A stick figure is a very simple drawing of a person or animal, composed of a few lines, curves, and dots. In a stick figure, the head is represented by a circle, sometimes embellished with details such as eyes, mouth or crudely scratched-out hair. The arms, legs and torso are usually represented by straight lines. Details such as hands, feet and a neck may be present or absent, and the simpler stick figures often display an ambiguous emotional expression or disproportionate limbs.
Graffiti of stick figures are found throughout history, often scratched with a sharp object on hard surfaces such as stone or concrete walls. Stick figures are often used in sketches for film storyboarding.
The stick figure’s earliest roots are in prehistoric art. Tens of thousands of years later, writing systems that use images for words or morphemes—e.g. logographies such as Egyptian and Chinese—started simplifying people and other objects to be used as linguistic symbols.
The use of a minimum of detail allows a light style and a quick drawing, but also causes an ambiguity in the expression of the emotions. In order to remove this ambiguity, draftsmen use conventions, such as eyebrows pointing down to show anger, wide-eyed for fear, or gaping mouth for surprise.
Match sticks are used in signage, especially with symbols created by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), for their universality. The symbols are understandable for everyone, thus avoiding having to translate every piece of information into the most used languages.
They are also found in the literature, with for example an adventure by Sherlock Holmes, called Les Hommes dansants, based on a code representing match sticks, but also in video games, with Xiao Xiao and especially in comics, especially with the webcomics.
Stick figures are often used in animations made with Adobe Flash. Such figures are easy to draw and can be traditionally animated much more quickly than full drawings. Some online cartoon series, such as Xiao Xiao, have been made using the software.
Many other stick figure animation suites exist, which allow the user to create an animation frame-by-frame, or by extrapolating the intermediate frames between a start and endpoint. Animations can be exported in various formats and shared online. Stick figure animation software includes Pivot Stickfigure Animator.
The Italian animated TV series La Linea depicts a figure outlined by lines, so it is not a real stick figure.
There is also a modern history that traces at least in part from Rudolf Modley’s extending the use of figures from Isotype for commercial use. The first international use of stick figures is in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Pictograms created by Japanese designers Masaru Katzumie and Yoshiro Yamashita formed the basis of future pictograms. In 1972, Otl Aicher developed the round ended, geometric grid based stick figures used on the signage, printed materials, and television for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Drawing on those and many other similar symbol sets in use at the time, in 1974 and 1979 AIGA (commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation) developed the DOT pictograms—50 public domain symbols for use at transportation hubs, large events, and other contexts in which people would know a wide variety of different languages. These, or symbols derived from them, are used widely through much of the world today.