Off the Page: The Undulating Words of Gabriel García Marquez

The interplay between literature and the various visual arts—paintings that tell stories, or books that describe paintings, or any other cross-artform conversation—has always been fascinating to me. And being the book lover that I am, artwork based on the written word itself has always captured my imagination, from the Winnie-the-Pooh movies I watched as a kid, to the Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremonies.

Winnie-the-Pooh words in the rain

Sochi Opening Ceremonies -  great Russian poets and writers

So when I discovered this “ocean of words” honoring Gabriel García Marquez, from Spain-based creative group Think Big Factory and creative agency Barrabes Meaning, I was absolutely mesmerized.

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From an article on PSFK.com:

Choosing a particular motif to trace through his work—in this case, the ocean—they set up an intricate multimedia installation involving 10,000 words 3D printed in real time.

Travesía por los estados de la palabra,” which premiered at the international art fair of Madrid, ARCOmadrid in February, was inspired by a speech given by García Marquez at the First International Congress of the Spanish Language in Zacatecas (Mexico) in 1997 called “Bottle the sea for the God of words.”

The speech is about “the power of words in the image era”—a still-relevant concept, especially in the Internet’s zeitgeist of diminished word use and 140-word tweets.

It is conceptually, visually, experientially stunning. I love this homage to “the power of words in the image era,” and the role words play in the greater social landscape, which is so evocatively visualized in this ocean. The sense of movement, based off of real-time data of word-use on Twitter, gives me the same sense of wonder as the starling murmurations I was inspired by for one of my favorite school projects.

The technology they harnessed to build this piece is also super interesting. More from the PSFK article:

The choice and arrangement of the waves behind the words is affected by the contemporary use of Márquez’s words about water by the general populace. The motion of the 3D-printed words is determined by data extracted from Twitter through a program designed in openFrameworks.

The room, on a larger scale, is a representation of what the creators’ software does, taking the elusive qualities of language and transforming them into a physical manifestation. This is made especially evident through the tirelessly working 3D printers that remain on display, and the words that flow ceaselessly through the room.

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It is so fitting that this creative exploration, pushing the envelope for the experience of the written word, was done to honor the memory of a man whose writing pushed the boundaries of the believable. I was fascinated by Gabriel García Marquez’ works, and wrote my own, rather humble, memorial to the man in this blogpost; it is lovely to see that not only will his stories live on, but his ideas will inspire art and conversations like this, still very relevant to our society today.

Exploring Stories

I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since I finished my thesis project, Same Moon, and graduated from my MFA program! Time flies, especially when you’re no longer pulling all-nighters.

My thesis project was a two-year process, and it was incredibly challenging, but it was also so much fun. Possibly my favorite part of this multifaceted project was designing an interactive ebook, which I called Exploring Stories, that used stories to allow a traveler to explore a famous historical place.

Exploring Stories - LaunchThe concept for Exploring Stories was, whether visiting a site or simply exploring from the armchair at home, users could read stories that were geotagged to specific spots within a map of the tourist destination (Angkor Wat, in the case of my demo), and explore the rich heritage of the place, told from many different perspectives and times throughout history.

The stories represented the physical space, and were navigated via a map rather than a traditional, linear Table of Contents. Users could bookmark their favorites, or explore other stories from the same time period or perspective. Users could also add their own stories to the map, to share with others or keep private in a sort of journal.

For users who were actually at Angkor Wat, their position showed up on the map so the app could be used almost as a guide, and users could access the stories near to them, and stand in the places the story was referencing.

Check out the demo video I put together below:

It was so much fun for me to explore what reading could be, and really push the limits of what defines a book or a reading experience. I love that the interactivity of ebooks or apps allows for new kinds of interaction—in mine, the user gets to go exploring, choose their own adventure and even add their own stories to the “book.” And the interactive abilities allowed me to build a tool that enabled users see the world from different perspectives, and provided an engaging portal to access history and make it come alive, rather than be lost in the past.

