My first Icon Design Workshop

The Friday before last was my first ‘proper’ talk at @media Europe. Last Friday was my first ‘workshop’, with 9 year olds!

Our local primary school, Madley Brook, took the brave decision to host a ‘Creative Arts month’, where local artists and crafters offer their time to teach the pupils about their particular skill. This has seen everyone from parents of children at the school to well-known local artists such as children’s book illustrator Korky Paul visiting (Samantha was very taken with Korky). I say ‘brave’, because organising the sessions can’t have been easy.

Leigh has taken 3 sessions: Paper Making, Felt Making and Book Binding, with a variety of different classes from reception level to the special needs groups. In the end, I did just one session, and after some thought, I decided to go with Icon Design.

I started by explaining what icons were for, that they see them everytime they work in the ICT suite, and then displayed some examples of icons blown up large. These were 9-10yr olds, in an environment where software was either Microsoft or RM, so I was surprised when one of the boys exclaimed “That’s the icon for Mozilla Firefox that is!” (he told me later that his family use it at home). About half knew what pixels were, but no one had really thought about icons before.

The plan was this: Using photocopied grids of 16x16 pixels, get the pupils to plan out an icon, and using LiquidIcon get them to create a .ico file of their idea. Liquidicon was a great find - simple interface, XP compatible and free. It setup visible grids, the tools were familiar (from apps like MS Paint and RM ColourMagic), and it saved the icons in .ico format.

screenshot of liquidicon

They ran with it far better than I’d expected, and some even ditched their 16 pixel grid and went straight into a 32px, with great results. In hindsight, the large 16px grid’s on A4 were misleading, as it didn’t really help them get to grips with just how small the final icon would be, and how restricted the space for a design was. The theme of the icon was left up to them completely - I showed them a simple yellow smiley as an example but it was up to them what to draw. A popular choice was a heart, which was a good talking point when explaining “The simpler, and more recognisable, the better”.

I must admit, I expected a lot of indifference, so was surprised by the generally positive feedback. Some of them even thought that Icon Design was a ‘cool job’! It was tempting to come over all patronising (“well lad, it may look easy to you, but it takes years of ‘ard graft, and resolution independence is turnin’ the ’ole icon industry on it’s ’ed”), but I resisted.

Just after the session finished, it made me reminisce of when I was 12, creating single-colour sprites for computer games on our Acorn Electron computer. The manual came with a grid page for planning the icons, and boy did that page get a lot of use. Pencilled space invader aliens, rubbed out, and new ones on top. Layers and remnants of simple illustrations that gave me a lot of fun…