An 'Iconathon' is Design-Centric Advocacy That's More Than Symbolic

Posted by Zak Stone

noun project

The Los Angeles River is a rare conduit for freshwater in the parched landscape of Southern California. But many visitors and even fulltime residents never even notice it— it’s confined to a series of cement channels that make it look like one big drainage pipe. Following up on a wave of recent grassroots efforts by environmentalists and urbanists to get Angelenos to embrace their city’s watershed, a group of designers is creating awareness about protecting the river through an “Iconathon,” a community workshop to dream up and design a collection of symbols to communicate river-centric concepts to the public.

“Symbols are one of the best ways to communicate an idea to a broad strata of the population because they can transcend cultural barriers,” says Edward Boatman, co-founder of the nonprofit behind the event, The Noun Project, and GOOD’s current entrepreneur in residence. But there are “a lot of civic concepts that have not been articulated in a visual way.” In the context of the L.A. River, that could be everything from a symbol to indicate a river access point, to an invasive species, to a drainage ditch that feeds the river. Boatman says the point is to let residents know, “Here is a river and we need to protect it.”

The Noun Project is collaborating with nonprofits that “infinitely know the problems that the river is facing,” including Friends of the Los Angeles River and LA River Revitalization. “We’ve asked them to come up with a list of concepts” to be translated into symbols. At Saturday’s event at LALA gallery in Los Angeles, the group will work with the public and civic leaders, to do rough sketches of the symbols in pencil and paper and analyze which ones work best. Then, Boatman will work with graphic designers to codify the designs and upload them to The Noun Project’s website, and into the public domain, by the end of October.

The hope is that local government will take notice and incorporate the symbols in design projects around the river. Even if the City of L.A. doesn't, "since symbols transcend language barriers, municipalities from around the world can take these things and use them for the rivers that run through their communities,” adds Boatman. In the past, The Noun Project has brought Iconathons to San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Boston on topics like city services, nutrition, and democracy. They’ve created 60 symbols so far, which are free for the public and municipalities to download and use.