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Kid PixHow a 90s computer game inspired a whole generation of artists

Liv Siddall

In the late 1980s, Craig Hickman’s hobbyist attitude to tinkering with programming, crossed with him being a father to a three-year-old led him to design one of the most famous creative children’s computer games of all time. Here, alongside testimonies from artists whose life this game changed, Liv Siddall speaks to him about Kid Pix, 30 years on from its launch.

Growing up, our family was lucky enough to have a computer: a big, hulking, greyish-white mass that gave off a hot, dusty smell from its behind and took about an hour to “boot up” when you pressed its fat, round power button. We’d use it in shifts. My brother destroyed trolls in a bloody battle game called Dark Legions that I was allowed to watch but not participate in. Mum would use it to write the annual family newsletter. Dad might play a few rounds of Solitaire on it on Saturday afternoons.

There wasn’t much available on the computer for a seven-year-old like me, until my mum brought home a game called Kid Pix in a bright green box. Much like the “Funday Times” supplement, or my plastic 35mm camera, this children’s-version-of-an-adult-thing was very appealing. Once loaded into the computer, I was hooked.

Turns out I was one of millions of young kids who spent the majority of the early ‘90s glued to Kid Pix. In case you were not one of us, imagine a really intuitive, happy version of Microsoft Paint, or a very cheerful, funny version of Adobe Illustrator. You could draw, paint, stamp, blob, drip, mush, spray paint all over the window’s canvas. If you didn’t like what you drew you could explode the whole thing with a stick of dynamite. The noises, colours, shapes and usability encouraged the reckless creative freedom that only childhood allows. Chaos aside, if you wanted to draw something accurate, you still could. Much like The Sims, Kid Pix had many iterations over the years: new versions coming with new features, new possibilities and new ways of nudging you to be creative. But again, like The Sims, the sublime, pure simplicity of the original game was hard to beat.

Kid Pix – which you can experience on a very well-designed emulator here – was created in the late ‘80s by Portland-based Craig Hickman who, after seeing his young son Ben’s interest in computers and recognising there wasn’t much for him to actually play with on it, decided to create a solution. As a natural tinkerer, Craig had previously found himself drawn to the alluring nature of the unseen possibilities of computers. He saw these strange, beguiling, typewriter-like machines as an opportunity rather than just a tool with which to get work done. “I never thought of it as something I needed to learn for my job, it was always exactly what I wanted it to be,” he says now. “I think, for most people, they have that kind of career focus and they don't think of it as a creative tool, it's a way to make a living.”

The first computer he owned was a “modest” Atari 400. It cost him $600 which, at the time, was a lot (“My wife always complains that I was happier the day that came than when we got married,” Craig laughs). They moved from Seattle to San Diego where Craig joined the Atari computer club. After presentations, him and the other club members would hang around and trade pirated software to trade with one another. Mostly games or copies of protective discs that someone had worked out how to “break.” The relative simplicity of the Atari allowed for a lot of tinkering and experimentation.

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The optimism and innocence of how I remember the early ‘90s is perfectly summed up in this game.

In 1984, Craig was so fascinated by the Apple announcement of the first Macintosh that he and his wife took out a loan to buy one. Intrigued by Apple’s user interface (very different from the Atari), Craig ”devoured” enormous Macintosh User Interface guideline books and began writing “nonsense programs and little desk accessories for his new computer. “It was to teach myself the graphics routines to make little games and little puzzles and things,” he recalls. “But it was just wonderful, the kind of brilliance that went into it and the level of discussion that went on around it. To find out the thinking behind the user interface...it was great.”

It was on this Mac that Craig discovered MacPaint, a program designed and programmed by Bill Atkinson at Apple that came with a Macintosh computer. Apple’s now famous graphic designer Susan Kare was the creative behind the look of the screen, the fonts, icons and features. Craig still considers the charming, intuitive MacPaint as one of the most beautiful pieces of software ever written. “One day in 1988 while I was using MacPaint, my three-year-old son Ben asked to try using the program,” Craig writes in his self-published article about Kid Pix. “I was surprised at how quickly he got the knack of using the mouse and how easily he was able to select tools. The problem was that he didn't have total control of the mouse and would sometimes pull down a menu and bring up a dialog box that he couldn't dismiss without being able to read. Everything was fine as long as I was in the room, but if I stepped out for a few minutes I would come back and find Ben kicking on the floor in frustration. This was not what I had in mind for his introduction to the computer. As it turned out I was looking for a good programming project. I decided to write a simple paint program for Ben to use. I also decided that I would probably give it away for free.”

