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Are You Ready for the Four Icon Challenge?

posted: 1.19.12 by Traci Gardner

If you want to encourage students to think about the symbolic nature of visual images, ask them to take the four icon challenge. I found this exercise on Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s blog, and I was immediately smitten. The idea originally comes from graphic designer and illustrator Kyle Tezak, who describes the challenge this way:

The Four Icon Challenge is my attempt at visually summarizing my favorite books and movies using only, that’s right, four icons. Boiling a story down to four elements gave me a surprising amount of insight into the author’s message and intentions, as well as the role recurring objects play in storytelling.

As Johndan explains in his post, Tezak reduces each text to four simple images shown in just three or four colors (including black and white). On his website, Tezak offers icon sets for The Great Gatsby, The Hobbit, Reservoir Dogs, and Romeo and Juliet.

Here are some student examples from Flickr, from an assignment to apply the four icon challenge to movies.

North by Northwest

North by Northwest



On the surface, the task may seem easy. Just choose four icons to represent a text. Once you begin narrowing down the options, however, the activity proves a rich critical thinking experience. Some texts will easily yield a few obvious symbols. The challenge is to limit the selection to the four that best represent the text. Other texts may have one or two clear choices, like Mama’s plant in A Raisin in the Sun. The hard part is deciding what other three icons are equally appropriate for the text.

The four icon challenge is a delight for the visual rhetoric classroom. Students have to come up with clean, clear images that focus on a specific aspect or idea and that together represent a text as a whole. Even if they simply discuss the four icons that they would choose, students are required to think about analysis, synthesis, and visual design.

There’s room to stretch the assignment beyond simply asking students for four icons for a favorite movie or book. You might ask students to choose four icons that represent any of the following:

  • a favorite song, album, or musician
  • their major, their college, or a course they’ve taken
  • their city, county, or state
  • a holiday, family tradition, or special event
  • a group or club they belong to
  • a campus or community event
  • a video game
  • a person they know
  • a historical figure or time period
  • a literary character or an author

In addition to choosing the four icons, I’d ask students to provide an explanation for their choices, both the icons and the colors. Students might share rejected icons as well—images that they considered but ultimately decided weren’t quite right. There’s as much to be learned from what isn’t right as there is to gain from what is!

Students can create icons themselves, as Tezak does, but I’d leave the assignment open for students to choose from icon collections online (like IconArchive or these icons from Smashing Magazine). Be sure to talk about how to provide the appropriate credit for sources. You might allow students to substitute simple photographs of the representative objects in lieu of the icons.

In addition to talking about how to find images, you might spend some time discussing icon style and design. Tezak’s icons look great because they use a similar style. If students choose icons that are radically different in style, their work may not have the same effect.

This activity holds wonderful potential. You might kick off the next term by asking students to choose four icons that represent the course theme before diving into a topical exploration. Later in the term, after exploring the topic, they might return to their four icons and consider whether their original choices still seem like the best options. I keep wishing I had known about this activity earlier in my career, as I think of topical courses I’ve taught on gender images, the American dream, and rhetoric of war.

So, are you ready for the four icon challenge? How could you use this activity in the classroom? I’d love to hear some more suggestions!

[Images: North By Northwest by Michael Branson Smith, Deliverance by Michael Branson Smith, and Stardust by Cali4beach—all on Flickr]

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Categories: Teaching with Technology
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