GDMFA 2014

On outcomes and intentions.

Looking backwards, I can see that my thesis project followed the classic narrative arc: exposition, catalyst, conflict, climax, then resolution. In other words, triumph only after a whole pile of struggle. The other sections show you the clean, polished exterior of the project; this shows you the messy insides. I love the outcome of this project, but the best thing I did this year was learn how to work through a challenge.

Click below to see larger images.

White as snow is an experiment in digital narrative. This interactive book for adults mixes historical context, sociological analysis, and visual surprise with more traditional text-based storytelling to shed light on the Grimms’ classic tale. Reading White as snow is an act of uncovering and creating, a new means of exercising the imagination.

Sounds like a tidy little package, right? It didn’t start that way. In fact, I began the project without really knowing what it would amount to. Instead of justifying the outcome, I want to tell you about my process. My story is not unique: it is the story of a creative person trying to balance beauty and meaning.

I designed and developed White as snow in only a fraction of the amount of time that I worked on this project. Before my ideas popped out on screen, they tumbled around in my brain for what seemed like an eternity. Before I felt accomplished, I felt lost; before I had a breakthrough, I had a lot of failures.

We all grew up reading stories. If not reading, then listening; if not listening, then watching. Humans like a good narrative. Stories allow us to escape, to live other lives for a moment. They let us imagine who we might be in another world or who we might become in this one.

White as snow is the culminating work of my time in the Masters program in graphic design at Maryland Institute College of Art. I had a very personal goal for my thesis year. Rather than trying to develop a polished showpiece, I wanted to find a new way to work, expose myself to new parts of the discipline, and shake off the stagnation I felt before starting graduate school.

You would probably believe me if I said White as snow was inspired by my childhood. I could tell you about how I grew up reading fairy tales, and how by 4th grade I had read every book in my elementary school. These things are true, but they were not at the front of my mind when I embarked upon this project.

Instead of starting with content, I started with the desire to create unfiltered imagery through intuitive exploration, to think through making instead of the other way around. I saw my peers use this method to produce striking work, and I worried that my practice suffered from a certain pragmatism and predictability. With much of my career spent on corporate websites and applications, I feared that my skills were devoted far more to function than form. I wanted my work to be exciting, for myself as much as for my clients, and I decided that the thesis project would be the ideal time to step out of my comfort zone and become the designer I wanted to be.

This imagining, this placing of oneself in a story, is particularly easy with fairy tales. Records of these stories are often quite plain, forcing the audience to fill in the details. Take Snow White: she is described only as beautiful and young, with red lips, white skin, and black hair. Is she tall or short, thin or curvy? Is she smart, talkative, stubborn, athletic, kind, jealous, lazy, funny, or mean? We have to decide for ourselves.

I set up parameters that would force me to branch out. I chose narrative content to create something that tells a story rather than solving a problem. I landed on Snow White, material that's familiar enough to be recognizable but not too well known, not boring or repetitive. I mined the story for visual content, listing colors, objects, characters: anything I could find that might give birth to imagery.

And so it began, experimentation with no outcome in mind. My only goal was to make anything and everything I could and without succumbing to over-analysis. I created 100 representations of the apple. I marbleized stills from the 1938 Disney film. I created icon sets to represent important scenes, gradients to evoke these scenes, and spoof iPhone apps that a modern-day Queen could use to calculate her beauty. I painted. I drew. I took pictures. I made vector illustrations. I collaged.

Some of this work is beautiful and some conveys the story in an interesting way, but to me it all felt empty. Without knowing what I was trying to communicate and why, I had no value system on which to evaluate what I made. Yes, the point was to avoid evaluating things too soon, but I had no drive to move forward without such judgement. I quickly ran out of steam. In hopes of inspiring new ideas, I broadened my research and began to explore the context of Snow White.

The Grimm brothers did not think up their work, they simply recorded German folklore. They thought these stories represented German identity, the essence of the people. It’s an odd set of values to hold dear: narcissism, cruelty, and revenge.