And so, using his self-taught knowledge of computer programming and his new Mac, Craig began making an early iteration of Kid Pix: a children’s art program that, in his words, “had all the capabilities of MacPaint, but would not have any, kind of, blind alleys...it would just keep going, no matter what.” To create a program so intuitive that a three-year-old could use it, Craig would sit down and think of features (filling the canvas with paint, for example) and ask his body, or his hand, where it wanted to be to do a certain job, questioning what would be the most obvious way to do it. This led to the selection of tools available to any child that played it, each of which would come with an immensely satisfying sound that would – speaking from experience – remain etched on your brain forever. Clicking an icon of an unhappy man’s face would “undo” a last move (with a sound effect of a man saying “oh no!”), drawing a line with a drippy brush would make plopping sounds, using the spray paint feature would make a satisfying hiss of an aerosol can and stamping icons would make the sound of a bang of a drum. In case of a child being hit with a bout of artist’s block, a series of “Draw Me” prompts would suggest wacky things to draw, by people with Sesame Street-style voices.

This memorable undo feature in Kid Pix was inspired by a font designed by Susan Kare for Cairo, a Macintosh typeface. When Craig met Susan and she was telling him how much she liked Kid Pix, he admitted he had borrowed the image from her typeface. "Yes," she replied in mock sternness, "I noticed."

Kid Pix was a hit with Craig’s son Ben. Then a hit with Ben’s classmates, who tried out early iterations of the game while Craig watched on, feverishly taking notes as they played so that he could update the interface according to the way they used it. Then a hit with people who began buying the game directly from Craig, for $25 a pop, via mail order directly to him. The game was then picked up by Broderbund who became the game’s publisher and began work in collaboration with Craig on the official Kid Pix 1.0 for Mac.

It was released in March 1991 to huge critical acclaim. “I think Broderbund didn't expect it to be that popular,” Craig shrugs. “There's some Buddy Holly story where he drives into town in Nashville or something and he turns on the radio and everybody's playing his song...That was kind of the way I felt!” No one knew of Craig as a computer programmer before that. He came out of nowhere and changed the whole scene. Kid Pix 1.0 went on to win multiple awards and gain a huge amount of press attention and positive reviews. Most importantly, millions of children around the world adored it, after it had been distributed and adapted into dozens of languages.

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The child is the artist, they’re the ones who want to do the entertaining, they're the ones making something.

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a time when very young children weren’t glued to iPads, often messing around on art games that are probably directly inspired by Kid Pix. But encouraging children to spend even more time on screens was as delicate and divisive a subject back in the early ‘90s as it is now. Craig feels conflicted in this particular argument. “If people are talking about screen time, well actually, you do lots of things on the screen, you know, you can be reading a book, you can be drawing, you can be researching something on the internet, it’s not just one thing.” he says. “We don't talk about people having too much paper time, even though it's acknowledged that there are lots of good and bad things that are on paper. But with the screen, it always looks like they're doing the same thing from the outside.”

For many, the days of taking your turn on the big, greyish family PC are over. Games are played on phones, tablets, consoles. On laptops in bedrooms, on iPads in cars. “I would be curious to see what would happen if that original version was back out there and usable,” he says. Original iterations of Kid Pix are hard to come by. But you can play a pretty good version here. “I wonder whether kids would be disappointed because it didn't do that much? Or whether it would retain that surprising quality?”

Craig still looks around at what’s on offer for kids these days with regards to creative screen programs. Some are great, but a lot are missing the point a little. “The ones that are specifically made for children I think are not so good because they sometimes talk down to the kids,” he says. “I think when people are designing for children they think children want to be entertained and they do things like put characters in and be ‘entertaining,’ but actually, the child is the artist, they're the ones who want to do the entertaining, they're the ones making something. In the end, whatever's on the screen should be about what they're doing, what they make, not about what is around it that looks cool. Does that make sense?”