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I was inspired in a lot of ways by The Silent History app, which I wrote about in a previous blogpost, and by an amazing service called Maptia, where users tag blogposts to a map of the globe. If you aren’t familiar with them, I highly recommend checking both of them out!

Goodreads App: Back from the Dead

This summer, during an effort to streamline the apps on my phone and organize them in a more coherent way, I decided to finally get rid of my Goodreads app. It made me sad, but honestly, I never used it.

Goodreads is one of those products that I want to love. It’s right up my alley, using technology to enhance the reading experience in new ways. It’s focus on the social aspects reading—the shared experiences created by reading books, recommending books, talking about books, and discovering new books, is awesome. I love it. I religiously update my profile online every time I finish a new book.

But that Goodreads iPhone app was not great. I was really not a fan of their brown-on-brown-on-brown color scheme, and it was kind of clunky to use, with its opening screen taking me from my iPhone homepage to a second homepage of Goodreads app-like icons that seemed to head off into their own worlds. In addition to these icons, there were five navigational options along the bottom bar, and along the top, a Search Bar and Messages and Updates indicators. There were so many options, a lot of which I wasn’t interested in, that it felt more overwhelming rather than enticing me to use it. It didn’t help that the app seemed buggy and was constantly logging me out.

the old Goodreads homepage

So I was thrilled when I learned recently (thanks to this TechCrunch article), about the Goodreads app redesign. Glad for the excuse to give their app another try, I immediately re-downloaded it from iTunes App Store. Upon opening it I was greeted with this elegantly simple What’s New page:

Goodreads UpdateUnfortunately they have stuck to their brown-shtick (only so much you can do about branding), but aesthetically I’m a fan of the simple line-icons, layout and clean typography that is much more inline with the new iOS style. Tapping “Get Started” took me to their new Home screen which is perhaps the best improvement in the new app—instead of a landing page of “app” icons, I was immediately shown content in the form of a newsfeed. This is similar to the Goodreads website experience, and makes so much sense, as it is bringing the focus of the app back to social activity.

Outside of the new Home screen experience, a lot of the functionality has been simplified to focus on key interactions, but remains fundamentally the same. Previously there were five icons along the bottom,and now there are four: Home (the Newsfeed), My Books, Search, Scan, and More (which hides all the extra less-frequently-used functionality previously found on the homepage). At the top of the screen, the Messages and Updates notifications have been removed, leaving only the Search Bar. Even this is a little unnecessary, considering that there is also a Search Icon on the bottom, and I might be tempted to get rid of it, perhaps replace it with some sort of title or branding.

All in all I think this redesign has made a significant difference to the app experience. Goodreads hasn’t done anything groundbreaking or really actually exciting from a design perspective. What is exciting about it is that they’ve *finally* released a redesign that is a significant improvement over their previous app design, and they did a pretty good job with it. It has definitely increased the usefulness of the app for me, resulting in it once again earning a place in the reading section of my phone.

The reading section of my phone

Capable of Working Magic

I’m in the process of putting together my final portfolio for my MFA and looking around for ways to communicate my design beliefs, so I’ve been reading a lot more quotes than usual. There are two that have really stuck with me, one that speaks to the sheer delight and amazing capabilities of books and another that speaks to the purposeful nature of design, and I like them so much I thought I’d share.

Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan

The first is from Carl Sagan, an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, and author. He clearly had a great passion and respect for the capabilities of science and technology, a deep-seated wonder at our world and the way it works, and an appreciation for books. Those qualities are shown in the following quote, where he describes the incredible power of books:

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”—Carl Sagan

That quote just gets me. It really captures how truly incredible books are. I remember thinking a very similar thing (albeit not quite so eloquently) in high school when I was reading Plato’s Apology. Our class was carefully analyzing the subtle points of Plato’s logic, and I remember sitting back for a second and thinking, This guy has been dead for 2,300+ years, more time than I can really grasp, and yet his thoughts are here, today, in this book in front of me. So many people have thought about and debated his ideas for literally millenia, ever since he originally wrote them down. How crazy is that!

