Craig Hickman, Kid Pix creator and UO professor, changed your childhood and your college
For the record, Craig Hickman would like to state that he is not Satan’s love child.
Hickman is the creator of Kid Pix — a children’s art program that became a staple in public grade school computer labs. Two years after its creation, one of the senior programmers at Broderbund (Kid Pix’s publisher through the ’90s) embedded a diabolical Easter egg within the game as a joke.
Amidst tedious coding tasks and meeting tight deadlines, it was forgotten about, written onto floppy disks and shipped throughout the country.
So when a child clicked on the magic eraser tool and scrubbed away at the canvas, these words filled the screen:
CRAIG HICKMAN IS SATAN’S LOVE CHILD.
Despite the hiccup, which forced a recall, Hickman’s Kid Pix was a massive achievement — not just for himself, but for a budding generation of computer users, Apple Computers and the field of computer programming. He started working at the University of Oregon art department in 1984. By 1999, he and other faculty members developed the curricula for the UO digital arts program.
Last year, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Macintosh computer, Apple commemorated one Macintosh innovator for each year. Hickman was selected to represent 1990, and his image was published on the Apple website.
Hickman developed Kid Pix in 1988. He saw his 3-year-old son, Ben, get frustrated using MacPaint (the only art program on the Macintosh 1 computer) whenever a dialogue box popped up or he clicked on the desktop and the program disappeared.
Hickman had been a programmer for 16 years. He had heard a clacking sound coming from a room labeled “The Terminal Room” at Evergreen State College, where he worked as a photographer. He found a friend inside, surrounded by typewriter-like devices. He showed Hickman how to write a few lines of code.
“I was hooked,” Hickman said. “I didn’t have a choice in the matter. It was like true love or something.”
He’d hadn’t intended to study computer programming, and never enrolled in a course. So he taught himself everything.
Hickman’s friend Chris Rauschenberg said Hickman was always teaching himself how to invent things.
“It’s not like he takes a class and learns how to do it. He just does stuff,” said Rauschenberg. He recalled Hickman making a scanner from an IBM selectric typewriter. “He was a wild man,” he said. “He made a burglar alarm with his Atari.”
The frustration Hickman’s son felt with MacPaint was a sentiment shared by many computer users of all ages.
“I like the idea of having a problem to solve,” said Hickman, who taught computer courses at UO at this point. “Everyone was frustrated, and it was a great time because there was lots of stuff to solve.”
Hickman decided on a few defining principles of Kid Pix upfront: The program needed to be accessible for a young audience. It should be open-ended and self-explanatory. No dead-end alleys. No dialog boxes.
“I had to violate some of the user interface guidelines of Apple to do that,” said Hickman.
Kid Pix was equipped with an unorthodox toolset of options. The “wacky brushes” were a spin on the traditional paintbrush and pencil, with stickers and rubber stamps that could be spilled anywhere you wanted. The Undo Guy (a little face in the toolbar) would take back any recent mark you made and a firecracker emblem could be dragged onto the canvas, where it’d blow up your creation.
“And in typical Craig fashion, he started making it more wonderful and crazy,” said Rauschenberg.
Rauschenberg remembers when Hickman showed him the leaky pen and dripping paintbrush tools; wherever you held the pen, it would leak a bigger blot until you lift it up again and drag it elsewhere.
“How long did this take you?” Rauschenberg asked him. Hickman mumbled, “A couple hundred hours.”
He put Kid Pix out in the public domain, which annoyed the UO art department figureheads, who told him that the program was worth selling. Later, Hickman sold 100 copies of the program from home, where people would mail him $25 checks for a floppy disk copy.
When Apple released its first color computer in 1993, Hickman updated Kid Pix with color and sound. Color was easy; that work was done in a day. Sound was trickier. He recorded sound effects from himself and family members. The Undo Guy (voiced by Hickman) would exclaim, “Oh no!” whenever something needed negating. The firecracker was soon paired with a boom.
Kid Pix was a hit, and not just with kids. It was used at Brown University to teach college students basic computer literacy.
It was sold internationally and translated into about a dozen languages including Japanese, Hebrew and Finnish. It became one of the best-selling software programs for Apple through the ‘90s. Even Microsoft put out a children’s art program called “Fine Artist” in ‘94 to compete with its success.
“Craig thought, ‘Well that’s going to be the end of mine.’ But it wasn’t,” Rauschenberg recalled. “Because Microsoft doesn’t have the sense of humor that Craig has.”
Hickman reiterates: “Kid Pix clobbered it.”
Digital arts Professor Ying Tan played with Kid Pix for the first time six years before she came to the UO and became a colleague of Hickman’s.
“You could tell it was not designed by an engineer, so it got our attention,” said Tan, who added, “I’ve always held him in the highest regard as a colleague and a pioneer in the field.”
Hickman was the digital arts program’s first director and regularly teaches courses that overlap programming with artistry.
“It’s not a skill. It’s like he has an empathy for technology,” said Kate Wagle, UO professor of art and then-department head. “Not every artist can understand technology and science in the same way they understand art media in the way Craig can.”
Today, Hickman has little involvement in Kid Pix; it’s now owned by Software MacKiev, which is based in Boston with programmers in Kiev, Ukraine. The program still resonates with several students, especially within the current generation.
“His program helped lift my creativity and fuel my artistic passion all through elementary school,” said digital arts major Cole Kastner. “It’s an amazing medium for kids who don’t have the proper supplies to feed their artistic desire. It’s a lifesaver.”
Meanwhile, a piece of code written in 1993 still leaves an impression on Hickman’s reputation.
In 2015, typing “Craig Hickman is…” into Google will still yield the automated suggestion “…Satan’s love child.”
“Well, there are other Craig Hickmans,” he pointed out, “but that one would be referring to me.”
Listen to our interview with Hickman on the Emerald Podcast Network below.
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