How to Get Your Students to Move Beyond Trite Imagery and Develop Original Concepts

One of the most challenging things we do as art teachers is try to teach students how to come up with unique ideas. Our world is awash with tired, overused symbolism. We see it day in and day out: cute smiley faces for happiness, hearts for love, and doves for peace. If you want students to tackle big ideas in their work in original ways, it’s essential to help kids move past this trite imagery.

One lesson that works well for this purpose is the “Not Trite Challenge.”

The Why

This lesson works well for middle school and high school students. It is eye opening for kids because it causes them to think about how our use of symbolism impacts the images we create. It’s also a good way to connect your curriculum with the visual culture that surrounds us and to dive into the the symbolic language we all use to communicate. When I teach it, I have students pick their own media and spend around a week of class time on the project.

Getting Started

The learning goal for this project is to create an artwork that addresses common themes while avoiding trite symbolism. Because we’re working on idea generation and creative thinking, introducing the lesson is important.

I like to start by defining and discussing the word “trite.” The English Oxford Living Dictionary defines “trite” as “(of a remark or idea) lacking originality or freshness; dull on account of overuse.”

After discussing, have students share examples of overused symbols they experience. Talk about how symbols can have multiple meanings depending on how they are used. Text emoticons are a great way to help students think about this idea. Work together as a class to make a list of trite symbols on the board. Explain the challenge in this lesson is to make artwork about the meaning of a trite symbol in an original way, without using the symbol at all.

Lesson Steps

Step 1: Organizing Thinking

Model how to think through the development of an idea by showing students how to make a simple graphic organizer. Draw a chart with three rows and three columns on the board. Categories should be made for a picture of the symbol, its meaning, and ideas for artwork. Model picking a symbol and drawing an image of it in the correct spot, then fill out the rest of the row.

filled out chart

Walking younger students through this process is important to make sure they understand how to complete the task, but older students will do fine if you reference an example you’ve created before class. Instruct students to make and fill out their own charts with symbols from the list you’ve generated as a class. Or, you can grab the handy download below!


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Step 2: Time to Create

After students finish working on their graphic organizer they will pick one of the ideas they’ve come up with and develop it into a finished piece. The first steps are to find resource images and create a compositional sketch. After the work is planned, students should create their final artwork.


While the class moves through this process, circulate around the room and help students work through ideas, brainstorm, and problem-solve as needed. Be sure to discuss each student’s idea with them and give feedback on how to improve their concept if they are straying too close to trite imagery. Check out a great take on “the corner sun” below.

corner "suns"

Step 3: Share and Reflect

Try playing a game to end the learning experience. Have students write the name of the symbol they used as the inspiration for their work on a note card. Next, ask them to place their finished artwork on the table and the note card in a pile in the center of the table. Rotate table groups so each group is in front of another group’s work, then have each group try to match the symbol cards to the artwork. To make the game more challenging, you can make some symbol note cards of your own and place a few in each group’s pile. When the matching is done, ask each group to share why they made the matching decisions they did.

Helping kids move past trite imagery is no easy task. It takes time, practice, and effort on the part of both the student and the teacher. However, with work and growth over time, you will find that it’s a very teachable skill. Once students are aware of what trite imagery is, they will be better able to create work that feels original and fresh.

How do you get students to move past trite imagery in your room?

How do you teach creative thinking? Tell us in the comments section! 

Melissa Purtee

Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina and is the author of The Open Art Room. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.


  • Abby Fliehler

    LOVE THIS!!!
    Thank you

    • I’m so glad you like it – it is such a fun lesson!

  • annberman

    This is a great idea, but what about elementary-age students? M&M birds, sunsets, rainbows, smiley suns, peace signs, yin-yang signs……..any suggestions?

    • Hi! I’d talk about the difference between symbols and what things really look like. Give the example of the corner sun. Use a graphic organizer to compare the similarities and difference between a realistic sun and the symbol. Just pointing out the issue helps.

      • annberman

        Thanks, great advice!

    • nicole

      I love this art project, thank you for sharing! I’m planning a pop art project where my students are allowed to use these symbols. I think it’s important to acknowledge the importance of these symbols to the students, even if we may think they are trite. 5th grade gets one project with them, then that’s it! They are not allowed to use them in anything else. No emoji’s, no illuminati’s, they have to be saved for the pop art unit!

  • Phyllis Bloxson

    Do you have any suggestion on how to get rid of the old space taker stand by, the hairy sun slapped in the corner just to take up space? I make them illegal after first grade. I explain that the sun they’re using is a symbol not real and if it was in their field of vision it would change how the rest of the colors really are, but it is a constant battle. Another is putting smiley faces on their animals. It makes me cringe. I teach K-5 kids some come weekly others every six or seventh day.

    • Alanna

      sometimes I take kids outside and ask them to show me where the sun is- it’s never in the corner! We also talk about different ways we can do the sin- it’s a beautiful thing and deserves lots of colour and texture to show it!

      • Phyllis Bloxson

        We do radial balance sun designs, I also explain that if the sun is in our field of vision it changes all the other colors, so sunrises or sunsets are OK. You are correct the Sun is a wonderful subject when used appropriately.

  • Gerrie Gilchrist

    i like this. I am going to use this with my 4th and 5th grade students. I am pretty good at getting the younger students to move away from trite symbols, But when the sap starts rising in 4th grade they fall into this zone. This Visual organizer is also adaptable to 2-5 sketch planning. Whenever we do a project I have the students give me two or three idea sketches that have to be completely different. For example I do a monster drawing with 2nd grade. They have elements the must include but their three sketches must be completely different. (different body, shape, different emotion, …) I could modify this form to help them and me easily see the changes they make.

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