Olivia Charlesworth, designer and art director

I’ve just spent an entire week designing between Figma, Adobe Illustrator and Google Slides. What I'd give to spend next week on Kid Pix instead. Well, actually in truth I think that would lead to an incredibly confused and disappointed client. I guess that's what was so fun about using Kid Pix; I was the client!

I don’t ever recall getting that fear of the blank page and, if you didn't like what you were making, there were at least ten ways to remix it or literally (digitally) blow it up. As a kid I always had a project on the go that required the arts and craft box. Kid Pix was my entry into the idea of digital projects, where things could animate and there was no mess to clean up after. It never replaced the physical things I made, just sat alongside them as another option of what to do on a rainy afternoon.

I think it increased my 'on-screen creation confidence' which meant that I later approached far more complex creation software with a similar curiosity and excitement. I’m grateful my parents bought it for me as a tool to keep my imagination stimulated instead of just a way to keep me quiet. Sure it was a computer game and yes it was addictive, but it didn’t turn my brain to mush.

Jane Brodie, graphic designer for film

I remember the game’s startup had my name on the screen, which was totally thrilling and magic at that age. The game for me was how many layers of brushes could I add onto the canvas until it was too full. I have a vague recollection of being interested in how to make a picture "attractive," but didn’t have the tools or concept of a colour palette at that age. Maybe Kid Pix was the beginning of the quest of how to make a picture.

Now I am a Graphic Designer for Film and I get to be creative every day. I hadn’t considered Kid Pix’s influence on my career but I can see how it would have definitely given me a head start creatively - hours spent mark creating some brutally ugly work and problem solving how different marks create different results - it’s hard to explain that early stage of creative development but thinking about Kid Pix brings it back very clearly. So once I was in the art room at school I was well ahead in experimenting and seeing how a picture forms. And all that without my poor mum having to clean up after me!

Julian Glander, animator

Kid Pix was massive for me. I’ve always been really frustrated with my inability to draw with pencil and paper as I’ve just never had the coordination or patience. I try to draw a circle and it comes out a warbly ugly potato shape every time. I try to erase it and the eraser rips through the paper. I cry.

But the first time I used Kid Pix everything changed. Making art was fun because it followed the wacky, bright-eyed philosophy that seemed to be everywhere in the early days of personal computers. Don’t like what you did? Undo. Don’t spend all afternoon coloring it in, let the paint bucket do that! These were novel concepts to me at the time.

I never thought of myself as “artistic” or even as a particularly creative kid. The joy of Kid pix was the broader joy of childhood — putting things together and seeing how they fit, making yourself laugh, and just knocking it all down at the end of the day. The standout feature that everyone seems to remember is the dynamite explosion that happens when you erase an entire scene. A reminder that all art is fleeting but the joy of making it is eternal.

All high-minded philosophy aside, I loved Kid pix because it’s fun. My video game ART SQOOL is in some ways a massive tribute to Kid Pix, and I stole a couple things directly from it. The limited palette of chunky brushes, the musical sounds attached to the drawing tools, the wiggly brush that doesn’t quite follow your commands, and the general wackadoo drawing approach that I picked up in the ‘Pix.

Justin Poulsen, photographer

I'm a conceptual still life photographer and visual artist. I used to play Kid Pix in the early 90's on my aunt's black and white OG Macintosh. She had always wanted our family to be computer literate, predicting the large role that computers would likely play in our futures. She bought my family our first PC.

My most vivid memories of Kid Pix were clicking and then shaking the mouse violently with my eyes closed for undetermined periods of time...only to open my eyes to reveal a random pattern that had been created. The ability to iterate without exhausting real world consumables provided me with an arena absent of the fear of failure. Within this digital art world I was free. I could mess something up and just erase it and start over again. Making digital art felt very much like when the scissors start to glide through wrapping paper: free of resistance.

