank Daniel Lahoda at the LALA Gallery for hosting us, Media Temple for providing a healthy lunch that kept our energies up, our speakers Omar Brownson and Lewis MacAdams for educating us about the LA River, Tanner Blackman and the City of Los Angeles office of Councilmember Jose Huizar and Nat Gale from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa‘s Office of Transportation for advocating for the event, Will Wright from the LA Chapter of American Institute of Architecture, Carol Armstrong and the LA City River Project Office, the fine folks of Mia Lehrer & Associates, and of course everyone that attended and took part in the event!

More photos of the event can be seen on Flickr.

San Francisco’s Iconathon Recap

On June 30th, The Noun Project teamed up with Code for America and the City of San Francisco to host an Iconathon focused on Neighborhood Revitalization. Prior to the event, more than 125 ideas for which symbols should be created during the design workshop were submitted to ImproveSF. Some of our favorite referents submitted were Hackathon, Co-Working Space, and Women’s Shelter.

Over 60 people came to participate in the design workshop.  We were very excited to see a few familiar faces (Evan, Catherine, Hailey, Heather, Stan and others) from last year’s Iconathon!

Code for America’s beautiful headquarters

The Iconathon kicked off with a presentation by Ellyn Parker from the Mayor’s Office of Economic Workforce and Development.  She spoke about the revitalization efforts in the Central Market Area.

Dan Parham from Neighborland explained “Tactical Urbanism”.

Edward Boatman, co-founder and Creative Director of The Noun Project, spoke about Symbol Design & User Comprehension and how we shouldn’t only be creating symbols for ideas we currently see in the world, but we should also be creating symbols for ideas we want to see more of in the world.

The presentations were followed by Design Charrettes:

We ended the event with design critiques, where everyone gave feedback about which symbols best communicated each referent.

The final vectorized symbols from this Iconathon, as well as ones planned for August and September, will be released into the public domain at the Code for America Summit at the beginning of October.

Check out more pictures from the Iconathon, as well as the sketches, at The Noun Project’s Flickr page!

New Energy Efficiency Symbols now in the Public Domain

With Earth Day fast approaching many of our thoughts are again turning to the environment and how we can help preserve and sustain our beautiful planet.

The Noun Project recently partnered with Cree, Inc. to host an Iconathon to create new symbols for Energy Efficiency and LED Lighting.  One of the goals we’ve set out for Iconathon is to add to the public domain a set of graphic symbols that communicate universally recognized concepts, in particular those that have yet to be visually defined.  Although the idea of Energy Efficiency has been around for many years, it is just now gaining the kind of exposure and focus that requires it to have its own visual language to represent concepts like wind and solar farms, electric charging stations, and sustainable energy.

Thanks to the help from our Durham Iconathon participants, we’re thrilled to release 15 of these new symbols into the public domain.  The symbols below can be found for download in our Iconathon Suite.

Energy Efficiency Event

Why a New Symbol for LED Lighting?

We asked Ginny Skalski, CREE’s Social Media Specialist this exact question.

“At Cree, we’ve been talking for a long time about the need for a symbol to represent LED lighting to help get people to think beyond the energy-wasting incandescent bulb and ugly fluorescent lighting. But we weren’t really sure what the symbol should look like. By teaming up with the Noun Project for an Iconathon, we were able to put a lot of thought into the symbol for LED lighting and other energy-efficient technologies.

The Iconathon process really allowed a diverse group of people to discuss the merits of a variety of designs. And through the critiques,  many strong concepts emerged. It was remarkable to see sketches from the iconathon take on a life of their own as beautiful digital symbols.

Our hope is that these new symbols become the go-to images for the Lighting, Energy-Efficiency and Design industries. We’d love to see the new symbol for LED lighting become as universal as the first aid or no smoking symbols.”

LED Symbol Design Process

One of the core themes that emerged from the group critique was that LED is a radically different light source from any of its predecessors, and because of this we all felt it was appropriate and necessary to break free from any past “light bulb” design precedents.  LED needed to have its own distinct and identifiable mark.

As a group we decided the two essential elements that needed to be present in the final design were the semiconductor microchip that produces the light, and of course light itself.  During the group critique we observed that many of the sketches used a square to represent the chip.  The final design uses this concept but displays the square as a three-dimensional diamond shape, thus creating the illusion of depth and volume.  Representing the second element, light, turned out to be the greater challenge.  When limited to black and white with no gradients, designers only have a few options to graphically represent light.  Most of the sketches created at the Iconathon used lines emanating from the microchip to communicate a light source.  However, after the event there was a realization that so many other icons used this same “emanating line” technique to represent a variety of concepts (i.e. sound), that we came to the conclusion that there should be a more unique and memorable way to illustrate light.

