The Informed Life
The Informed Life
Oct 10, 2021
Nathan Shedroff on Foodicons
Play • 31 min

Nathan Shedroff is an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and a colleague at the California College of the Arts, where we both teach in the graduate interaction design program. Nathan has worked for a long time on driving innovation and sustainability through design. This conversation focuses on his latest project: Foodicons, which is creating a shared, open-source, and royalty-free iconographic language of food.

Show notes

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Read the transcript

Jorge: Nathan, welcome to the show.

Nathan: Hi! Thanks for having me, Jorge.

Jorge: Well, I'm very excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind, please, introducing yourself?

About Nathan

Nathan: Sure. I'm Nathan Shedroff, and I've been a designer all my life in various forms. These days, I teach full-time at California College of the Arts, in the Masters of Dxesign and Interaction Design program. But I've been teaching there for 21 years now, I think, in a variety of capacities from starting out in Industrial Design, which my undergrad degree is in — I'm actually a car designer by training — in sustainable design and interaction design, and experience design.

I've also started the design MBA program — the business program at CCA — I've been at that for ten years and then transferred to this program. So, I have a long-ranging design background in my career, as well as teaching. I consult a lot. I've had several companies. I've been part of several companies, and I've written a bunch of books and do a lot of speaking when conferences happen.

Jorge: Several of those books have… well, I have pretty much all of them on my bookshelf, and several have been influential to me. One of them that I'm going to call out is called Design Is The Problem, which you alluded to: sustainable design. And that one is centered on that. I've been wanting to talk with you for a long time and wanted an excuse to get you on the show. I'm curious about a project that you've been working on recently about food icons, and I'm hoping you'll tell us about that.

The Foodicons project

Nathan: Sure. The Foodicons project sort of fell in my lap about two years ago. A friend that I knew brought it to me and said, "Hey, I see this need." He was running a bunch of food innovation accelerators, and one of the things that he found continuously in dealing with so many people throughout the food system globally is that they didn't really share a language. And I don't just mean that they didn't speak the same human language, but they had terms that they use that other people didn't. There was so much misunderstanding across the silos in the food system that he saw a need and an opportunity through these accelerators to build something that might bridge that.

So this is Douglas Gayeton from the Green Brown Blue accelerators, and he has a website called The Lexicon. And he's been working in the food system, documenting them. And in fact, if you go to his website, there are these beautiful information art pieces that he does with photography, trying to explain important concepts in the food system. So he brought this to me, and I thought it was... It certainly looked really interesting. Little did I know it would take over my life, which is how a lot of these pet projects run!

And so, we brought it into the food lab accelerators for six months, and I worked with a bunch of food experts across the spectrum of the food systems. And We started really configuring how we would build a global visual language for food if we had the opportunity to do this. So, it was always conceived as an iconographic language. And, of course, there was no budget for any of this. And if you were to go hire designers out in the world to build a language of, you know, 800 plus icons, that's a lot of money.

And so, the only way that we could see that this was ever going to get done was to crowdsource it internationally. So after we graduated out of the accelerator and became our own 501c3, that's exactly what we did. We set up a series of challenges. We're now at the start or in the midst of the fourth challenge, where we ask designers all over the world if they want to volunteer and help design some of these icons. And they go through a design process with three rounds with a sketch round, and then they get a critique from both design experts as well as food experts, specifically in those categories of the food system, and then they respond to that hopefully and go through a design round and then get more critique, and then go through a refinement round. And what ends up is a set of icons for us to approve or choose between to go into the final category and into the final collection.

And so, we've done this three times already. It's been really successful and really interesting and fun, and a lot of work as well. And, the results of those challenges are about 400 icons so far. And they're showing up on the foodicons.org website now, and there's a library there. And they're showing up on The Noun Project, which of course, many of your listeners know is like the biggest repository of icons in the world as well. They're completely free to use by anyone.

The challenge here was how do we get so many independent people all over the world who have different backgrounds to design within a system so that what comes out of them looks like they're part of a family. And the major thanks to this goes to the designers at Adobe Systems in the Adobe design group, because they took it on as their yearly challenge this year to do this project with us. And so Nayane, Isabelle, and Sonja developed the design system for these icons in the beginning. They developed some of the original icons. We actually — funny enough — ran a prototype of this at CCA with one of the classes to sort of vet out what the issues were going to be.

But then Adobe came in and designed a system for us that we've then made available to any other designers that want to participate. And there's an icon template in Illustrator and a little bit of an icon library with components. And some really, I think, fairly clear instructions. And we've watched designers all over the world respond to these and make these beautiful, clear, communicating icons.

You know, it's probably one of the biggest design projects in the world, just because it's involved so many people and it's been distributed in this open-source kind of way. We've essentially... I'm sorry, crowdsource is a better word for this.

