A fundamental problem facing global food systems is transparency, the impossibility of tracing who grows our food, the practices they use, or the various things that happen to that food as it travels across supply chains until ultimately reaching a consumer. Achieving greater transparency is made all the more difficult because food often travels across borders, passing through people and cultures with different languages and customs.
While it’s true that the more transparent a food system, the greater trust consumers have in what they are buying, it’s equally true that solutions to this challenge remain elusive. Why? Because global citizens lack a common language, which hinders their ability to agree upon let alone communicate important information.
In 2019, The Lexicon, with support from Food at Google, began exploring how a universal language could be created for food and agriculture, something that could be open source, machine readable, and easily adapted to situations where the rapid conveyance of information across multiple languages could help people make important decisions. The approach we decided to employ was an activator, one which gathers domain experts to collaborate in a highly structured six-month sprint to reach alignment and develop a framework for implementing this new visual language. Nathan Shedroff, a graphic designer and sustainability expert, was asked to lead this “Food Clarity Framework” initiative, which eventually included designers and food systems experts from across the globe.
The group began by assembling a general taxonomy of high-level concepts and principles used to describe food systems. From there, a representative sample consisting of 200 terms was selected. After a number of design systems were considered to pictographically represent these terms, the team decided on a hexagonal approach, one that allowed individual terms to be nested together in a highly elastic system similar to the komposita principle used to create compound words. The hexagon also proved useful from a metaphoric standpoint: when gathered in a group, these hexagons resemble a honeycomb, hinting at the hive mind required to create this shared visio-linguistic system.
To conceptualize the standardized graphic style needed for this initiative, Nathan worked closely with graduate students from California College for the Arts in San Francisco. Their initial design insights helped further refine his vision, putting him on a path that eventually led to a pivotal partnership with Adobe and their icon design team based in Hamburg, Germany. In the six months that followed, the group collaborated to develop a powerful tool, supported by a detailed set of design guidelines to help artists anywhere in the world produce icons that would all share a common design, at least this was the theory, one quickly put to the test with the Lex Icons Challenge, a global call for designers across the globe to build out the first phase of this language.