Real Food Icons: Introducing ''Emojis for Foodies''

The GRACE Communications Foundation was a proud sponsor of the Sustainable Food and Farming Iconathon, in partnership with Mother JonesThe Noun Project and the School of Visual Arts.

On March 3, the day after the 4th annual TEDx Manhattan, about sixty people – a mixture of good food advocates, designers and concerned citizens – converged on Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts with an unusual goal: to draft a set of easily recognizable icons to symbolize a range of sustainable farming methods, to later be donated to the public domain, for anyone to use.

Why would anyone trek out on a winter day – a Sunday, even – in New York City, to create artwork for free?

The 2012 agricultural census revealed that four percent of the nation’s farmers produce a whopping 66 percent of sales. Talk about market consolidation! That four percent is comprised solely of farms that sell $1 million or more every year, and they are holding steady while smaller and mid-size farmers head toward extinction. Imagine the advertising budget of the four percent compared to that of the other 96, and you can see the value of donating some marketing images to the smaller producers.

Mother Jones food and agriculture reporter Tom Philpott helped frame the challenges facing our modern food system and the need for grassroots marketing support with a talk that morning, and recaps the event at the MoJo blog:

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, the kind that provide the stuff at the center of the supermarket, Kraft alone spends about $683 million hawking 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 your job, 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.


We hoped that we would wind up with a set of icons clear and compelling enough to be used in a range of settings: in articles, on websites, on farmers’ market signage.

Here’s what the process looked like:

• We at GRACE, with input from Mother Jones, the Noun Project and other partners, created a set of terms we thought would be most useful for farmers and eaters alike.

• That day, we gathered in Chelsea. GRACE’s Chris Hunt and Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott presented to the group about the importance of sustainable food and farming, and the Noun Project’s Edward Boatman gave a quick workshop on what makes a good icon.

• We broke into small groups, each consisting of at least one designer and at least one food/farming expert.

• We ate lunch (from Tom Colicchio’s terrific sandwich chain, ‘Wichcraft).

• We worked some more.

• Once the designers had created line drawings for each of the terms, we grouped the designs by term for comparison. Often, two or more designers had included similar elements for the same idea, which seemed like the kind of good coincidence that means you’re headed in the right direction.

• Afterward, the Noun Project took all the line drawings back to LA with them, and with the volunteer help of some of the designers, created digital images based on the line drawings.

• And that brings us to today, when we release the digital images to the public.

GRACE has always sought to support the marketing endeavors of smaller scale family farms. We’ve educated the public about the problems associated with the modern meat industry, and the more sustainable, community minded alternatives. We’ve built and maintained a directory of over 25,000 purveyors of locally grown, sustainably produced food. We’ve profiled farmers and others who we think are leading the way to a healthier, happier future. Along the way, we’ve always sought to find novel and innovative ways to communicate about these issues, and we hope that these icons add to the discussion. 

Our food program director, Chris Hunt, sums up the event thusly:

As an organization that strives to change the food system through public education and consumer empowerment, GRACE Communications Foundation has always been compelled by innovative methods of engaging new audiences. The Sustainable Food Iconathon provided a unique opportunity to accomplish just this, bringing together an eclectic group of artists, designers, advocates and activists to create striking images that convey pieces of the story of how our food is produced. As an advocate, I’m inspired by the potential educational value of this project. And as someone completely lacking in design skill, I’m extraordinarily impressed by the results.


Check out and download the Sustainable Food and Farming icons at the Noun Project’s site.

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