Picture This

Pick up any computer or smart gadget and you’ll find small, colourful pictures on the screen. These icons tell you which app is which. You can touch them or click on them to open the app. It’s quick and easy, but it wasn’t always like that.


Up until the 1980s if you wanted to run a program you had to type a written command to tell the computer what to do. It was slow and hard. You had to remember all the different commands. Only people who felt quite confident with computers were able to play with them.

Computer scientists wanted everyone to be able to join in (they wanted to sell more computers too!) so they created a picture-based way for people to tell their computers what to do. It’s called a Graphical User Interface or GUI.


Artist Susan Kare, designed some very simple pictures – the icons – that would make using computers easier. If people wanted to delete a file they would drag it to an icon with her drawing of a little dustbin. If people wanted to edit a letter they were writing they could click on the icon showing a pair of scissors to cut out a bit of text. She designed them on squared paper. Each square represented a pixel, a coloured dot, on the screen. Over the years the pictures have become more complicated (and sometimes more confusing) but in the early days they were both simple and clear thanks to Susan’s skill.

Fun to do: Icon guess what

Pick some icons and make a ‘guess what it does’ quiz.

Fun to do: Create your own

Invent your own icons or pixel puzzles. What pixel drawing would you use for a “Milk Shake”? Can you make an icon to represent yourself – a picture of something you like, perhaps. Plan your icons out on squared paper or by filling in the boxes in a spreadsheet.

Fun to do: Pixel Puzzles

Try colour-by-number pixel puzzles.

Blue Screen Robot, PaintingBack to art and images

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