As Mike Wirth drives to work at Queens University of Charlotte, he slows down for the sharpest curves on Queens Road. Why? Because a yellow sign with an arrow told him to.
The sharp curve sign appears all over the world, an international icon, and Wirth envisions similar symbols alerting residents and visitors to Charlotte’s cultural offerings.
An infographic designer and Queens assistant professor, Wirth and the local chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts are working to develop civic symbols that local organizations will be able to use for free.
What ideas represent Charlotte’s identity? Try microbreweries, locally grown food, Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Firebird” sculpture, farmers markets, runner-, walker-, dog- and bike-friendly areas, and banker crossings.
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The usefulness of some universal icons may not be fully appreciated because people take them for granted: bathroom signs, for instance, Wirth said.
And pictograms used to represent Olympic events, he said, show how symbols are more than information providers, but agents of welcome and inclusion. Because it was impossible to produce signs directing an international community in 80-plus languages, symbols acted as a common language.
Likewise, Wirth thinks that Charlotte’s growth in the international community would benefit from civic symbols. Wirth has an infectious and quirky enthusiasm for symbols, something he wants to use to benefit his home city.
“What could we do to make our city more accessible?” Wirth said. “What can we show visitors that we’re not showing them? Through these icons, you can raise those communities that are not as visible and put them in sight through a standardized language.”
Last week, Wirth and the AIGA chapter organized Iconic Charlotte, a marathon workshop to design the symbols, which would be released into the public domain.
About 25 design professionals and creative minds participated in the three-hour event.
They first brainstormed Charlotte’s identity and then drew wordless pictures on Post-it notes to symbolize those ideas.
An icon of a beer growler with a queen’s crown on the label was stuck to the microbreweries paper. A tractor and silo perched on a kitchen table represented farm-to-table restaurants. Wirth mocked up a “Firebird” silhouette to show workshoppers how to put the drawings into the Adobe Illustrator program.
As they drew, Wirth outlined the tenets of icon design as observed by AIGA, which standardized road sign icons in the 1970s. Icons should be legible, internationally recognizable and resistant to vandalism – it should be hard to deface the icons by drawing a moustache on them.
Virginia Faircloth, one of AIGA’s event coordinators, said Charlotte is becoming increasingly diverse.
“If Charlotte had a set of icons to help direct and communicate, the population would feel more harmonious within the community,” Faircloth said.
While the symbols were created to be used in many ways, the focus last week seemed to be on those best suited for road signs, like the blue signs with an “H” to indicate a nearby hospital. The group envisioned signs indicating parks, local music venues and cultural events.
Several road symbols signaling something frequently encountered in Charlotte’s traffic patterns made it onto the drawing board, too.
“There was a circular icon featuring an arrow, a curving road and a hidden ‘P,’ illustrating a parking lane that changes to a lane of traffic at certain times of day,” said Katie Rutherford, a new media major at Queens. “I feel that many of these icons would be extremely useful if put to good use in Charlotte.”
Once the icons are available, they can be downloaded through The Noun Project’s website for free. Wirth urged his audience to view this project as a chance to give back to the community. The symbols can be manipulated to fit a need.
“By putting them in the public domain and giving them away,” Wirth said, “it allows for creative leapfrogging. Someone can take them, apply their expertise and make it something great.”