Explaining graphic design to four-year-olds

I recently offered to talk at the local primary school, about my job (or at least part of my job). I expected to be speaking to the older kids, and be able to talk specifically about the cool parts of the job, and maybe some of the sucky bits too, and how you get around them. However, I was asked to talk to a reception class (four and five-year-olds), and it turned out to be an interesting exercise in boiling down what you do, to its most basic elements.

Firstly, I couldn’t rest on my laurels and rely on some of the brands I’ve worked with, to win me any kudos, like it might with the older kids — “Yeah, I’ve worked for Channel 4, and the BBC, and Diesel, and the BRIT Awards, and I even designed a website that got me an imdb entry (even though I share same entry with some dude who was in Xena: Warrior Princess). Whatevs…” That doesn’t fly with reception age kids. So I really needed to explain, in the simplest possible terms, what I did, and why it’s important.

So what do I actually do?

I thought it’d be a good idea to explain what design in all its forms is. I’ve long held the notion that all forms of design are effectively about communication, be that user experience design, industrial design, fashion design, but that’s a pretty lofty thing to explain to kids. I ended up with:

Design is about making something easy to use, or easy to understand.

That seemed about right. I then explained there were all different types of designer — building designers (who decide how big to make the rooms, and where to put doors and windows), book designers (who make the books you read fun and interesting), game designers (who decide how to make Angry Birds fun, and where to put the buttons) and furniture designers (who decide what size to make chairs, and how to make them comfortable).

I also pointed out that toilet design is really important. We all use toilets every day, and they need to be the right size, and comfortable to sit on, and you need to be able to reach the paper. Cue lots of giggles and muttering of the word ‘toilet’. Want to get 4-year-olds on-side? Talk about toilets.

We then did a yes/no shouting-out exercise, about things that have been designed, and things that havent. My list:

– a puddle (“noooooo!”)
– a book (“yessssss!”)
– a squirrel (“noooooo!”)
– a car (“yessssss!”)
…and so on.

So now the kids knew what design was about, I had to explain what graphic design was. Again, how do I do this so it’s easy to understand? After some searching, I hit upon:

I use colours, letters and pictures to help people understand things.

Phew. After an entire career of batting away comments about ‘colouring in’, and ‘making things look nice’, I finally hit upon something that is so much clearer than spluttering, ‘it’s a lot more than that, y’know’, and stomping off in a huff. I might even put it on my business card.

So I started by asking the class of (surprisingly well-behaved) children which one was the hot tap.

After a child successfully said ‘red’, I asked them why we think that red means ‘hot’. What can you think of that’s red, that is hot?
“The Sun”
– some great answers for the kids. So we use red to mean ‘hot’, because it makes us think of hot things.

Same with blue. What’s blue and cold?
– yes, ice can sometimes look blue. It feels cold. That’s why Elsa’s dress in Frozen is blue, isn’t it?

Activity time

I’m a dad of two, so I know kids of this age won’t sit still for too long. It was time to break things up with an activity. My partner (a primary school teacher) made some little colour swatch books to hand out, and ask the class to choose colours based on questions.

– Pick a colour that reminds you of night time.
– Pick a colour that makes you think of fruit.
– Pick a colour that reminds you of The Gruffalo!

That last one got a great response — the majority chose brown, but some smart kids chose orange (for his eyes), black (for his tongue) and purple (for his prickles). This showed the kids how there’s often more than one answer to a design question, and how colour can help you feel things.

We then did another activity, where I gave the kids a sheet of words to colour in. This gave them the chance to put what they’d learned so far into practice. The results were great. Lots of red for the word ‘angry’, alternating bright colours for ‘sweets’, green for ‘grass’.

We then talked about why children had chosen their colours, and got some very cogent answers. Of course, there was sometimes people had chosen a colour ‘because I like it’, which is valid too.


So, we’d covered colour, and the other thing I wanted to talk about was words. I talked about how signs tell us important things, and the words need to be easy to read. I showed them a simple sign, and asked them what I could do to the letters, to make the sign better. “Make them bigger” came the answer, so I showed them a second sign, which we all agreed is better because it makes the word more important, and you can see it from further away.

I then talked about how you can do things to letters and words, to help tell stories. We talked about Lauren Child’s excellent Charlie & Lola books, and how the words go all over the place, to make the stories interesting, and make the words feel like what they’re saying. I showed them a simple sentence, which we all read out together:

Then I showed them the same sentence, for us to read out again:

See how changing the size of the word ‘big’, makes the sentence more exciting? It makes you say that word differently than the last time, and makes you wonder just how big this dog is.

I also showed how you could make a series of changes to a simple word, again to help you feel the meaning more. I showed the below iterations one at a time:

Each time, the kids agreed the word felt faster than the last.

By this point we were running out of time, which was a shame, as I wanted to get them ‘designing’ a word, using interesting combinations of colours and some visual tricks (for example, the simple word ‘holiday’ using things that make them feel like holidays).

I was surprised by two things: how readily most of the kids understood what design was for, and how they can express things through it; and also, for someone who specialises in explaining things to a target audience, how it took me doing a talk to children, to force me to confront my own profession, and explain its value in clear terms.

A week later, I was delighted to be sent a pile of work from a lesson the teacher had set, around the themes we touched on. Many of the kids really got it.