And the designer in me today loves Sagan’s description of writing—”lots of funny dark squiggles.” So often people overlook the importance of typography because they take it completely for granted that these black shapes on a page, or on a screen in our case, have a meaning that is decipherable to people. How did a circle become the letter “o”, that can be used next to two perpendicular lines (“t”) to create a word “to” that has so many meanings and helps hold sentences together? It’s amazing, when you sit down and really think about it.

But one thing to remember is that quote by Sagan was from his 1980 tv show and book, Cosmos, when there was no such thing as a Kindle, an iPad, or an ebook. The first personal computer was released by Apple in 1984, and the great wave of technology that has completely changed the shape of reading has all come since Sagan originally described the magic of books.

Cosmos-older edition

So I hope he’ll forgive us if we take the liberty of expanding the meaning of his quote to refer to the many different ways that thoughts are expressed by their authors and conveyed out to the greater world. Today, that amazing ability is accomplished not just by “a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts” but also by screens of all shapes that support ebooks, and really the very many different reading and publishing platforms available, including this post published on the internet via WordPress.

We could argue about whether platforms like Twitter, which allow people to author only very concise “books,” should be included, but if you are willing to admit Hemingway’s famous six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) counts, then I think Twitter must also be included.

You could argue that really what captured Sagan’s imagination and appreciation is the longevity of the thoughts in the form of a book, and how they can connect people from distant epochs, and therefore today’s technology doesn’t count as it will probably not be accessible 2,000 years from now. In fact, its a pretty safe bet that even 20 years from now technology will have so thoroughly changed that many things will no longer be accessible (floppy disk, anyone?). But not all writing has lasted that long, and many authors works have been lost over the centuries. It’s always been a process of saving and passing along only the best works of literature, and that is the same challenge we face today, just with a much larger magnitude of written work.

So I, for one, would like to extend Sagan’s wonder at books and the power of written communication to include the many different innovative forms of ebooks and digital communication popular today.

Paola Antonelli
Paola Antonelli, curator for architecture and design at MOMA

The second quote by Paola Antonelli is related, but talks about design as a whole, and how design is fundamentally about caring how something works, not just what it looks like.

“People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.”—Paola Antonelli

In relationship to books, this mean that it’s all well and good if the cover looks great, but fundamentally what’s important about the design of a book is how the format of the book accomplishes its goal, namely, getting someone to pick it up and be able to read and understand it. To enable what Sagan loves: “across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.”It means, for ebooks, that all the flashy interactivity in the world is useless, and in fact detrimental, if it doesn’t somehow serve to improve the reading experience.

And this to me is the amazing challenge of design. How do you design something that makes people’s lives better? How do you use the tools of aesthetics, of typography, of color theory, of all sorts of “cognitive science” and “beauty” that Antonelli talks about, and perhaps more than ever today, use the tools of technology to design something that “the world didn’t know it was missing?”

What a lofty, and yet worthwhile challenge! Could a designer ever hope to accomplish anything better than to give the world something it didn’t know it was missing?

To Resolve

I just stumbled across the To Resolve Project by Chris Streger. A little late for 2014, but I decided to jump on the bandwagon anyway—it’s still the first week of the new year, after all! Here’s Streger’s description of his project: “You create a list, stuff it away in a drawer and it never sees the light of day till the year has passed. I decided to ask as many talented designers I knew (or didn’t know) to create a resolution for the new year as an iPhone background.” It’s so smart, because lets face it, putting it on my phone makes it a practically constant reminder of my resolution!

I decided my main resolution for this year was to focus on finishing my thesis project, and really power through so I can graduate in May. Rather ironically, I designed this iPhone background reminder for myself while was supposed to be working on my thesis project…

No Distractions | Chase Your Dreams, Rebecca Wright

Download this design for iPhone 5 (left) or iPhone 4 (right). All work copyright Rebecca Wright:

ToResolve_NoDistractions_iPhone5    ToResolve_NoDistractions_iPhone4iOS7

Here’s a collection of some of my favorite designs from 2014 and the design archives at toresolveproject.com. They seemed to group themselves into a few themes—using technology, changing actions, and being a better person.