Jorge: Yeah. I was reading a press release about the project, and I don't think you've mentioned AIGA but, is AIGA one of the partners as well?

Nathan: They were initially, and this is one of the weirdnesses in... as you know, you're in the design industry. There are a lot of controversies in the design industry these days, and they had to bow out because of one of the controversies.

Jorge: Oh, that's unfortunate. The reason I bring it up is that there was a quote from the executive director at AIGA, who said that this was the largest collaborative design project in history.

Nathan: I think that might be right, yeah.

The food system

Jorge: That's astonishing. But to take a step back, when you say "the food system," what does that entail? Because I expect that food is a subject that we all... obviously we all have to deal with food, right? But where are the boundaries of this domain that this set of icons is looking to describe?

Nathan: That's a great question. I'm not sure I can answer it fully, but it certainly encompasses everyone that has a hand in getting food from where it's grown and created to where it's consumed. And that is a lot of people. I believe it's probably the biggest industry globally in the world because, you know, we all eat every day, hopefully.

We have a video on our website that one of our designers, Laurent in Belgium, I believe, says one of the things that he was so excited about being a part of this project is because it touches so many people. And everyone eats every day, hopefully, right? Those are his words. And they're true. So, it's something everyone can relate to. Many of us don't really know the intricacies of the global food system, but obviously, there are people who grow food on farms or raise animals for food. But there are also the people that focus on the soil and the water and the climate and the conditions that affect that growing.

And then once that food is grown, there are so many things that happen to it before it gets to our mouths — even to our homes: there are distributors and retailers and wholesalers and preparers and manufacturers, there are restauranteurs and cooks and chefs and a million kinds of farmers and butchers, and you can imagine all the systems that are involved with just getting food from where it's grown, to us. And then there's ourselves — where we buy food in stores and packaging and eating and cooking. Cooking and recipes are a huge part of our experience with food, right?

It really is something that touches everyone, and it is incredibly far-ranging. And so, we've tried to pick and prioritize the terms that will cover as much of that as possible with an understanding that there's a lot of new techniques and concepts coming around food that are going to be important. So we have specifically focused the challenges around things like regenerative agriculture, climate change, agrobiodiversity, food loss and waste, aquaculture, as well as some of the other issues that maybe aren't always top of mind in people's minds about food, but equity and governance... the money part of the food system, the social benefits, et cetera.

We have curated these lists with the help of a bunch of food experts from all over the world, from all over these systems. We have a list of a little over 800 terms that we are halfway through, and hopefully, by the end of the year, we'll have the other half, and we'll have this set of icons that anyone can use to help describe what they're doing in their part of the food system and what's important to them.

Jorge: Is that list of terms browsable? I would imagine that you all have made it public, for the purpose of the competition? Or...

Nathan: Well, it certainly will be once this last challenge is over. As I said, we're slowly putting up all these icons. We can only work so quickly, even on our own site. But we have hundreds of icons sitting already submitted at the Noun Project, waiting for their approval. So, once they're up, then obviously, you can see what those terms are.

We have not published the list of terms before the challenge. I think just because it never occurred to us to. Not to mention we... you know, like any design project at the last minute, you reshuffle things, and you change some of the details, and you modify things because of different opportunities or different decisions about priorities. So, I'm not sure that it would have helped anyone to have that list published beforehand, but the list will certainly be available once all the icons are up there.

Jorge: The reason why I was asking is that this strikes me as such an enormous challenge, where you are opening up to literally anyone in the world to contribute to this visual vocabulary. I would imagine that there are... I'm going to describe them as rails in place to ensure that you don't get an overwhelming number of submissions for the same term and then very few submissions for something more obscure. Something like that, right?

The structure of the challenge

Nathan: Well, so the way that we've structured this challenge... first of all, the entire thing is built in Google Drive, using, for the most part, Google Slide decks. So when designers have signed up, they've automatically been given a set of anywhere from five to 10 terms — concepts — in their particular personal google Slide Deck, which is a workbook basically. And so, the work that they do gets transferred into corresponding judging workbooks so that our food experts and design experts can make commentary and critique on them. All that gets transferred back into each designer's personal deck, and we do that three times.

So, as a designer signing up, you just get handed a set of terms, and you react to the ones that you think you have ideas for. And most of the designers have submitted ideas for all of the terms in their decks. Sometimes some of the more difficult ones, or the obscure ones, don't get coverage.

And so, there are many designers in each category working on the same set of terms. So, we see different kinds of ideas coming from different people. And some of the critiques we do is if we absolutely see that, of these five designers working on the same terms, this icon by this designer is clearly going to be more successful than the rest, then part of the critique we give people is to either refocus them on other icons, on other terms that they're working on, because we don't want them to waste their time, of course. Or, focus them on other ideas for that same icon that seemed just as strong.

