by Jo Brodie, Queen Mary University of London
(from the archive)
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 just 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 device what to do. This made things slow and hard. You had to remember all the different commands to type. It meant that 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 developed a visual, picture-based way of letting people tell their computers what to do, instead of typing in commands. It’s called a ‘Graphical User Interface’ or GUI.
An artist, Susan Kare, was asked to design some very simple pictures – icons – that would make using computers easier. If people wanted to delete a file they would click on 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 originally designed them on squared paper, with each square representing a pixel on the screen. Over the years the pictures have become more sophisticated (and sometimes more confusing) but in the early days they were both simple and clear thanks to Susan’s skill.
Try our pixel puzzles which use the same idea. Then invent your own icons or pixel puzzles. Can you come up with your own easily recognizable pictures using as few lines as possible?
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