inspiration making

The collage illustrations of Dave McKean

Last week I began to draft a post about digital artist Dave McKean’s illustrations. I was planning to return to the half-written post when I got an email from Giles saying did I know that Dave McKean illustrated a piece of writing for COIL (the Journal of the Moving Image which Giles founded and edited) in the late 1990’s? Well, no, I didn’t. But now I do, this makes a perfect focus for writing about his work. All images below are from The Entrapment from COIL 7 | 1998. Thanks for the tip Giles!

Since 1994 Dave McKean’s been producing extensively layered images using computers and digital manipulation. In his collaborations with writers, illustrations and text appear to be intertwined so that the paper becomes part of the content and I was interested to find out how he achieves this effect.  In an interview on Apple’s website he describes how his approach has changed with the increasing sophistication of digital technologies.

“The major things that have changed … are the tools and materials I’ve been able to use. When I started on ‘The Sandman,’ I was aiming toward a translucent collage, a layered look, an insubstantial feeling where you’ve just got an atmosphere. I tried to do that with things like double exposures and different printing techniques. To a degree, this approach is always pretty limited by the fact that the illustration has to be a physical object and, if I have to photograph it, limited by gravity.”

The illustrations for COIL were made in 1998 (COIL 7) for a supposedly ‘anonymous’ piece actually written by legendary indie producer Keith Griffiths (of Koninck fame) about a film he produced by Iain Sinclair & Chris Petit called the Falconer – itself about another ‘legendary’ 60s filmmaker called Peter Whitehead. Its a many-layered piece about becoming trapped in the layers of legend and hype spun around Whitehead and the narrator’s (“Darke”) attempt to unravel the story. Darke is a thinly veiled characterisation of the Falconer’s script writer (and 90s film critic) Chris Darke. The techniques of double exposure and layering that Dave McKean mentions in the interview with Apple are clearly visible in the collages of text and images he produced for this.

The process of creating these illustration begins with “endless drawings.” Out of these, one is chosen and painted onto a backboard of colour photographs and paper collages, a basic canvas already with a life to it, containing interesting textures, colours and shapes. Illustration comes next where McKean paints the characters onto the canvas. From here, the process moves onto the computer. “Sometimes I finish it [the painting] quite well and sometimes I leave it open and rough, scan it and make sense of it in the computer. The compositing is the fun bit, really, and dragging all these elements together all happens very quickly.” As McKean writes, it’s an explorative way of working, “I like the fact that I don’t really know what I’m aiming toward completely. I have an idea, but it’s also the shapes shifted and composited in the computer that allow me to find a nice blend.”

In fact, it seems that his process and approach has remained surprisingly constant as tools and materials have evolved. In this article, he suggests this goes back to his college days at Berkshire College of Art and Design, “Before drawing anything we had to have a clear idea of what we were trying to achieve. So to this day, I still write personal briefs for myself. I still need to be clear in my own mind what I’m doing.”

For me, what is so inspiring about this description of the process is that having a clear plan from the outset in no way constrains the experimental, organic nature of the final illustrations. As he writes, “Techniques may change and go in and out of fashion, but ideas are always worth exploring and re-interpreting.” I wonder if we could get him to design an eBook…


How to keep a geological field notebook

A very tangible field notebook (via fieldnotebookcom)

Following on from the paper versus digital notebook conversation the other day I came across this post describing how to keep a geological field notebook. What I liked was how few of the characteristics and possible uses of a geologists field notebook they list actually have to do with the content and how many are to do with the form!

“A well-kept field notebook can function not only as a recording device in the field, but as a scale for photographs, an umbrella, a signal, and most importantly, as a guidebook for the next time one is schlepping through the same area. The notebook itself should be small and easy to carry, and preferably a bright colour, making it hard to lose. It should be bound so the pages will not fall out, and have a hard cover, so that one can write in it easily. Also, because geologists work in all sorts of weather and locations, the notebook should be waterproof, with synthetic or coated paper on which pencil marks will remain legible when wet.”

A field notebook being used to show the scale of a mineralised water droplet (via;

The author then describes the type of content you might want to include in your geological notebook and formats you might want to use (and very sensible advice it seems too) Of more interest to me though is the discussion that followed on from this post where the first person asked “can one not have a digital note book ?”and was told that while you could have a digital notebook..