The solution we arrived upon is to use negative space to represent a powerful focused beam of light rising up from the microchip.  We felt this created a much more dynamic, memorable, and bold design that still contains the same original elements agreed upon by the participants of the Iconathon.

Finally, we view these symbols not just as purely utilitarian, but also representative of where we are as a society, and what we want our future to look like.  Creating symbols for these powerful ideas helps disseminate them by providing people with the visual tools to make their voices heard across contemporary communication platforms.  We can’t wait to see how you use them and we hope you enjoy these symbols as much as we do.

LED Symbol

Sustainable Energy Symbol

Iconathon LA: Food and Nutrition

We had another great Iconathon in Los Angeles on Saturday August 13, 2011.

In Iconathons, designers, public policy people, coders and other interested citizens get together to develop new civic symbols for the public domain. These symbols can be used in new web applications, infographics, signage, policy documents, maps and anywhere else that we need symbols. These symbols also are critical in reaching across communication barriers such as language & cognition.

In this Iconathon initiative, we are developing new symbols for a number of themes. The theme of the Los Angeles Iconathon was Food & Nutrition.

First things first: Some Photos!

Iconathon Flickr Group (377 photos & counting)

Beekeeping finished product
(Photo Carren Jao)

What does this sign look to you?
(Photo Carren Jao)
What does this symbol look like to you?

Locally grown icons
Locally grown icon
(Photos Carren Jao)
Locally grown

School to farm icon sketch
(Photo Carren Jao)
Farm to School

(Photo Chach Sikes)
Rooftop Garden

(Photo Chach Sikes)
Fair Trade

Note: We have images & videos of all of these symbols & will be organized & publicly available soon.

About the Los Angeles Iconathon

The Iconathon events draw from a list of concepts that we circulate ahead of time. We reach out to advisors to suggest concepts that would be useful to create. We then go through a process of sorting the list into “Most Wanted” and “Other” concepts to get it ready for the event participants. At the LA Iconathon, we didn’t have any whiteboards, so Sofya made a handout with all of the concepts and gave those to all of the attendees.


The attendees broke into little teams, and checked out some concepts from the “Box of Nouns.” We brainstormed ideas for about 2.5 hours, and then gathered up all of our designs and discussed each one, for about 45 minutes.

The day started with Amanda Shaffer (Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College) giving a great presentation about food issues in Los Angeles, and suggestions on how new symbols could help provide more access to healthy foods.

Los Angeles has some of worst food deserts in the country. Obesity is a serious problem, as is access to supermarkets, with East LA having the least number of supermarkets per person. Food is mostly found in convenience stores, and these stores do not often have fresh produce. I learned from one of the event attendees, Rosanita Ratcliff, that some children in South LA have never seen squash, cucumbers or strawberries.

We also learned that the WIC (women, infants and children) program has historically not provided fresh produce to these mother in need, but there are new initiatives to get fresh local produce into these stores. Amanda Shaffer said that a helpful new symbol would be one that indicates “locally grown,” an easy to recognize symbol that could be used in connection with food education initiatives. Similarly, if we had recognizable symbols for Farmer’s Markets, Community Gardens, and different types of food stores, we could coordinate & map some of the various efforts of different food policy & food justice initiatives. (For example, in conjunction with projects like the Code for America Farmer’s Market API or with the Open Food Data Standard project)

After Amanda’s presentation, Edward Boatman (The Noun Project) gave his presentation about effective symbol design. (See our post about the San Francisco Iconathon.)

We had a lunch and the attendees talked about their passions for design, and their thoughts about designing food symbols.

Sofya Polyakov, of the Noun Project, further innovated our Iconathon process, and made these excellent folders for the concepts – which the teams checked out and used to coordinate efforts. Chach researched many of the concepts, providing visual references & basic information.

Box of Nouns (Photo Matt Smith)

Sofya's noun library
Noun Folders with “Referent Research”

At one point during the event, Max Kanter of Food Forward excitedly proclaimed (something to this effect), “These symbols could actually be used and be out there in the world helping people find & access healthy food.” Christine Geronaga said that this event combined the two things she was most passionate about: food & good design. We were all very excited to have the opportunity to give back and hope to help improve communications about healthy food initiatives in Los Angeles and other cities.

What happens next?

We are making a new web tool to organize all of the sketches and show which ones are ready. Hopefully, it will be done in the next few weeks. This should help present the amazing work everyone is doing.

A group of about 6 volunteer illustrators are developing the sketches that were ‘ready’ into vector images. They will work with Edward Boatman to get these symbols polished. One of the challenges is to make symbols that work together as a set. We have decided that all of the symbols that are made through this Fall’s Iconathon City tour will be part of the very first “Municipal Symbol Suite” that we will be released into the public domain at some point later this Fall through the Noun Project’s website. This symbol suite will contain all of the symbols that everyone worked on at all of the Iconathons!

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