Design Safari

As part of DS106 last week, I had to go on a Design Safari. Armed with my camera I had to get out and about and look for some photos to illustrate certain design elements. The first thing that it thought me was how hard this was. I tend to use my camera like a gun, shooting off rounds in all directions. Sooner or later, I usually hit something and I tell myself that this is what it takes to get into the zone.
This is grand when I am looking for nothing in particular, but when it comes to following a design brief it is a woeful strategy.
The other thing that I have noticed lately in a lot of areas relating to information is how long it takes to get what you need. I spend an awful lot of time waiting for information for different projects. It could be a sign off on the copy for a blogpost, a picture, a logo or just the go-ahead for a social media plan. I am quick to get frustrated when this happens with others but this assignment showed me just how difficult it can be to capture specific design elements myself.

Before I set off on the adventure I had a listen to Timmmyboy share his experiences about playing with design and how it is open to all. I still have a weird relationship with art and design, and I often think it is not for me, which is crazy. What is even crazier is how important it is. Just today I was listening to some work colleagues work on an administration project. It involved gathering information and presenting it, but they had given no thought to the design of the project and they were going round in circles as a result. After a quick chat about design, everyone went away happy and they knew what information was needed. Later on tonight, I joined in with a twitter chat about the use of avatars and how they act as visual hooks when fishing in a sea of information. Design is part of our new info literacy now.

The first element that I had to find was colour. I thought this would be easy. Everything has colour. It does, but not everything is designed with colour in mind. I tend to use colour based on my own particular preferences. This is great if I want to just please myself but not so great if I am trying to convey a particular message. Some colours are warm, others are cold. Warm colours jump out of an image. Cold colours slink back into the background. I remember from my teenage years reading horoscopes, that different colours are associated with different star-signs. I am not sure how accurate that was but colours do have different connotations in different cultures. Most of us are familiar with the notion of Japanese cultures use of white for funerals but the infographic from InformationisBeautiful shows even more permutations.
According to it, the bathrobes in my house suggest femininity, freedom, cowardice and truce. In my circles anyway.


I love a good metaphor. I think that a lot of good design is based on the ability to manipulate meaning. I think that all elements in design do this, but metaphor is an extreme case. It is meaning twisted inside out to give a dual meaning. This photo does not work because it runs foul of one of the Gestalt elements – Dominance. I was trying to catch something about the castle as a symbol of oppression and the lifebuoy as a symbol of safety. I was obviously trying too hard and over-thinking. The image of the post is too dominant in the foreground and it pulls too much focus away from the castle.

The next picture illustrates Affordance. This is a concept that is used a lot in industrial and user-centred design and it is based on the interplay between form and function. The simplest example is a door knob which affords turning while a panel affords pushing. Affordance is usually brought up in examples of poor design, or false affordance. As you can see from the picture below, it is not entirely clear which way I should turn the slot if I want to open or close the flue on my range. I experience a moment of disjointedness everytime I look at it. I used to get annoyed by it and turn it both ways in frustration, but I can live with it now because I just know which way I need to turn it.

This one shows rhythm
The size of most of the stones are pretty regular so it has a pattern that my eye is drawn to and it does suggest direction, if not movement. I find rhythm very easy to sense and I had a lot of different examples of rhythm compered to the other design elements. I wonder if there are any studies done on the subject of how easy or difficult people find it to identify design elements. For example, I find typography extremely unnatural and I have to really examine different fonts to see how they differ. Once I see them, they are obvious, but I have to look hard for them. Weird.


The picture of the church window shows unity. It uses repetition of shape, alignment on an axis and proximity to achieve its results. Unity is when the different elements of a picture just work.
If anyone is interested in learning more about design, Stephen Bradley talks a lot of sense about it on his website. Very accessible and down to earth.

Image credit –


Digital Storytelling

NPD Ireland approached me recently to do a guest post on their blog about my information journey and I created what you see below. I thought that I would explain exactly how I did it, just in case someone else would like to have a go.