“your trusty notebook cannot get a virus, cannot crash or freeze, will not run out of batteries, is generally impervious to moisture (see bit in the entry about using pencil – though biro isn’t bad), does not require backups or upgrades (other than a new one once that one is full) is easily archived and retrieved, can be used as a fly swat, impromtu dinner plate, signalling device, flat plane for getting an average dip using the compass-clino, scale in photographs… oh, and it doesn’t break when put in rucksack or pockets along with rocks, hammers, tape measures, lunch etc…”

Which I think pretty much covers all of the ways in which paper notebooks can be used – though of course computer notebooks can do some of these tasks too. (And the authors did say that digital notebooks do have their advantages to geologists such as GPS and GIS.) Now I’m going to go away and think about how I can make a bookleteer eBook that can function as a signalling device, dinner place, fly swat and umbrella..

A notebook being used as a plate (via

p.s. I have to admit, partly I wanted to write about this post because it begins with this sentence.. “A geologist’s field notebook is analogous to the hitch-hiker’s towel – it is indispensable.”


How can you have a pop-up book on the iPad?

This was the question I typed into Google as I wondered how the iPad, Kindle and other eBook readers (or rather, developers of eBooks for these platforms) might accommodate the tangible properties of books such as size, paper type, pop-up illustrations and so on, that vary from book to book and make paper books such a pleasure to touch, hold and feel.

In answer to my question Google came up with a couple of examples of projects that claim to be bringing pop-up books to the iPad. The first is Pilgrim’s Progress by Tako Games. Although entirely computer-generated the video that accompanies this eBook suggests that Pilgrim’s Progress combines moving around a 3-dimensional scene that closely resembles a paper pop-up book (the ‘cover’ of the book is a very literal digitisation of an antique leather book) with some dynamic elements such as changing text within the text box. I found it difficult to tell from the video how much of this would be controlled by the reader.

The second suggestion by Google was Alice in Wonderland by AtomicAntelope. While clearly drawing on pop-up books for inspiration this feels like it is also pushing the format into new areas by exploiting the touchscreen to trigger events and, quite beautifully, using the built-in accelerometer and orientation sensors to control visual effects such as flying cards, Alice growing and shrinking and rocking the pigbaby to sleep.

While I have to confess that watching the Alice in Wonderland video made me wish I owned an iPad so I could play with this, I also wonder – if every book feels like an electronic device then, however visually compelling the eBook, won’t this somehow feel like a sensory reduction of the reading experience?


If you want to continue reading, scroll down

I’m not sure if Choose Your Own Adventure books count as shared making or shared reading (or both?) but I would certainly claim it as an augmented reading experience. The Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books was published by Bantam books between 1979 and 1998, however, the format was used for several other series of books including Fighting Fantasy (which was the Choose Your Own Adventure books of choice for my brother and I when we were kids).

Genuine Choose Your Own Adventure book covers from a fabulous collection at

In case you’ve never come across them, the premise is that you – the reader – take the role of protagonist in the books and at the end of each short section of narrative you are presented with a number of options representing your next actions. For example, in The Cave of Time, the first choice you are required to make is:

If you decide to start back home, turn to page 4.
If you decide to wait, turn to page 5.

Turning to the page for your chosen option the narrative continues, eventually leading to one of multiple different endings. Like I said, my brother and I read these a lot as kids and while the narratives tend to be quite similar and the range of options can be frustrating (“But why can’t I throw my frying pan at the King of the Ants?!”) they were also truly engaging as we tried to figure out the potential consequences of our actions.

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Of course, the branching structure and constrained options translate easily into computer programs and computer games might be seen as the multimedia, all-bells-and-whistles version of Choose Your Own Adventure. In my current reflection on the nature of books though I begin to wonder if the format of these books creates a different experience for maker/readers? For my brother and I these books were very definitely a collaborative experience – just as computer games can be – but they are also slower paced and with the opportunity to take a sneaky look ahead and see what happens if you choose a particular path. While I wouldn’t say that Choose Your Own Adventure books are more engaging than computer games (we gave them up around the time we got our first computer..) I think they might offer a unique type of reading – constructive, collaborative and accountable.

examples inspiration making

James Bridle: Bookcubes and bookleteer API

A set of Bookcubes generated using the bookleteer API

James Bridle of was one of the participants at the Pitch Up and Publish: Augmented Reading a couple of weeks ago, and he talked a little about the idea of books as symbols and the related BookCube project he’d done using the bookleteer API.

Here, I’ll just give a summary of the project. James has written a post on describing the project which I really recommend you to read because it’s seriously interesting and covers more topics than I describe here…

James started with the idea that the lifespan of a book looks something like the drawing in the image above. There is a short period of the book-as-object acting as it’s own advertisement, then a period of time where you are reading the book and taking in the content, then during the final, and longest, amount of time the book-as-object acts as a souvenir of the reading period.

