Name Designs: The Perfect Lesson to Start Your Year

After working at the elementary level for fourteen years, I moved to the high school arena. From day one, I realized my high school kiddos were very similar to my elementary kiddos. I began to wonder if their art lessons could be similar as well. Here’s what I found out.

First, I realized all kids love stickers, candy, and positive affirmations for a job well done. Second, I realized the key to the success of an art program often lies in the first few lessons. It’s our job to guide our students and teach them the tools and techniques necessary to help them become the artists they aspire to be.

The Name Design Lesson is the perfect lesson for all grade levels and can start the year off right!

name design

This lesson is wonderful on many levels. To start, it will help you learn your students’ names. At one point, I taught over 1300 students. That is a lot of names to remember! Being a visual learner, this lesson helped me recall many of those names early on.

This lesson also helps you get to know each student’s preferences, hobbies, and personalities. Perhaps most importantly, it gives you the opportunity to teach your students the many tools of art right from the start and to see where their individual strengths lie.

Here are 8 steps to teaching the Name Design Lesson and what students will learn along the way.


Before we jump into the steps, here is what your students will need for this lesson.

  • 6″ x 12″ drawing paper
  • Pencils
  • A variety of wet and dry media
  • Magazines
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Computer and printer (optional)

1. Create a mind map.

student mind map

Teach students to brainstorm and think creatively by having them create a simple mind map about themselves. Have them start with their name in the middle. Then, have them map things like hobbies, interests, and passions. Once they’ve written down their words, have them come up with an interesting symbol for each.

2. Using the mind map as a starting point, begin to create the name.

Once students have come up with symbols to describe their interests and likes, have them creatively incorporate these symbols into their name. They can create the actual letters or use the negative space to create the letters. In this way, they must think about the importance of composition.

3. Highlight helpful tools.

This lesson is a perfect time to teach students about the media and tools needed to be successful artists. For example, if students are worried their handwriting is sloppy or messy, show them how they can print out enlarged fonts from the computer to trace or collage onto their piece.

fonts to trace

4. Demonstrate collage techniques.

You can also teach students about the value of the images found within the pages of everyday magazines. Be sure to emphasize the importance of cutting and gluing neatly when collaging. When students have the freedom to collage, they don’t feel as pressured to draw perfectly.

5. Have students practice drawing from life.

Teach students about the importance of drawing from life and researching the images in which they are interested. This takes their art to a whole new level.

student name design

6. Encourage students to use a variety of media.

This lesson is also a great way to teach students how to experiment with various mediums. For example, I show them how to paint with markers, layer colors with crayons or colored pencils, and create a variety of line quality with drawing pens. I model how to use gradation in their graphite drawings, adding value and showcasing light sources.

7. Emphasize craft.

In my mind, one of the most important things this lesson teaches students is how to care about their art and the marks they make. It’s a great reminder that craftsmanship is an important part of the creative process.

student name design

8. Mount finished pieces for display.

To finish this lesson, I teach students how to mount their pieces and label them for exhibition. Then, we hang every piece in class exhibits that introduce our students to the school!

At the end of this lesson, students have experienced and learned how to manipulate a wide variety of wet and dry media. In addition, they have made artistic decisions based on their experimentation to create a cohesive, composed name design. They are always amazed at how well their first art project turned out because they learned the value of planning and taking the time to create and experiment. In the end, this lesson teaches students the power of their artistic voices.

Do you think the first art lesson of the school year is important?

What lessons do you teach your students early on and why are they successful in setting your students up for a successful year of art?

Debi West


Debi West, Ed.S. and NBCT, is a retired art teacher with 25 years of experience. She loves sharing with others, and her motto is, “Together We ART Better!”


  • Tara Ringenwald

    Please describe to me how you mount these? What backer board do you use and what kind of glue.

    I do a similar project with my students but I like the addition of the mapping exercise.

    • Debi West

      Hey there….I have them use poster board and Elmer’s – if they want a pop of color they can use a piece of construction paper. Hope this helps and thanks for writing!

      • Tara R

        Thank you so much!