StoryBird was the main visual resource that I used for the project. It was primarily designed so that children who were separated geographically from their grandparents could collaborate with them on creating stories. The whole idea is that the constraint of using the artwork forces the imagination to build a story. It is a common technique for storytelling and it works beautifully. I really like StoryBird because of that constraint on images. If I was to start from scratch, I would never get going. Myself and the kids have played around with it before so I knew that it would work. Below is an older one made when Zoe was seven.

I had already seen Alexei Bitskoffs’ fantastic designs on StoryBird. He is the multimedia designer for ICYPEN and creates these fantastic worlds for children. First of all I created a visual story in Storybird and filled in the text. So there was a constant moving of images to get the arc of the narrative right. That was fun and it gave me the bones of the journey. Meanwhile I began searching for audio files. The story was constantly changing as I played around with the text. As soon as I realised that there was a running theme of travelling in the images, this informed my search for sound effects. I searched sites like Freesounds looking for different train whistles and sounds. I loved that part of the project. I love the way sound can create a picture so easily and I love layering different sounds together. By then I had started playing around with rhymes because that sing-song quality is great for Zoe and she finds it much easier when it comes to recording. I was playing with the idea of having a train on tracks running behind Zoe’s voice but the idea popped into my head that a typewriter has much the same rhythm and it gave an extra layer to the project about story creation. That is what I love about Digital Storytelling, the way all these things come together to create something new. I would love to say that this was a straightforward workflow but it wasn’t. It very rarely is. There was a lot of different takes, listens, new ideas and re-takes, but that is the way it goes. Add the technical bits into all that and it was a nice little project.

Technically, the visuals were the easiest for me. They were just perfect. Once I put them in order and published them on Storybird I just had to use a snipping tool to gather them as pngs and insert them into moviemaker to wait for the audio. I find the technical side of projects like this quite daunting at first and I spend a lot of time asking questions on forums. I have one mode of learning when it comes to technical matters – make mistakes and learn how to not repeat them. However, I do love the fact that pretty much anything is possible digitally these days.
I tried recording Zoe on my phone first, but the recording was just too rough even when cleaned up in Audacity. So I recorded it on my camera instead and then used Power Director 11 to separate the audio from the video. This took a few extra takes because we were not used to the mic on the camera. There is probably a way to use Windows Movie Maker to do this, depending on what OS you use and what type of moviemaker you have but I had Power Director handy on a PC and I knew this would do the job. My biggest problem with this process is all the uploading and changing of files that it entails. If the workflow gets interrupted, which it does when you work on multiple projects like I do, the greatest difficulty is in managing all the files so you are ready to just start again when you get back to it. Nothing worse than being all fired up and you cannot find where you put the latest edit. Such is the nature of this sort of work and I think that is what I learned most of all from this project.
Once I isolated the audio I could put it in Audacity and start to edit and mix. I use Audacity for most audio mixing. It is free and I love free stuff. For my purposes (digital storytelling) it is perfect. I don’t need Hollywood sound. I actually like the rough and ready sound of home cooked audio. If it cannot be replicated at home with free tools, it does not interest me. I edited all the snippets of outtakes and laughter out of the audio, ran the noise removal tool through it and exported it as a wav file. The first time I did this, I thought that it was ok, but it turned out that when played on speakers the quality was terrible, so I had to redo it. Once I was happy with the quality of Zoes’ voice I started to add in the train sounds and typewriter and mix it all together, positioning the audio where I wanted it and using the envelope tool to get all mixed. The typewriter took the most time because I had to cut it exactly in order to paste it into the sections where the pages change.

Once I was happy with the final mix, after exporting it, I imported it to moviemaker and it was then a simple matter of  moving the images to where I need them to match the audio. Finally I got a wmv file that I could send on to the the guys in NPD and it was ready to go.