On Saturday, I attended an Iconathon for the fist time. We were about 30 people, in a work session organized by The Noun Project that brought together not just designers, but all walks of life including educators, volunteers, civic leaders and others.

The concept is great:

… Symbols serve as some of the best tools to overcome many language and cultural communication barriers. The aim of Iconathon is to add to the public domain a set of graphic symbols that can be used to easily communicate concepts frequently needed in civic design.

Besides contributing much-needed civic minded symbols to the public domain, Iconathons also bring together people from all aspects of the community… Iconathons are specifically designed to let the public participate in the design process and to further increase their understanding of the civic topics they engage with.

The goal of the Iconathon I participated in was to help develop the visual language of Wikipedia. And it was tough! Some concepts required abstraction, while others lent themselves more to storytelling solutions. The people at Wikipedia had put together a list of concepts to visualize, such as user types (e.g., administrator, registered, anonymous, bot, blocked), article status (e.g., featured, rapidly changing, reviewed, nominated for deletion, unreviewed), and other features specific to the Wikipedia editing experience (e.g., if an article is encyclopedia worthy, or has a neutral point of view, or contains no original research).

Due to the nature of Wikipedia, a reference site available in 285 languages, with 500 million unique visitors from practically every country on the planet, and over 25 million collaboratively written and edited articles, our icons had to as universal as possible, forbidding us from using metaphors open to different interpretations depending on the culture of the viewer, and from relying on words.

The process was fun. After a few introductions and presentations, they divided us into small groups, each containing at least one Wikipedia member to provide background. Each group came up with at least three icon sketches per concept. After brainstorming for a couple of hours, all groups got together and presented the work.

Then, in a remarkably civilized crit (kudos to Edward Boatman from The Noun Project), we discussed as a group the pros and cons of each approach and narrowed things down. In a future phase, The Noun Project will take those ideas and turn them into actual files. Resulting icons from past Iconathons are already available free for download.

Throughout the day, had great conversations with Wikipedia staff and learned about their unique community-driven decision-making process, or how their design decisions must work across extremely different language needs from one culture to the next. I also met fellow designers who are working on some cool stuff (like Stephen Kennedy and an initiative to create the first bus map for the city of Dhaka, funded through Kickstarter!)

So, all around inspiring. Makes me want to revisit my Symbolic Relationships experiments and see if some of those resulting icons are worth uploading to the ever-growing Noun Project library.

(Top and bottom images in this post courtesy of @nounproject on instagram, twitter.)