  • Diana X. Muñiz

    LOVED THE IDEA!! but no instructions or bridge between the introduction of materials to how they lay out the compositon (what steps taken to lay out from mind map to composition?) the pictured sample lay outs don’t line up to the numbered instructions? how did you tell students to decide elements of mind map to make compositions, there is a gap

    • Debi West

      Let me know if it’s making sense now – students make the mind map (or creative flow chart) and then go from there! I don’t give them too many parameters so they are free to create – have them consider negative and positive space!

      Lmk if I can help – thanks for writing!

  • Diana X. Muñiz

    okay, studying the samples i’m seeing that the mind map symbols are used to shape letters? was that a stated intention?

    • Debi West

      Yes…when they come up with visual symbols to go with their words, that’s how they begin the creative process. It’s pretty open ended after this point and I’m always amazed at how creative they get!!

  • Karen Bloch

    Thanks so much for sharing this! My middle school art program has changed, and I will have MANY more students this year. I will use this lesson as a fun way to get to know all of them. Enjoy what remains of your summer…2 1/2 more weeks to go for me!
    Karen Bloch
    Westwood Regional Middle School, Westwood, NJ

    • Debi West

      I’m beyond happy to hear this and can’t wait to see the magical art your students create! I’m telling you, seeing this work will help you get to know your kids so must faster!
      Here’s so a GREAT year!

  • Amy Stump

    This is great lesson for first day teaching art to high schoolers, because I need all the visual reminders I can otherwise I call everyone sweetie! Im going to use your weekly journal idea too. Wonderful advice!

    • Debi West

      Awesome Amy! I love hearing this! Please let us know how they work out for you!!

  • Heidi Hubinger

    Debi, It’s fantastic that you’ve shared this lesson. I have done this lesson with my elementary and middle school students for over 15 years! We spend about 8-10 class periods making it. I call it a “Name Illustration” and they learn about symbols and stretch their minds to use abstract as well as literal representations of their personality, interests, and important things in their lives. I have my students create a mind map, as well as a chart or other kind of graphic organizer, before they sketch out ways to represent their “personal symbols.” It’s a great way for them to practice planning, including sketching out their images lightly, trying a variety of compositions before creating a final piece. My students make their Name Illustrations on their 12″x18″ portfolios. I love your idea of using multi-media. Since my students create their designs on their portfolio tagboard, I typically limit the media to 2-D (non-bulky, non-wet materials), but you’ve inspired me to allow the students to choose any media for this project. Thanks for sharing! 6th grade Name Illustration “Alyssa”

    • Debi West

      Heidi – thanks so much for sharing this and for explaining the way you teach this. I really do think this is an important lesson on so many levels!
      Have a fabulous year!!

    • S Miller

      These are fabulous ideas here! To add to them, if you want a smaller project, ms students can create bookmarkers (watercolor, ink, color pencil) with creative/design (with theme or without) lettering of their name filling the space. We used expensive textured watercolor paper for this. They look especially fabulous when laminated afterward and displayed collectively — they always seemed rather jewel like, to me. Also: 6th graders create a large portfolio cover design (we used white butcher paper and did watercolor washes over the pencil and permanent ink designs) using enlarged creative lettering of their name based on a real or imaginary/simply fun career. I have seen every kind of theme, including dentistry, tech, radio broadcasting, military, culinary arts, performing arts, medicine, and of course art teacher as a few examples.

      • Debi West

        Ohhhh – LOVE This! Would love to see those laminated bookmarks! ?

        • S Miller

          I’ll try to find a photo at some point and share…

  • Sue Miller
    Bookmark Sample from 2014 – This 7th grade student was very bright and chose/developed, on her own, the idea of embedding her first name into her last name. She had some advanced skills and went about this systematically, quite successfully ignoring my suggestions “not” to use black. Unfortunately, the images that featured a gallery display of all art students’ bookmarkers were on my old iPad that broke 3 years ago. Most students chose a color scheme, did a wash first or last, and were free to decorate the reverse side with a quote they liked or a simple wash or whatever they wanted. I might try it again this year — last year we had no supplies to do it when we opened the new school and many of our kids lacked art backgrounds.