Painting with Pixels

Painting with Pixels

Jude Buffum Illustration + Design, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2010


Project brief: To celebrate the 25th Game Developers Conference (GDC25), iam8bit Productions was asked to conceive of “a unique experience to engage conference attendees.” While the primary objective was to celebrate the Conference’s 25th anniversary, the more pressing challenge (and one that the conference has faced since its inception) was how to inject a sentiment of fun and whimsy into a conference that is predicated on education and lectures. Finally, in keeping with the branding of the conference, a color palette of CMYK was requested.

Paying tribute to the 25th anniversary of the conference, and video games themselves, was as simple as focusing our attention on what is literally the building block of the industry: the pixel. Though the graphics of modern video games have evolved to the point of realism, the pixel and pixilated graphics are synonymous with the golden age of gaming. I had collaborated previously with iam8bit in creating a pixel graphics installation in Berlin for the Pictoplasma conference, so they hired me again to create a mural in the pixel style. However, creating another art installation alone wouldn’t address the objective of creating a unique experience for the attendees. The solution was to design a 20-by-8-foot pixel mural but leave the 5,760 pixels as blank squares with color-coded letters (C, M, Y and K) so the attendees could “paint” the mural themselves over the course of five days. Each attendee would receive a prepackaged 2-inch square pixel in one of the four colors, with Velcro on the back to attach to the mural, bringing in a crowd-sourcing element to build a sense of camaraderie.

It was that sociological hook that the client bit into the most, as they needed something that would keep attendees interested the entire week, not just in a momentary sense. Because it was in a centralized location, monitoring and discussing the evolving state of “the pixel wall” became a consistent activity between panel discussions for many people attending the conference.

Approach: The client wanted the mural to be completed before the conference ended with minimal interference from our team (at least in the eyes of onlookers). However we realized that this was just as much a sociological experiment as it was an interactive art installation, so we discussed all possible issues that could arise based on behavioral variables. The two primary concerns were lack of participation and misplacement of pixels.

Since each person attending only got one “pixel,” the assumption was that some people would be unwilling to contribute their pixel without some sort of vision of the final product, placing more value on their individual pixel contribution once the image started coming together. Whereas one pixel amid a blank canvas was viewed as inconsequential to the bigger picture at the beginning of the week, a few days later, that pixel began to bear more significance. To address this issue, we produced a batch of unpackaged pixels that we could use to augment the progress of the wall as needed, making sure that on each of the five days, approximately 20 percent of the wall was completed. We had a team of at least two monitoring the wall at all times from afar, which had the added bonus of allowing us to do a time-lapse video for the client. The time lapse, capturing 40 hours of activity on the wall from start to finish, allowed for those not in attendance to experience the creation process. Shooting a photo every 20 seconds, the time lapse also allowed attendees that witnessed the experiment firsthand to revisit the experience and see the entire wall assemble itself.

The second issue, and the far more interesting one to observe, was the misplacement of the pixels. Game developers by nature are very precise and disciplined individuals, so most of the participants followed the directions perfectly. In fact some went so far as to correct the few rogue pixels or even chastise their fellow conference goers who dared to put their pixel on the wrong color. However, as with any social system, there were a few who decided to color outside the lines so to speak. Halfway through day three, for example (around the two-minute mark in the time lapse), someone rearranged a number of the pixels to form an image of the popular video-game character Super Mario, using the crowd as cover for their act of 8-bit rebellion. In order to facilitate more speculation about the final image, we decided to leave it up for a short while before sending in a team member to redistribute the pixels to proper squares.

Paper was chosen as the primary medium because the concept had to involve 20,000-plus people without busting what was a rather limiting budget. By adhering to a basic CMYK color palette, production demands were minimized, allowing a large number of pixels to be created without a huge spend and allowing each individual attendee to get a “piece of the puzzle.” Pixel counts were calculated so that we didn’t over- or under-produce any of the colors. The application process was a more specialized challenge. Because we had assumed that some attendees would make mistakes, misunderstand and even deliberately misplace pixels, the choice of Velcro dots came into play, thus allowing us to correct misplaced pieces and/or rearrange those that were angled funny or damaged. Stickers and anything else permanent could have proven disastrous to the final image, whereas Velcro afforded a lot of flow. Finally, in order to ensure that attendees understood the project and were encouraged to participate, we created packaging for each “pixel” that was inserted into their convention bag, explaining the purpose of the pixel and including a color key and directions to the wall.

Effectiveness: Not only did the social experiment prove successful by the completion of the pixel puzzle—thus having effectively engaged convention attendees over five days—but the pixel wall also became the subject of much media attention. Several blogs even made a project out of “monitoring” the state of the wall, updating photo galleries every few hours on the progress that had been made. And as an ancillary benefit, the 20-by-8-foot imprint of the wall, as well as its prominent placement in the central hall, provided for a striking visual spectacle that was used as a backdrop for film crews and personal photos alike. It beautified a typically drab convention center with vivacious color and character. Meggan Scavio, the director of GDC, said it best at the completion of the first day: “Everybody is talking about the pixel wall.” Gossip is the best metric.

One aspect we hadn’t predicted was attendees drawing or writing on their squares. What started with a few people doing a quick doodle on their pixel before placing it evolved into a fascinating exhibition of creativity. Attendees adorned their squares with drawings of robots, inspiring quotes or how many GDCs they’d attended. One out-of-work programmer even put his resume on his 2-inch cyan square and another substituted their magenta-colored business card for their pixel. This provided an added environmental benefit, as all the personalized pixels were saved and reassembled into a smaller, more permanent art piece to be installed at the office of the GDC board. The rest of the pixels were recycled.

The choice of medium, the crowd-sourcing element and the utilization of volunteer staff for the construction of the physical wall were all factors in keeping costs to the client very low. From an economic standpoint, it was a cost-effective stunt that planted the seed in thousands of attendees’ minds that the GDC is not a stagnant convention but a forward-thinking conference intent on innovating and shaking things up. Several comments and emails have surfaced since its completion from people saying they are interested in replicating the crowd-sourcing aspects of the pixel mural in other locations.

Collections: AIGA 365: Design Effectiveness (2011)
Repository: Denver Art Museum
Discipline: Environmental graphic design
Format: Interaction, Signage, Artifact, Interface


Design firm
Jude Buffum Illustration + Design
Creative director
Jon Gibson
Art director
Nick Ahrens
Jude Buffum
Jude Buffum
Taylor Harrington
Amanda White
Game Developers Conference