James has already begun to address the idea of digital souvenirs for eBooks with his bkkeepr project and with the bookleteer API he extended this to create automatically generated Bookcubes. These cubes display the information collected by bkkeepr and includes an image of the book cover. Over time James imagines the Bookcubes to build up on your shelf as a visible and tangible souvenir of your eBook reading. For bookleteer, this is an interesting tangent – instead of being an object to read it becomes an object that marks the fact that reading has taken place – and the content becomes separated from the form.


Storybird – collaborative storytelling

Storybird is a website where you can create your own online illustrated storybook. Aimed at children from 3 – 13 books can be created collaboratively and they positively encourage families, friends and school classes to work together. The artwork for your stories is provided by illustators and visual artists who are able to upload their drawings to the site. Making a Storybird is free though they plan to charge for their printing service when it starts later this year. You can browse by artwork or themes as inspiration to start your book and I have to say I like the look of the site and the illustrations very much.

When collaborating on a Storybird each person can jump in and make changes any time they like, however, they have also put together a more formal collaboration process based on turn-taking. One person starts the Storybird and when they want to pass over to their friend they let Storybird know and an email will be sent to their friend telling them it is now their turn. Storybirds can be kept private or published to the library when complete so that other people can share it too.

As I said, I love the look of the site and the illustrations they currently have in the library. It seems it would be difficult not to create a visually beautiful book from these pictures – and I imagine you can upload your own artwork if you want to illustrate your own stories. Storybird suggests that contributing artwork to Storybird has several benefits for artists including making money from your work. However, I’m unclear how this happens when making a Storybird is free… (If you find out please do let me know!)

How does this relate to bookleteer eBooks? I think it’s interesting that the Storybird exists only as an electronic online storybook (at least for the moment) and I don’t find that this detracts from the reading experience – though perhaps I’d feel differently about this if I was reading with a child, or group of children. On the other hand I can also imagine that if I was a child and had created my own Storybird that I would love to see it printed out as a proper little book that I could take home and show my family and friends. I wonder what it is about tangible, hold-able items that makes them feel so personal and intimate compared to things on a screen?


Battle of the Reading Formats

An iPad disguised to fit in on a book shelf. * See the bottom of this post for more.

Fitting in very nicely with our discussions on Augmented Reading, Jakob Nielsen, the legend of usability studies, has conducted a test on the relative reading experience of reading a short story (Ernest Hemingway, in case you’re interested) on the iPad, Kindle eReader, PC and printed book.

Twenty-four participants read the story in each of the different formats. On average the story took 17 minutes 20 seconds to read however both the Kindle and the iPad came in slower than the printed book by 10.7% and 6.2% respectively.

In terms of user satisfaction, readers were asked to score each of the formats on a scale of 1-7 with 7 being the highest score. The iPad, the Kindle and the printed book all recorded similar scores (5.8, 5.7 and 5.6 respectively) all of which were significantly higher than the score for the PC at 3.6.

In their comments participants said they found the printed book more relaxing than any of the eReaders and that the PC reminded them of work. I guess Carlton hadn’t seen this study when they launched their AR books for children – to be experienced on a PC.

However, it’s also good news for eReaders and suggests that they no longer offer a worse reading experience than printed books and that in the end your choice of reading format might come down to personal preference as in the case of music listening where, despite the ease of CDs and MP3s, some people still prefer to listen to music on vinyl. This is another conversation I had at PU&P: Augmented Reading where I was discussing the topic of choice and formats with the guys from in the context of trying to reach people who might not be inclined to go online to look for information. Indeed, this was one of the motivations behind the tangible format of bookleteer eBooks.

Read more about the study on Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox. Found via the Guardian.

* The Book for iPad by Longlivebooks via Design-Fetish and seen on a bookshelf at the top of this post


Carlton say Books Come Alive

New Scientist reports that UK publisher Carlton have launched two titles in their Augmented Reality series. The books – Fairyland Magic and Dinosaurs Alive – include a CD with software to install on your PC. Once this is done you point your webcam at the pages of the book and the webcam image of the book displayed on your computer monitor is augmented with hand-drawn, moving fairies or dinosaurs. The New Scientist article does a great job of describing the perceived need for books to embrace technologies and the potential complications resulting from this. You can also watch Carlton’s video promoting Fairyland Magic on YouTube.

