Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Learning Appreciation for Graphic Literature

Recently, I was invited to conduct a workshop for kids aged 8-12 on graphic novels and web comics at my local library . As you may be able to tell from the name of this blog, I am a fan of comics. When I was a kid I did not like reading and only read comic books and books in the Choose Your Own Adventure series (now I'm a PhD candidate so don't believe the criticism that reading comics makes you stupid.)

I was eager to lead this workshop to help convince kids that graphic literature is a legitimate literary and art form and that they can do it themselves. I had three goals for this workshop:
  1. introduce components and techniques to reveal how the medium works 
  2. highlight various genres to show that graphic literature is broader than just superheroes (although I am an unabashed fan of this genre)
  3. get kids started in making their own graphic works
I got a good response from the kid attendees, so I thought I'd share it here.

Before starting, I should clarify terms. Kids don't really care about using correct terms, but adults do. And I, like many people, hate the term comics (as they aren't exclusively funny any more) as a term for the entire medium. The term comics should be used to refer to short content either published in monthly print magazine type form (then known as comic books), or in newspapers (then comic strips), or online (then web comics).

Although the term graphic novels has become popular, it is not a catch-all term for all the forms of the medium. Graphic novels should be used for longer form works that tell a singular story- as in a novel (but in graphic lit form). Graphic novels can be created specifically or result in a collection of comic books.  Graphic books refer to any longer graphic literature published in a book - so this can include treasuries, collections of humour strips such as Garfield, instructional, etc. I like the term graphic literature for a catch-all term.

Introduction - Sequential Art
I started by telling the kids that graphic lit is a series of panels of art and words that work together in sequence to tell a story. (You can mention that there are other forms of sequential art and a long history of this, such as ancient cave paintings. See Scott McLeod's excellent book Understanding Comics for more on this. Also, words are sometimes optional as some graphic lit uses panel images only.)

Activity: For a fun way to demonstrate the importance of sequential order, I had the kids arrange a page of a comic book that had been cut out and put in random order back into its original order. Then I asked the kids to explain why they chose the order they did.

I had pages from different titles (e.g. Teen Titans Go, Uncle Scrooge, Angry Birds, Wolverine, Spider-ham - yes, Spider-man in pig form) ranging in difficulty from easy to hard. Once the kids had their order, we'd check it against the comic book. The kids could do the easy ones on first try, but often needed hints for the more difficult ones.

Preparation: It is is essential to find a page that makes sense when removed from the overall context of the story and has self-contained panel shapes. Instead of commiting the crime of cutting up a comic book, I colour photocopied pages and then cut them out.

Activity B: Have the kids grab a handful of panels from various titles and then arrange them in whatever order they want and then tell the group their story in order based on their panels. (My daughter came up with this idea - I love it!)

Genres of Graphic Literature
Having established what a graphic book was for the kids (I used the term comic for them as they were familiar with this term and not the others), I wanted to have them consider the various different genres.

 I had the kids start by saying what graphic books they had read and what they liked about them. I asked them what genre ("type of story") they thought their example was and would help them if they got stuck (e.g. fantasy, non-fiction, humour, etc.).

I brought with me a few of my favourite kids' graphic novels from a variety of genres, showed the kids a few pages, and asked them what genre they thought it was.

Teaching kids about terminology isn't necessarily something they are interested in. But to understand the components of graphic literature, how artists use them, and how they work together to tell a story it is essential to introduce a few key terms.

I had a handout to give the kids with the following key terms:
  • Cover = first page
  • Panel = shapes (often rectangular) containing a single scene
  • Border = lines that surround a panel 
  • Speech Balloon = round containers for characters’ talk 
  • Thought Balloon = containers for characters thoughts
  • Captions = containers  for information about a scene or narration
  • Sound Effect = words used to describe sounds – Splat! Pow! 
  • Lettering = design of the words (using distinct fonts)
  • Gutter = space between panels
  • Emanata = symbols or shapes showing characters' emotions or thoughs (e.g. light-bulb for an idea, tear or sweat drops, etc.)
  • Bleed = images that extend beyond frames
  • Splash = image that takes up a whole page
  • Spread = image that takes up more than one page
Activity: I had them pick a book from my stack of graphic books. Then I would say the term and its definition and have kids point them out in their book.

To add excitement, I made it a competition to see who could find an example first or who could find the coolest example of it.

The Art of Graphic Books
The visual art aspect of graphic lit is often not considered or relegated as secondary to the words and narrative of the work. But the art is essential (and has been getting better and more diverse now for decades.) For kids inclined in visual arts, graphic lit can be a great form for them so it's important to come at this topic from this angle as well.

