Cities are full of icons and symbols—a visual vernacular that conveys both necessary information and a sense of place to visitors and residents. Wayfinding icons and street signs help people navigate a city and its resources, regardless of the language they speak. And some parts of an urban landscape even become symbols of a city itself: the Eiffel Tower represents Paris, for example, or San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge.
In Mexico City, the local government is seeking to expand its own visual lexicon, with an official emoji sticker pack that will represent the city. On Friday, the city announced an open design competition that asks participants to capture the city in 20 digital symbols. The hope is that the contest will not only result in emojis that resonate with Mexico City citizens but also offer data on how residents relate to the city and communicate the culture of Mexico in general.
“Emojis have become an aesthetic, a playful way of communicating,” says Gabriella Gómez-Mont, the founder and director of Laboratorio para la Ciudad, the city’s experimental office for civic innovation and urban creativity, which is running the contest. The lab opted to keep the design brief relatively open—it asks designers to design 20 emoji that represent Mexico City, and submit the vector files by July 16. The judges–Emoji Dick author Fred Benenson, journalist and creator of the Dumpling Emoji Jenny 8 Lee, and the Mexican designers Federico Jordan and Oscar Estrada, among others–will evaluate submissions based on their creativity, originality, and capacity to communicate ideas. “We’re very intrigued with the relationship between a person and a megalopolis, how people actually relate to it, and what emotional and visual responses will we get,” says Gómez-Mont.
Gómez-Mont founded the lab in 2013, after being approached by recently elected Mexico City mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera to create an “innovations lab” for the city. She and an interdisciplinary team of 20—many of whom have never worked in government before—seek to bring creative logic and technological know-how to the social challenges that the city of 21 million people face. Over the past four years, the lab’s projects have ranged from creating a game that collects public transit data to building an app that addresses taxi safety to designing a wooden, worm-like public sculpture that has traveled to different parts of the city.
The emoji contest falls under an initiative of the lab’s to expand the application of art and design beyond just the city’s creative sphere. Mexico City has always embraced vibrant symbols—from the eagle devouring a snake depicted on the flag to the green rectangles and circles painted on sidewalks for meetings points after earthquakes. Mexican folk art and ancient imagery are also full of rich iconography. Gómez-Mont felt that Mexico City-centric emojis would fit in well with that Mexican history and tradition.
Emoji expert Zoe Mendelson, who organized the contest and also serves as a judge (and who has also written for Fast Company), says that the idea for the sticker pack came about because creating one emoji to represent the entire city was improbable. For one, Unicode Consortium, the group that oversees the emoji standard, doesn’t generally accept submissions for emojis that could be interpreted as advertisements for brands or entities (a submission from Kit Kat, for example, famously got the ax). Plus, whittling down a city as huge as Mexico City into one symbol would likely prove difficult. Per Mendelson’s recommendation, the lab chose to create its own sticker pack that will be downloadable on Google Play and the App Store, and to ask citizens to design it. (Anyone can create a sticker pack to download; it just won’t be part of Unicode’s emoji keyboard.)
The contest is being sponsored by the production company The Lift, as well as local design organizations; no public money is being spent on the project. The winner, which will be announced on July 30, will receive $30,000 MXN (about $1,600 USD) and the honor of seeing their designs realized as the official Mexico City emoji. Gómez-Mont says that even the non-winning designs will be useful—she views the submissions as an “emotional thermometer” of the city.
“We know how important it is to not only understand the hard data about the city but also the emotional response that citizens have with it,” says Gómez-Mont. “As we’ve seen with the Trump election, with Brexit, etc., so much of our predictions and perceptions have been based on this rational data, when in reality the city we relate to is the city in our heads. Sometimes the city in our head relates to the city we’re walking around in, but sometimes it’s a completely different space.”