I find the books interesting in the context of a discussion we had at the Pitch Up & Publish Augmented Reading last week when David suggested that interactive digital content of this kind (we weren’t talking about the Carlton books at the time) diminishes the experience of reading rather than augmenting it. David’s argument was that adding screen-based computation to a book imposes rules and restricts interaction in a way that a paper-and-ink book doesn’t.

Books Come Alive seem a good illustration of this argument as the book has to be in proximity of the computer screen and webcam in order to create the digital images. This sets up what seems to me to be a quite unnatural reading position as the priority becomes orienting the page to the webcam. Instead of reading being an intimate experience between one person and a book this opens it up to a wider audience for whoever happens to be in sight of the computer monitor. I wonder what the effects – good or bad – will be of this?


HITLabNZ: Magic Book

Writing about Rita King’s Second Life and augmented reality Story Cubes reminded me of the Magic Book project I came across a while ago.

Developed by researchers at the HITLabNZ and led by Mark Billinghurst, Magic Book enables readers to augment their reading experience with 3-D images. Viewing the pages of the Magic Book through a handheld display reveals digital content superimposed over the physical pages. Viewers can choose to fly into the digitally augmented scene and experience it as an immersive virtual environment. There is a great video of it in action on YouTube here..

From the YouTube video of Magic Book produced for the Australian Center for the Moving Image

One aspect I especially like is that the reading can be collaborative. Viewers each have their own device for seeing the digital content and if they are looking at the same page of the book they will each see the same image but adjusted so that it is viewed from the particular angle at which the viewer is held to the page. In addition, when one reader zooms into the immersive virtual experience the other readers see them as a computer-generated figure in the scene.

During the time the Magic Book project ran (2002 – 2008) the potential of augmented reality was transformed by increasingly powerful mobile phones equipped with cameras, sensors such as accelerometers and compasses, and wifi that are able to act as handheld displays for augmented content. Given this, I wonder if augmented reality could be a way for eBooks and Story Cubes to share time-based and digital content – videos, 3-D graphics, audio files and so on – as well as text and images? How great would it be to receive an eBook via email describing your friends recent trip to Peru (or your grandchild’s performance in the school play) and when you print out and make up the eBook as well as reading the text and looking at photos, you can use your phone to view a 3-D model of an ancient site, watch a video of a performance or hear the musicians. What would this add to the experience of reading?


Rita J. King: StoryCubes in a Virtual World

Story Cubes in Second Life

As I explore Story Cubes I thought I would investigate how artists have used these objects in more successful ways than  my fabulously unsuccessful pinhole camera experiments.

Rita J. King of Dancing Ink Productions was commissioned by Giles to contribute to Transformations on Transformations asks writers, artists, performers, thinkers and makers to respond to two questions from different perspectives, why are we who we are? and, what do we want to become? In response to these questions Rita created 27 Story Cubes exploring aspects of how we construct our identity in a technological world and the role of imagination in this. The Story Cubes were only one aspect of the work which went by the title The Imagination Age. As Rita describes it The Imagination Age is a broad approach to rethinking systems through a prism of technology, held up to amplify the bright beam of the imagination.”

In the first instance, 27 Story Cubes were designed on paper. These are meant to act as a catalyst in the physical world for people to build stories in the way children build castles out of blocks. You can download these Story Cubes here..

Rita then recreated these physical cubes as virtual cubes within Second Life. The cubes could now transcend physical constraints of scale, gravity and fixed-ness and they explore the potential of the virtual world to stimulate and inspire creativity as it becomes possible to construct ideas which previously could only exist in imagination. There is a video  showing the Second Life StoryCubes on YouTube.

Finally, Rita blended the two virtual and physical worlds to create a hybrid digital/physical space. The 27th cube has an Augmented Reality marker which can be activated at using a webcam. This allows you to see the alternative reality of the 27th cube created by Rita.

In my opinion The Imagination Age takes the bookleteer concept of using digital networks to enable the sharing of handmade physical objects and extends and transforms it. As a result of Rita’s personal interests and skills the project opens up the question of what is handmade? The Second Life Imagination Age Story Cubes were crafted by Rita using digital processes, are these cubes any less handmade than the paper ones because of this? Another question concerns the different kinds of communication and social networks that let us share bookleteer objects; there are increasing numbers of these networks and how do we find out which type of sharing is most appropriate for our needs? For me, Rita has started a new way of thinking that goes beyond the content of the eBooks or Story Cubes to consider processes of production, consumption and dissemination. Thanks Rita!

Read more about the project at