Designing a Symbol about Water

Montalvo Arts Center / Teaching Artists in the Schools Residency / 4th grade, 10 session project, Schallenberger Elementary School, San Jose, CA, Fall 2016.

This exercise is about creating a symbol about water. By essence a symbol is simple. With very little means a concept has to be expressed. The student has to concentrate on what to represent, how to represent it. This is a design process, with different steps. The first one is documentation. Listing the different ways water is around us: rivers, lakes, ocean, faucet, ponds, in a glass, etc…
Then the student sketches ideas, as many as possible. From those ideas the student is going to pick one – the most interesting. How does he know which is the most interesting one: the one that says “water” in a simple, understandable way. Then the idea is to create a two tone image – the symbol on a background. If there is time the student can pick another of his/her designs and make another two-tones creation. I am thinking that the students will showcase their work at the end of the project and so I am interested in finding ways for them to make “collections” of images. I found a very nice multi blue tone paper that makes the collection of each class very vibrant.
We did this  exercise in one session. I explained to the students that this design process can take days for designers.

Today the 4th graders created interesting collections of water symbols with simple means. They experienced with the design process: finding and sketching several ideas, choosing one particularly interesting and developing that idea into a more finalized image. It is a complex process, in which the designer has to go to the essential, concentrating on the quality of the symbo ,removing any detail that makes the image to complex.

The Activity

First I showed a short power point to the students: a quick introduction to symbols. Symbols are used around the world since humanity started to draw. Today we use symbols all the time, everywhere. Symbols are a way to express an idea in a simple way, through a simple design/drawing. Our world today is full of symbols: airports, train stations, road. There are symbols on appliances and user guides, clothes tags. And of course in logos – I talked briefly about the social media symbols.

IMG_0582_small  IMG_0581_small

I give to the students a sheet of paper with blank squares where they draw ideas about how to represent water. For example, they can think about:

  • river
  • ocean
  • water at the faucet
  • rain
  • stream
  • waterfall
  • lake
  • wave

The design has to be simple. Very few lines – one or a few simple shapes.

From this step the students chose one design. If they did not do a simple design, they have to continue sketching.
They have two pieces of colored paper, one light colored, one darker. They chose one for the background, one for the symbol. The one for the background will not be cut.The student draw thier design lightly on the other piece of paper. Once this is done, they can cut. Once they start cutting, they place each piece on the background piece of paper.


Once all the pieces are cut, the students place all the pieces the way they want and then glue carefully.


At the end of the session the students place their designs on the floor to look for a quick discussion about the diversity of symbols they created during the session, and how very different simple images can be generated/created from one word, here it is “water” but the exercise could be done with many other words.