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.
Vibha Bamba, Interaction Designer. Wikimedia Foundation
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