People love to give a bookish tomboy a diary. I didn’t want dolls or clothes or candles, so year after year, I’d be given journals for birthdays and other occasions. Each time, the same ritual: I’d crack open the book, carefully pen my name on the inside cover, and start writing intensely. The first entry often ran to many pages, as if a great pressure had been released. It would be heavily supplemented with marginal notes and full-page diagrams. The second entry was inevitably shorter. More self-conscious. It might include some analysis of the handwriting from the first entry. The third and fourth entries were also likely to be terse and artificial. Maybe a joke or a doodle, an update or correction of something from the first two entries. Then, nothing. Hundreds of blank pages. I just couldn’t sustain that initial burst of energy. I was a sprinter at the marathon.
The start of this diary coincided with the start of a new job. It was the perfect moment for resolutions, inevitably broken. It was also the perfect job: in late summer 2014, I became chair of the graphic design program at California College of the Arts. Clearly, I needed a quixotic personal project to fill those extra hours otherwise spent puttering around the ivory tower.
I had three goals when I started this diary: shorter entries, more entries, written and drawn. In particular, I was interested in using the visual language of icons to tell my own small stories. Icons are simple illustrations that represent common activities, concepts, and things. Think of the symbol systems in airports or at the Olympics. The aesthetics and ambitions of icon design today are still influenced by those of modernism: icons are meant to seem neutral, objective, and universal.
That neutrality is signaled visually through highly reductive forms that can function at a small scale and in black and white. It is signaled conceptually through radical assumptions about what is “normal” or “neutral.” For example, think of the standard toilet symbol sign. One humanoid figure represents male, another female. Both figures are featureless and hairless. They are the same height. They are shoeless (actually they are also footless). The only difference: the female figure wears a dress. How wonderful that a tall, bald woman in an A-line mini dress has been deemed the universal representation of all womanhood!
I’m tall, but I don’t otherwise look a thing like Toilet Woman. So what would an icon of me look like? What would an icon of my daughter look like? Given that the negation of individuality is fundamental to traditional icon design, are these questions even askable?
Fortunately, yes. The post-modern designer, with her interest in personal expression and her suspicion of centralized power, whispers in my other ear, and she would tell me to go for it. Of course, she would probably get after me for adopting any of the aesthetic constraints of modernist icons.
And so, let’s give it a try! Let’s see what happens when the visual grammar of icons is engaged to describe and distill the little moments of daily life.
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I kept my icon diary for 100 days and eventually made a book out of it. Soon after, I decided to revisit the icons and turn them into animated GIFs. Of course, this would require a new publishing platform, so I created this website.