Despite a wealth of images available on the Internet, finding a good, copyright-free vector graphic is like looking for a needle in a haystack — especially if you’re talking about symbols for public services.
That’s a problem. "Our demographics are changing rapidly and these kinds of symbols help people communicate across language barriers," says Chacha Sikes, a 2011 fellow at Code for America, a "geek peace corps" that pairs web developers with city governments. "When building applications for government, we began to notice that ‘Oh! There’s not a symbol for health. There’s not one for education.’" So Sikes set about hosting nationwide, five-hour design marathons to produce much-needed symbols for public use.
After one whirlwind month of planning — including hundreds of emails to every design contact in their collective Rolodex — and no budget at all, the world’s first Iconathon series kicked off last month at Code for America’s San Francisco headquarters.
Code for America began by reaching out their go-to online resource for copyright-free symbols, The Noun Project via fan mail. "It was like, "Dear Noun Project, we love you," Sikes tells Co.Design with a laugh. (Code for America often culls The Noun Project’s growing visual library for beautiful symbols.) The idea jibed well enough with The Noun Project’s mission that founders Edward Boatman and Sofya Polyakov came on board.Each Iconathon comprises five hours of rapid symbol prototyping by small groups of graphic designers, public issues experts and local volunteers. Each of these groups tackles an assigned issue — like food and nutrition, transportation and democracy — and then tries to develop symbols for its key concepts. Boatman stresses that a mix of participants is key. "It’s really important to have people who care give us feedback on the symbol design because a lot of times designers will design in a vacuum. They’ll design a symbol that’s very elegant, but it might not necessarily communicate the concept very well." The end result are simple sketches that volunteer graphic designers then finesse into symbols to be uploaded to the Noun Project, free for anyone to use and with design attribution.
The concept of Iconathons caught on—L.A., Chicago, and Boston held them last month—and the library is steadily growing. This weekend, New York is holding its own, on September 10th. Future events have been discussed for Philadelphia, Oakland, Washington, D.C., and even London.
"We’re so busy nowadays and we’re inundated with so much information," says Polyakov, of The Noun Project. "If we can use symbols to quickly and effectively communicate an idea, it makes civic engagement a lot easier."