My handout also had a page with the following art terms:
  • Colour (intensity, hue, number)
  • Size
  • Shadows and Brightness
  • Lines (strength, shape)
  • Viewing Angle (such as sideways, birds-eye view)
  • Distance (such as close-up, far away)
  • Layout and Placement (such as overlapping, bleeding, foreground)
Activity A: As with the prior activity, I had the kids find examples of the art technique after I had explained them. We briefly discussed the way that the artist used art to tell a story or create an effect, mood, or style.

Activity B: I then had all the kids make a simple illustration.

Preparation: There are a lot of good books or websites that teach kids how to draw illustrations or comic art. I found a book page with a very easy example of how to draw a dog in five easy steps. I photocopied this page and included it in my handout.

Lettering the Work
To discuss the words and font aspects of graphic lit, I discussed how the story is told not only by the words in bubbles captions but also in how the words are presented.  I went over some terms related to font (e.g. centering, case, bolding) and then had kids define them for me.

Activity A: Using pages of a graphic book that has bubbles and captions in place but empty, I had the kids fill in their own words. I told the kids that spelling didn't matter and that they could say whatever they wanted. Then we all took turns reading and presenting our creations.

Preparation: You could make your own by whiting-out (either digitally or physically) an existing portion of a comic book. But I recommend the website for
the graphic books Stone Rabbit. They have an excellent two-page story available here to download and print that is set up for just this activity.

At this point as a reward for participating, I bribed the kids with Spider-man gummies. After recharging the kids up with sugar, I had them create their own short comic strip. I emphasized to them that anyone can create a graphic work and that to begin don't worry about art style (stick people are fine), spelling, or grammar. Just do what you want.

Activity: To make your own comic strip can be done either by having the kids hand-draw them on paper. If one has access to computers and the Internet, there are a few great websites that make it easy for kids to create their own web comics. BitStrips is such a site and is highly recommended by my daughter.

I ended it by giving the kids a list of graphic novel recommendations - which you can see via my list on Goodreads of Graphic Literature for Kids and recommending the book Lila And Ecco's Do It Yourself Comics Club. It's an amazing book for kids interesting in learning more about how to create their own graphic work.

Let me know if this lesson plan or any of the activities are useful. Spread the graphic lit love and knowledge!

Thursday, March 05, 2015

In Defence of Stock Photos

Stock photography - that is a library of royalty-free photos - seems to be the subject of much mockery lately. Buzzfeed has numerous, hilarious pages involving the glorification of the cheesiness of stock photos.

For tomorrow's release of the film Unfinished Business, the studio has released stock photos of the typical business sort with the cast of Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, and Dave Franco.

AdWeek has an article on the campaign and the full set of photos. It turns out the photos are actually digitally altered to include the cast into pre-existing stock photos. But they look convincingly cheesy.

You can get the stock photos on Getty Images - along with the equally hilarious captions.

 But stock photos aren't necessarily as bad as these satires make out. If you have a website or other types of publications to get out on a budget or very quickly, stock photography can be a lifesaver. It's not like many people can afford to hire a photographer and arrange a custom photo shoot every time they need an image.

Stock photo providers contain an amazingly extensive library of stock photos - generally categorized and with keyword tags so nowadays its easy to find any photo you want at an affordable price - even if your tastes tend to the cheesy!

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Careers in Corporate Digital Media

I recently spoke to a class of university undergraduates on possible careers in corporate digital media. It was a short guest lecture to cover the basics to consider a career in this field.

Here is my slides on this topic:

Monday, March 02, 2015

Tips for Corporate Websites and Intranets

I'm lecturing to an undergraduate class this week on careers in the design and management of corporate websites and intranets. Having worked in the area for over eleven years, it's a subject I am quite familiar with.

I asked my colleagues on social media what their tips are for having an effective corporate website or intranet site and the skills required to work in this field. Their advice was so useful, I wanted to share it here.

So here are tips from industry professionals:
1) To have a truly successful site, one has to listen to the site's users. You can make a beautifully designed site, but if people have difficulty doing what they need to do, they will be very frustrated. In the case of intranets, you could see people abandoning it altogether. I have seen it happen many times. This is where user experience (UX) testing comes in. Learning UX methods translate to other areas of work as well, so are extremely useful to learn.
2) User experience is all clients talk about and not just with Web, but with every touch point.
3) It is not enough just to put a shiny new technology in place. Need to look at users, content, processes and governance. So many business leaders think it is enough to put new technology in place to get improvements. But if you don't look at improving processes, cleaning up content and meeting user needs, it just ends up being "garbage in/garbage out". Also on the people side, need to think about change management. Again, culture will override any other strategy work.
4) Technology is a complement and a facilitator of proper business process not a cure-all. Technology cannot change the way a business works...only a culture change can do that.
5) True business leaders have to buy in [to new online efforts], but they also need to actively champion it throughout the software cycle. If the company senses the leadership is not behind they will not cooperate. I find that [staff] users are threatened by the efficiences that technology will bring. In companies with entrenched cultures and attitudes, users will not give the information or co-operate with the process to make technology work. This goes hand in hand with poor business processes and people protecting their jobs.
And finally a short but invaluable tip:
Under promise, over deliver.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Building a Solid Information Architecture for a Website

I attended a working session recently to plan out the information architecture of an organization facing profound problems with their existing websites.

