“An icon is any image used to represent a person, place, thing or idea.”
Scott McCloud; Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
Representation and interpretation, like our minds and hearts are two sided. One persons visual message may be interpreted entirely differently by another, yet some visuals become almost universal. What is to to be made of this disparity between icon and meaning?
In User Experience Design (UX) this activity is used by a design team to generate ideas and test users to gather research about a message. The goal in the classroom is for each participant to create the simplest visual expression of a thing or idea, and then to compile the groups work together to analyze for patterns and innovations. The subjects of visual expression can be adapted to any course or curriculum, and work more effectively the more relevant they are.
To get ideas of what is meant by a simple visual expression check out The Noun Project and try searching for different terms with your class and make observations about what images are most common for simple terms. What about more abstract ideas? Concepts from a specific field of study or classroom discussion? This is an opportunity to discuss what your class finds makes a good or bad icon. Do some stand out as more exemplary than others?
- Thick black markers
- 5″ x 7″ Index cards
- “Prompt list” The unique list of terms each student will draw.
Building a Global Visual Language
- Review the Building a Global Visual Language video
- Visit The Noun Project at and search with the group for terms form your discipline
- Generate your prompt list. There are several ways to generate a list. Either randomly using a word generator such as https://randomwordgenerator.com Or ask for contributions from your participants. For small groups (6-10) you can ask for 1 prompt from each.
- Hand out materials with one index card per term on the prompt list. Have each student number their index cards accordingly.
- Set timer for 30 seconds.
- Reveal one prompt at a time, and give people 30 seconds to draw each icon. Its recommended to keep the prompts hidden so they have to draw their most immediate response.
- Repeat for each term in the prompt list.
- Set up a gallery walk, grouping the drawings according to number. In each grouping sort the icons for similarity and uniqueness.
- “Critique” and discuss the similarities and differences of each visual expression. Analyze the most common elements that are drawn, as well as those that stand or or are unique.
Icon Jams can easily be connected to course content by selecting people, places, things and even concepts, ideas and theories that are taught in your class. This is a great way to as a class start to develop a shared visual ‘dictionary’ that can be will make capturing course notes and participating in activities faster, and easier for everyone. It is also a great way to kickstart a discussion, as the process may surface some deeper connections between concepts in the course and perhaps highlight misunderstandings or gaps in knowledge. This can grow throughout the semester, creating your own course specific Noun Project.
Having the class call out random works to look up on the Noun Project website is a great way to introduce this activity.