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Archive for November, 2006

Making Comics

Making ComicsI bought Scott McCloud’s Making Comics as soon as it was published and dug in right away. It’s always a joy to read his stuff, but this volume in particular struck a cord since it’s exclusively about storytelling and using comics format and techniques to convey a story. I love comics and graphic novels, and have long been interested in how I could use comics’ storytelling techniques in the information architecture practice.

What makes this book different from his other books is that this time it came with extra goodies: “optional” exercises. Optional is in quotes because for geeks, it’s really not optional, so I tried to do it (one, at least). The first exercise in the book tells you to choose a story you know (a movie) and tell it using drawn panels by picking the 16 most relevant moments. When I first tried, I just wanted to see if I could immediately apply this to an IA problem I had at the time, which made me stop halfway because my “story” (the flow of the information through the user perspective) wasn’t well resolved to begin with. This is not a new problem – that’s why we create flow diagrams; so that we can communicate the storyline and look for any gaps.

After having tried and failled (and given up many times), I figured I needed some peer pressure to get me going. I asked Dan what he thought and we decided doing something like a book club might be a good way to get this going. Today, we kicked it off. This time it was even more challenging but I didn’t let the procrastination take over me (yaay for peer pressure!).

Dan went for The Princess Bride, Austin with Romeo and Juliet and James with The Matrix. I chose Resident Evil. I think Austin picked the best story for this challenge because the core aspects of the story are very clearly laid out and it’s easier to choose and communicate. The princess bride was also great, but lots of the sub-stories had to be left off. The Matrix was complex but James did an amazing job.

I chose a shitty storyline – Resident Evil is based on a video game, which has a plot but the story is open ended, because you pretty much have to play the game for the story to be realized. That notwithstanding, I used the movie storyline of “biohazard in the secret lab that causes people to become zombies”. As with most video games, what makes Resident Evil compelling is the backstory (The lab belongs to the Umbrella Corporation who owns everything, nobody can stop them, the lab is controlled by a computer, etc, etc, etc…). This made me lose track of the core ‘story’ and biased my comic to much of the scenario/context.

I started by writing down the title for 16 core scenes I wanted to represent. I went back and forth for a while – I started drawing but was already on panel 5 to convey the first 2 minutes of the movie, so I reviewed the 16 core scenes a few more times and finally decided to tell the story of “biohazard in the secret lab that causes people to become zombies and the rescue party that goes in to retrieve the antidode”. I finally broke the story down to four big pieces: Disaster, In, Challenge, Out – I decided to draw around four panels for each. That rationalization helped a lot.

Drawing out the panels was challenging in itself because I don’t really draw much and hadn’t exercised any drawing muscles in a long time – but the quality of the drawing wasn’t really our focus so that wasn’t a problem. While we were drawing, Dan said “I miss Visio”, which made us all crack up, but sounded very true (though my tool choice would be different). All in all, it was a fascinating exercise and I feel like I learned a lot by going through it, hard as it was. I’ll be looking forward to the next one.


Older and Wiser is Right

It’s time for my New Year resolutions. As in previous years, today is the day I take to think about life: my birthday! This was my ‘Hedonistic Year’ – and I am proud of how well I adhered to my previous resolutions. There was so much fun and self-indulgence that I think I’m all indulged-out.

Looking back at my last year’s resolutions I was shocked to see that I had just scored Concrete Blonde’s “Happy Birthday” LP on eBay – shocked because I just framed it and mounted it on the wall last week. Took me 12 months to do that. That speaks volumes about the extent of how all this ‘hedonism’ easily transitioned into sloth and indolence.

I am a procrastinator. It’s something that always bothered me, an undesirable trait that I just can’t shake. Allowing myself to take a year to put the best things in life above other things allowed this procrastination inclination to develop as far as it ever had. The result was bad – procrastination causes things to be deferred, undone, unfulfilled, which doesn’t motivate or give you a sense of accomplishment. It is not empowering. This didn’t feel so bad because of all the self-indulgence: Feeling depressed? Eat an entire cake! Dissatisfied with the world? Get on a plane and go somewhere interesting! Bored? Buy stuff!

As bad as that may sound, this whole vicious cycle allowed me to learn more about myself than if I had continued to try and solve the procrastination symptoms I had been struggling with for years. I found that procrastination itself is not a problem, but a symptom of a problem: that when I am not being challenged, I settle for mediocre.

Kind of a sad realization at first, but later really exciting because identifying a problem is the best thing that could happen; by definition, a problem is a question raised for solution. Problems have solutions, which means you can solve them. Is that clear enough? I can’t solve procrastination; it’s a symptom, not a problem. That’s why it’s always been frustrating – because I thought it was always a problem. Now I know better. As long as I am challenged, my brain is interested in doing things. If I’m not challenged, I stop trying, and procrastinate.

I can’t explain how wonderful it is to come to this realization – it probably sounds fairly idiotic if that’s not something you experience. In hindsight, a simple explanation makes a lot of sense because you already did all the hard work of trying to understand it in the first place. If you experienced the pains that the problem caused you, you appreciate it that much more.

So, even if I’m queen of obvious today, I am feeling great about what I accomplished in the past year. Not just this pearl of self-discovery, but other things like continuing to work on what I love and now being with the one I love. Yeepie.

As with any malady, after you look at the symptoms and make a diagnosis, it’s time to start treatment. And I’m prescribing myself a big dose of anti-mediocrity. Starting on this gelid November 21st, this will be The Challenge Year. I’ll challenge my brain, my competencies, my capacity, my tolerance and so on. Let’s see if I procrastinate that!