The organization's web content is deep and they tried to solve this by having two websites. A recent stakeholder revolt convinced the organization back to the drawing board with the website. This time they were seeking the input of a the various different stakeholder groups (always a great idea).

I decided to participate as I love information architecture (IA). I relished categorizing things since I was a youngster and as a website manager among my favourite duties was planning out (and replanning) the IA of a site.

Here are some tips I gathered from my experience and the session.

The expert introduced us to the pioneering work in this field by Richard Saul Wurman (here's a brief history of IA).

The expert also recommended when preparing to do an IA start by listing all the stakeholders and user groups. A stakeholder and user group may be one in the same, but not always. Stakeholders need to be considered as even if they don't use the website, the final IA still has to be fine by them.  It is also important to consider, the expert noted, how a user group changes over time and the resulting changes in information needs. For example, a student changes (hopefully) over time to an alumnus or a prospective customer to an owner.

It is important to know how your users think about your content - how they would categorize, structure, and name in their own words. There are various ways to do this. I have done focus groups and user testing and they are good sources, but I think card sorting is the way to go for preparing for IA. Card sorting is where you ask users to "participants organize topics into categories that make sense to them and they may also help you label these groups" according to

The IA expert also stressed that it is crucial when labeling the navigation elements "to not worry about being interesting, be clear. The content can be interesting, your navigation should be clear." I recommend using the words your users would use for the labels as much as reasonably possible.

We also discussed at the session on the necessity to make trade-offs and prioritizations. For example, you can't design the IA of a website both for a novice and for an expert user at the same time. They likely won't think about the content and names in the same way the more familiar they get with your topic.

You can consider duplicating content to get around this or other situations, and while this may work it can also make a website more of a quagmire. So thread carefully with duplication as the best solution depends on the unique considerations of each website and its users.

Another challenge we wrestled with is whether to keep users out of content that doesn't apply to them (via separate sites or log-in) or have all your content open to all for transparency. Again, the best solution depends on the individual website.

My biggest tip, however, is invest in a good search engine - the best you can afford. Then customize and maintain it. Great IA and navagation aids can never direct every user all the time to the correct content and some people are search dominant (they go right go the search feature as soon as they arrive). Make sure to configure the search settings with how your users will use it. This means your search engine should support natural language, stem, and fuzzy search (which I believe are standard nowadays). Many search engines will allow for a customized thesaurus. Find out the actual words your uses use to think of your content (via focus groups, surveys, and anecdotal feedback mechanisms). As the essence of search engines is indexing words, it is also a good idea to write your content so that keywords are used.
In going through our organization's various content and functions that the website was required to house, it quickly became overwhelming to have one site that could satisfy (let alone delight) every stakeholder. Doing a website's IA for any organization is something that takes time, careful consideration, and no doubt delicate political wrangling. 

It is definitely worth devoting the time, energy, money and machiavellian ploys as truly a good information arcitecture forms the foundation for an effective website.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Undergrad Students Predict Technology Trends

I have been working as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate e-business class for the Communication, Culture, Information and Technology program at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus , which gives me the chance to talk about some cool tech, trends, and their possible ramifications for business.

Last week the students presented on four different technologies that they anticipate becoming increasingly applicable for businesses: drones, m-Payments, wearable technology, and holograms & virtual reality.

Below are my notes from the presentations, with a few points thrown in from the course instructor and some polishing and links by me. I thought the class did a great job in the short time they had to prepare. For those new to these areas, this is a good brief primer with some key considerations.