I was excited by what I found. And when I spoke about it, my peers and mentors were excited too. They were intrigued by the Grimm brothers, surprised by the parallels between Snow White and Jesus, and in love with the cheeky psychoanalysis that came to me much more easily than imagery.

My ideas were interesting, but they still didn’t translate into good work. In one hand I had piles of visuals and in the other I had writing; I could not fit them together. I thought that designing through intuition meant that I couldn't force meaning into my work, but I couldn't find any other way to create.

I almost gave up. I cursed myself for trying to develop a new method so far from my comfort zone. Instead of just backing off a little, I fell into full-on analytical mode. I stopped painting apples and started making spreadsheets. I took a detour into design-about-design and I tried to tell the story of Snow White through the steps of user experience design. It didn't work; my meta-project flopped.

There are Snow White tales all over the world. Why is it that so many people in so many places would pass it on? Perhaps it's because of the universal nature of its ideas. Beauty and youth, female sexuality, tension between mothers and daughters: these issues run deep.

Process is personal. There is no one right way to create. On the first day of grad school, I attended a workshop led by Paul Sahre and Jan Wilker. Sahre was asked if he reads a book before designing its cover. “You must,” he said. Wilker laughed, and encouraged him to shed the burden of context. Wilker described his process as throwing things at a wall, making hundreds of images without evaluating them, and then sifting through. Both men are great designers; what works for one person will not work for another. I am not Jan Wilker.

I didn’t give up. Instead, I stopped trying to force intuition to be my only guiding force. I went back to my earliest work and turned a more analytical eye towards what I’d made. I found I had the beginnings of a great project, scattered moments of exciting design work that arose from uncritical making, not from a plan.

Snow White is an empty shell. The Queen is a classic narcissist. The King is absent. The Prince likes an easy target. We all sin.

Since the context of Snow White felt surprising, why not use it to tell the story? Instead of creating research-inspired imagery, I could reveal the ideas as text and allow readers to reimagine the story for themselves. Once I hit upon this content, everything clicked. Elements from my earlier explorations suddenly made sense and a new visual language began to flow.

I quickly put together a few pages using Helvetica Neue, fashion-magazine cutouts, and strips of color. I saw how these decisions came from Snow White: If a fairy tale is meant to be empty, what better typeface than Helvetica? The story centers on beauty and youth, and fashion magazines deal in the same values. Even the decision to make the book interactive made sense: the iPad is like a fairy tale in its seductive emptiness, ready to be filled with our own context and content. iPads may seem to foretell the death of print, but like Snow White in her coffin (and film photography in the real world), print may enjoy a more beautiful rebirth once all the boring content is moved on screen. I could go on.

Snow White for today’s audience is a tale of context and analysis. We want to know who people really are and where they come from. We are unsatisfied with the surface; we want to dig deeper.

In some ways, this is all post-rationalization. The meaning behind the visual design was not explicit in my early making. But without forcing meaning into the work, I made choices that expressed these parallels. I may be a person who always reads a book before designing its cover, but I now know how to use uncritical making as a first step and my work is better for it.

White as snow is a marriage of showing and telling, of research and visual design. I didn’t begin the project with this goal in mind; it arose from my exploration along the way. When I decided to use the thesis project as an opportunity for creative growth rather than the moment to create a masterpiece, I risked looking bad at the end of the year. Instead, I made something great that I couldn’t imagine before I began.

After our exhibition, I asked some of my classmates what they learned in grad school. Their responses focused on one thing: the discovery of their productive, creative self. “I figured out how to get past the blank page,” “I learned how to work with people,” “I learned what not to do,” and “I learned to trust my intuition.” More than any portfolio piece or concrete skill, my peers valued new truths about themselves that were revealed by constant hard work across many projects, by failures as much as successes. After this year, I whole-heartedly agree.