We have had some instances with some of the words like spicy, frozen, hot, cold, et cetera, where you get a bunch of icons that look identical because everyone has the same idea. Fine. But we have other icons and terms where... you know, evapotranspiration, which is a process that plants go through to release oxygen. You know, maybe only of the five designers that are in that category — or the three, or the 15, or whatever — maybe really only one of them has a good... what we think is a good visualization of that, that we think it'll end up being successful because we have not just design experts looking at it and judging it from a design standpoint. But we have food experts judging it too, and are basically saying, "yeah, that's not really communicating that," and, "that's not really how that works," right? So we will... like I said, sort of refocus some of the designers elsewhere on the rest of the terms in their deck if their idea isn't going to be fruitful in the end.

Jorge: What was the term again? I think that Zoom cut it out a little bit.

Nathan: Oh, it's evapotranspiration. And in fact, there's this really good grouping. Having got 400 icons now, we see patterns that are really interesting and probably worth talking about. And we see examples that really talk about what happens when you create a global language. And so, photorespiration, evapotranspiration, and photosynthesis is this nice set of three icons that all sound similar, that all relate to how plants use carbon dioxide, create oxygen, use moisture in the air. And so, they become this really interesting case study in three icons about the differences between these processes when all three are essentially scientific terms.

Jorge: What other patterns have become manifest as the language has developed?

The emergence of a language

Nathan: Yeah, one of the most interesting is that when I say language, we are absolutely creating a visual language here because what has emerged from the visual work and the designs are visual elements — design elements — that are clearly standing in for words, terms, and languages. So, we've seen a bunch of these things.

We originally, in the library, had a hand that sort of... inside view of a hand sort of holding nothing in the middle of the icon, but just sort of a side view of a hand. And that has come to mean in this visual language either care, or management, or friendly, so that what has emerged is that if you put a flame over that hand, it becomes fire management, as in fire management procedures, in a park, or in a farm, or in an area. If you put a bird over that hand, it becomes a sign of bird-friendly, so farms that are doing what they can to make sure the birds can healthily co-exist in their farm. And so, all these things that come into play in front of that hand have had a similar meaning because they have a similar design element.

Another one is two hands of appropriate size, next to each other... and of equal size, I should say. And so, if you put those in the icon and then put the same thing in each hand, that has come to mean equity. So, if you put something like an apple in each, that's about food equity. If you put money in each, that's about wage equity. And so we've found these visual signifiers of concepts that are being now used as a language would and recombined in different ways within the iconographic language.

Jorge: What I hear there — and I just want to reflect it off to you — is that when we traditionally think of icons, we think of them for their semiotic value, right? I'm thinking of when you're driving down the road, and you see a sign that says that the road might be slippery. And that communicates like a single idea. But what you're hinting at here is that the vocabulary has evolved in such a way that you're able to express more complex ideas that are like composites. Some are like little sentences.

Nathan: Yeah, just like you would imagine any language being, right?

Jorge: Yeah. These are pictographs that are able to express more complex thoughts.

Nathan: Well and the design system that Adobe created is really more edging towards what I would call symbols than maybe on the other side of the equation would be icons. They really look more like the kinds of symbols you would find in an industrial symbol system. But it's proven very facile in its ability to be applied to so many topics and so many elements and come out as an interesting language. And by all means, the designers worldwide who have produced these icons deserve the majority of the credit here in taking these simple elements and making what are sometimes incredibly complex concepts clear with just a few elements.

Jorge: The first time that I became aware of your work was through Richard Saul Wurman's book_ Information Architects_, which is a book that was foundational to me, to my work. And you are one of the featured people in that book. That book is like a monograph of different folks who are doing work that Mr. Wurman, I guess, thought exemplified this field that he was trying to describe in this book.

And I was revisiting that book yesterday in preparation for our conversation today. And one of your projects that is highlighted there was a book for Apple called Multimedia Demystified. And I noticed that that book had a kind of system of icons that were used to guide the reader or to help develop an understanding of what the reader was looking at. And, I just wanted to mention that because it felt to me like related to this work. And the reason I'm mentioning that is I'd love to know how you expect that these food icons can be used by folks to improve the way that they talk about and collaborate on food-related issues.

Nathan: Yeah. So, it's funny you should bring up these books. You know, Demystified Multimedia, in fact, was this... you know, it was this great project that we did back in, you know, '93, maybe '94? And here we were talking about interactive media at kind of the dawn of interactive media. We were calling it "multi media" at the time. And we were wrestling with and learning about what was so different about these media, you know, to earn the title, "new media" from other media.