Using Technology

Step Away, Riley Cran, 2012Step Away by Riley Cran, 2012 (iPhone 4)

Make Shit By Hand, Cory Roberts, 2012Make Shit by Hand by Cory Roberts, 2012 (iPhone 4)

Put Down Yer Friggin' Phone Already, Curtis Jinkins, 2011Put down yer friggin’ Phone already! by Curtis Jinkins, 2011 (iPhone 4)

Just Do It!

See New Sights, Justin Mezzell, 2014See New Sights by Justin Mezzell, 2014 (iPhone 5)

Continue reading To Resolve

The Story Is Starting! A Review of The Silent History

I am more excited about The Silent History app than any other app I’ve seen in a long time. Ostensibly a novel, The Silent History is an ebook for iPhone and iPad that unfolds only over both time and place, transforming the reading experience from a passive experience into one of participation and exploration.

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A collaborative project with many contributors, it is in part the brainchild of Eli Horowitz, managing editor and publisher of McSweeney’s. Apparently Horowitz has brought his expertise in pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a book or a magazine into the digital realm. It is hard to know yet how successful he has been in pulling this off, as the book has only released three days of content so far:

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So how exactly does The Silent Histories work? Good question! The Silent Histories is the only book I’ve purchased that comes with an extensive FAQ section.

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I’m still discovering exactly what it is myself, but I think at its most basic it is a novel that is being released in segments. The whole story line is broken up into six volumes and within each volume, individual segments will be released one each day until that volume is finished. So far in the three segments released I’ve been introduced to Theodore Green (a new father), Nancy Jernick (a new mother), and August Burnham (a doctor specializing in Childhood Disintegrative Disorder). The book’s description says it will track the emergence of a new generation of children with a communication disorder that no one has seen before. In fact, at a basic level it reminds me a bit of the book Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear that also deals with a whole generation of children being born with unusual characteristics.

But the book is not merely a serially published novel. In addition to having content released over time (referred to as Testimonials) the app/novel also has content released only in certain places. Referred to as Field Notes, these additions to the story line are tied to a physical place and are only available when the reader is in close physical proximity to that place. The app’s full description of field notes is the following:

“The Field Reports are short, site-specific accounts that deepen and expand the central narrative, written and edited in collaboration with the readers of the Testimonials. To access and comprehend a Field Report, the reader must be physically present in the location where the Report is set. Reports are deeply entwined with the particularities of their specific physical environments — the stains on the sidewalk, the view between the branches, a strangely ornate bannister, etc — so that the text and the actual setting support and enhance each other. Each of these reports can be read on its own, but they all interrelate and cohere within the larger narrative.”

What is perhaps even more intriguing than the fact that they are tied to physical location is the fact that readers can edit or add to them. Reading The Silent Histories is in fact a participatory act.

Will The Silent History forever change what it means to be a book? We’ll see. The news media is going crazy over it, and of all the apps I’ve seen that play with the possibilities offered in new ebook technology (and I’ve looked at quite a few), this is by far the most amazing and exciting. So what is my answer? It quite possibly could change the definition and experience of reading a book. And I’m looking forward to it.

What do you think?

National Geographic & AFAR: Travel in the iPad World

As I continue to explore the world of iPad publications I am fascinated by the range of formats and features that magazines are offering in their iPad apps. This post takes a look at two travel-related publications—the app for the well known and beloved National Geographic, and the app for the new, gorgeous, and award-winning AFAR magazine.

REVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

  • National Geographic does the best job I’ve seen yet of integrating animation and video into their interactive magazine. This perhaps should be unsurprising, considering the range of resources and material they already had at their disposal prior to the creation of the iPad app.
  • AFAR appears to be essentially just scanning in their print magazine for consumption on an iPad screen. While that fails to provide an enhanced experience, it is probably a much easier and more affordable option for a magazine that was only launched three years ago. However, I was impressed with the multiple, intuitive and convenient methods of navigation, and the text-only option.

Continue reading National Geographic & AFAR: Travel in the iPad World