Kid Pix gave me an insight to the future in a simple package. I enjoyed that it wasn't perfect because it meant that I didn't have to be either. It was okay to make mistakes, and sometimes the mistakes led to the best-looking art. This encouraging environment is what made this program a “gateway drug” to the image processing programs of the future that I still work with today in my professional practice.

Nathan Hoang, Ad Designer at WeTransfer

Kid Pix was one of a few computer programs my dad installed on our computer (the other was Math Blaster). So Kid Pix was always a treat. My favorite thing on the program was using the mystery eraser to reveal a digital art piece underneath the white canvas because it was always better than what I made. But I also liked to use the animal stamps to create my own kind of zoo collage.

When my dad got a new family computer, an early version Photoshop (before it became part of a suite) came preinstalled. Sadly Kid Pix wasn't installed on the new computer, but thanks to the kid-friendly UX of Kid Pix, I was able to transition to Photoshop Elements (I never took any courses on how to use Photoshop, I just subconsciously knew how and looking back it was because of Kid Pix).

I'm an art director now using the main Adobe Creative Suite programs, but Kid Pix really laid the foundation for my appreciation of digital art and exploring my artistic side when I was tired of learning math. Kid Pix's purpose, I think, wasn't to be perfect but was to help kids like me explore and not be afraid of a blank canvas. They had different fills, a lot of different stamps, and easter eggs, and messing up was encouraged. And I guess that's me now.

Noemie le Coz, designer and art director

I first played Kid Pix at school in the early '90s, at a time when our teachers were learning how to use a computer just as much as us kids were. Everything in the Kid Pix interface feels a bit like a few designers got together and got really excited about what they could do with all of this RGB. I love that there’s a nav item called “Goodies,” that should exist on more computers today. The optimism and innocence of how I remember the early ‘90s is perfectly summed up in this game. The total chaos of the interface and the sounds were so good. I also loved the dynamite that cleared the screen completely. I think this is why I was so underwhelmed by MS Paint. Kid Pix set the bar high. It showed and inspired me to make something fun. They took something as mundane as an eraser and gave it a human personality, which is something I’m trying to do for clients constantly.

Now I’m part-time creative director of a brand called Billie and have a design studio with my husband, called Little Troop. I definitely think Kid Pix influenced me. It gave me a really positive association with image making, which would have been completely unconscious, but kids are sponges, and are incredibly impressionable… it basically gave us kids permission to create whatever we wanted, without the pressure of it having to make it to the classroom wall or mum’s fridge.

My grandfather was an architect and he loved computers. I'd go to his office to play Kid Pix there. He'd be designing buildings in some type of primitive 3D drawing tool, while I'd be drawing cars called “SamuCars.” I would also play on Kid Pix with my sister. We'd design underground labyrinths for each other to solve and we made a game which we called “the mole game.”

After I decided that I was “too old” for Kid Pix, My grandfather taught me 3D programs, in which I would design 3D versions of the “SamuCars” and made buildings and furniture. After that, I started programming. I think Kid Pix made me fall in love with technology and especially how powerful and fun it is to create with computers, which is kind of what my job at WeTransfer is about. People are often negative about technology – and rightfully so – but I think technology that enables creation is magical and powerful. It's what drives me to do the work that i do. I still can't really draw, but I can make something in Kid Pix that looks decent.

Vera le Blanc, Project Manager Copy & Localization at WeTransfer

My childhood best friend Jasper and I would hang out all the time after school when we were in primary school. When we would be at his parents' house, we would usually play outside in the garden, but when the weather was bad, we would go inside and spend hours and hours playing Kid Pix. I don't remember specific things that we created, only that we used to go wild with all the colors and shapes. I really liked that it gave so many more possibilities than "ordinary" drawing or painting. The possibility to just plunk a giant neon green circle on top of a hand drawn purple stickman (or whatever) was amazing.

My job itself isn't really creative (I'm a project manager), but I do think that a game like Kid Pix showed me that there's no linear or standard way to do things. I've always been a "learning by doing" kind of person and I think that's why I liked that game so much. And even though I'm not a creator myself, I do enjoy working for a creative company that gives so much importance to artists of all disciplines.