And so, in figuring that out — and I still teach that to this day; in three weeks, I have a course at CCA starting up called foundations of essentially interactive media — so we're still wrestling with this idea of what the hell is interactivity anyway? And what is different between it and "old" media. And that book was a fun exploration of taking a lot of the ideas in interactive media and pulling them back into, in this case, print book publishing — because there are lots of things that you can do in a book to make them just a little bit interactive, not truly interactive, but to give them more varied uses for different kinds of purposes, so that different people could more easily navigate and find the things that were appropriate to them then they would in, you know, a book that was arranged and organized in a standard way.

As far as the foodicons, we're talking about much rawer material, I think. These are icons that need to stand alone. They work as a collection, but there's no use for them all in one collection unless you're doing a library or a retrospective. You know, you would never see — God forbid — 800 of them together in one use. But we do expect them to be used together for different kinds of purposes, and one of the things that many people often miss about this project is that, you know, we all eat. We're all consumers of food at some point, so the first uses we think of are sort of consumer-uses, eater-uses. So, showing up on menus and indicating a special diet like vegan or Ayurveda, showing up on packaging to talk about ingredients, et cetera, which we all hope happens. And are part of this... the use of these icons, once people start using them.

But really. The intent of this project has always really focused on the industry using it. Not consumers, but professionals throughout that huge food system that we described, using it to better communicate amongst themselves. And hopefully, that leads to better collaboration. So that's been a bunch of the focus of this.

Lessons from the project

Jorge: That's great. I have one final question for you. Given your trajectory in doing this type of work — and you've, you've hinted at the fact that you've been doing this type of work for a long time if your work was being published in the mid-nineties, right? — I'm wondering what, if anything, you feel like you've learned as a result of working on this foodicons project?

Nathan: Wow, that's a great question. I don't think I... I probably don't have a great answer. I know that it's been personally gratifying to have my hands back in design in such a concrete way. You know, I deal a lot with consulting and strategy, and I don't do a lot of screen design these days. When I have to, I do, but I don't have my hands in the artifacts of design very often. And yet, for the last year, year and a half, my hands have been in the icon-making world in a really visceral way. So that's been incredibly satisfying.

At a larger level, though, I think that one of the things that have been gratifying, or appears to me, is that there is so much capability out there that is probably somewhat unsung. And that these designers that have contributed their time and energy to this project have done such great work that it's not just a testament to each of them individually and their skills, but it's sort of a testament to design. Like, what can the industry of design do when they pull together on a large project? I think there were probably low expectations that you could even do something like this. That you could pull off an icon set of 800 different icons of really complex concepts, in some cases, by designers who have never worked on these before, never worked together, never talked to each other, right? And some of them had never been icon designers before.

So, in some ways, I think maybe that's the biggest triumph. It shows that designers are dedicated enough and malleable enough, and gracious enough, and up for a good challenge, and when you put that thinking process and those skills, even to something you've never done before, there's still a clear path that leads to something successful.

Jorge: It sounds like the biggest takeaway here is the ability for us to tap into the sort of collective intelligence that we usually read about the internet enabling, but from a design perspective, or using design practices.

Nathan: It is not a surprise that you've figured out how to say what I said way more eloquently than me.

Closing

Jorge: Thank you. This all sounds so great, Nathan. Where can folks follow up to find out more about either the project or about yourself?

Nathan: Yeah! So for Foodicons, you can go to foodicons.org, which is just spelled food icons dot org. And there's information about the challenges and what most people will probably be there for is the library as we keep posting these, which will hopefully be 800 icons by maybe the end of October. That's probably the most expedient place to go look for them. You'll also be able to find them at The Noun Project. And in both places, you can download them and freely use them for whatever you want.

One thing I should probably say is that one of the controversies around this is whether it's okay for designers to volunteer their time. And one of the things that we made sure of to both honor the designers and the aim of the project is that every designer around the world that built these owns their work. They own the legal rights to their work, except that they have also granted — on the side of that — free use license in perpetuity for anyone in the world to use them for any use except commercial use. Meaning, selling the icon, right? So if someone down started downloading these and made hats and shirts out of them — that wasn't the designer and sold those — that's a no-no. Designers keep their rights for that. But there's no problem with anyone anywhere in the food system, including a restaurant, from going to the Noun Project or our site and downloading one of these icons for their use.

And so, we are really happy about balancing the needs and rights of people in order to make this as viable a project as possible. I guess that's sort of the business-y, nitty-gritty background of many design projects is it's not just about the design. It's about the system that makes it possible.

Jorge: That's great. Thank you for being here with us today and for sharing this fantastic project with us.

Nathan: It's my pleasure. Thank you for even being interested in it, Jorge.

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