- drones can be used for various consumer uses beyond its military roots
- Amazon experimented with delivery drones,  but wasn't yet viable for full-scale deployment [I think this was actually a publicity stunt]
- "selfie drones" available to photo-document your life
- can be used for emergency medical response, e.g. sending a defibrillator
- drones are useful for investigations into environments where people
can't easily go (e.g. hydro towers, hostile places)
- various socio-political concerns limit uptake such as: privacy, spying, possible terrorist use, airspace regulations (i.e. flight paths and height and restricted zones)
- technological issues also remain, such as: weight they can carry (limits quality of cameras they can carry), poor battery life (but this may soon be solved)

-mobile commerce (m-Commerce) definition was given as "efficient, on-the-go
interacting with commerce through one's mobile device"
- anticipate m-Commerce will be huge and grow in tandem with e-Commerce
- for higher adoption rates would be a triggered by a killer app, which hasn't yet appeared (a killer app for gunpowder was not original use for fireworks, but rather for guns/canons or email for the Internet)
- a single, unified payment and loyalty system could be this killer app (for instance people wouldn't need a special Starbucks app for payment and loyalty privileges and similar apps for the other businesses as this could be offerred in one app)
- for m-Payments to flourish there needs to be a critical mass of businesses offerring the option and no barriers to use between the merchant and mobile user - Bluetooth or Near Field Communications (NFC) already installed on many mobiles can enable frictionless payments
- security concerns are still limiting uptake - but this could be mitigated by adding a biometric verification (e.g. fingerprint) with payments and fraud protection
- facilitating peer-to-peer mobile payments could penetrate new markets based on socio-religious barriers limiting existing electronic payment methods as credit cards are not suitable for Muslims due to usury prohibitions or people unable to get credit cards such as youth
- could be used in conjunction with digital currencies such as Bitcoin

- brand names dominant in this sector at present (e.g. Google Glass
and Sony SmartWatch), yet this area has lots of current development by less high-profile companies that is not widely known
- wearable tech used in health sector, e.g. diabetes RFID tests,
Alzheimer guard tech, etc.
- also used for entertainment, communications, and sports and fitness
- security and reliability are a big concern limiting uptake, particularly applicable for health sector and fitness, e.g. Nike SportWatch calories burned functionality is not very accurate (particularly considering its cost, which sets up expectation
of good accuracy)
- may soon have embedded tech, e.g. chips in our body
- wearable tech is still a new market so it is anticipated that new developments and refinements will come and accuracy will improve
- customization of product offerings needed to help differentiate similar products

- recently this sector has become more notable due to Microsoft's
much-hyped launch of Microsoft HoloLens
- HoloLens uses glasses to combine real world images with augmented
reality (i.e. information/representations overlaid of real world
imagery) and virtual reality (i.e. fanciful or other types of imagery
such as images of Mars)
- holographic computing and virtual reality has been hyped for many years as the
next big new thing, but fails to catch on
- technology still needs to improve - needs to be lighter, less bulky, and faster processing speeds for wider adoption
- current viable use for this tech would be for consumers to aid in-store shopping

The students raised some of the key potential features of these technologies and the barriers to widescale adoption. My take is that technology never progresses as fast as visionaries or young people think it will. But that doesn't mean we won't continue to see some really interesting developments in these sectors over the next few months/years.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

e-Postards Archives

In addition to this blog on digital media, I also write a blog on my postcard collection @ The Deltiology Deity. Although both blogs are about media, it's rare that topics are applicable to both blogs (but it has happened). This post was lead to my thoughts lately of the need to archive various digital media content and that lead to this post below, which I ran first on Deltiology Deity...

A few weeks ago, I was thinking about the efforts to archive various Internet communication. With this and postcards in mind, I remembered a trend in the late 1990s of e-Postcards. They are like print postcards but in digital format - instead of people visiting a physical destination and mailing back a print card with a visual and textual message, visitors to websites would be given online forms to fill out to send an email to someone with a digital image and brief message.

e-Postcards are rare today, but many websites (from retailers, multinational corporations, tourist sites, cultural centres, etc.) used to offer the ability to send them.

A similar form, e-Cards, has persisted longer through such websites such as Blue Mountain and card companies such as Hallmark; although they are also dying out. e-Postcards differ from e-Cards in that they are thematically focused on a destination (in this case websites) rather than focused on special occasions, they tend to arrive straight in one's email box rather than being emailed a link to click through to see the card, and are not interactive, animated, or multimedia.

I used to get and send e-Postcards occasionally up until the past decade. As with most people, I never thought to save these e-Postcards (unlike my constant dedicated preservation of print postcards). Much of our digital heritage will just pass us by and never be saved. Admirable organizations such as the Internet Archive can only do so much. If we want our digital records to survive for future generations, as the print postcards I display here have, then it's up to us.

So I sought out websites still offering e-Postcards. Despite extensive searching, I couldn't find many websites offering them. I did, however, find a few - and a surprising variety. Here are my favourites, now preserved for posterity:
from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Loki, from a poster e-tailer

from New York's Museum of Modern Art

Self-made e-Postcard from Toronto Public Library

from Mount Washington Resort, New Hampshire

from the World Wildlife Fund
If you know of websites still offering cool e-Postcards, then send one here for history's sake.