WorkPlay: A design for an ideation and sketching tool

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workPlay was a research project undertaken as a Master of Arts degree at the University of Sunderland, UK(2008). The study aimed to improve visual communication of user experiences in front-end product and service design. The search for better tools and methods of communication in front-end product and service design was a reflexive response to needs to increase the success rate of new product and service launches and reduce time spent on research and development (R&D). Broadly speaking, workPlay is an highly accessible storyboarding tool that enables design workers to quickly and easily sketch actors and scenes to develop visual storylines. It uses familiar graphical elements found in comic strips - a simple but effective combination of words and pictures.

1/ To establish sound historical and theoretical contexts to support the development of a novel visual vocabulary.
2/ To develop a comprehensive plan for a graphical system that enables a user who has little or no artistic training to convey concepts related to dynamic human activities and communicate them effectively to others.
3/ To provide an environment for holistic and creative thinking that facilitates comprehension among a diverse range of stakeholders.

Research methodology
The research methodology encompasses; • the identification of the main fields of study and the areas within them that are relevant to the development of workPlay, • the qualification of the importance of each area of study to determine the level of effort to expend on research in that area, • an appreciation of the relationships between areas of study to better understand the influences that each has on the other, and • analysis to determine important findings, and to determine areas of study that present new research opportunities.

The map(below) provides visual reference of the methodology’s architecture with indications of research activity and outcomes. It is divided into two registers, the upper register, the field of design(indicated by coloured triangles, circles and hexagons) shows the sequence of steps involved in the communication of an idea; the lower register, the field of technology(indicated by squares and a diamond) shows activities conducted in that sector that have an impact on the design process.

The map clearly shows the areas of study considered to be most relevant to the development of workPlay; 05.Language, and 06.Message.

Communicating an idea
For the convenience of devising a research methodology the process involved in communicating an idea has been reduced to ten key steps (numbered 01 to 10). The ten steps are divided into three stages: the ‘author or pre-author’ stage, 01 to 03, represented by triangles, this stage encompasses the identification of a value proposition and the formulation of an idea; the ‘author’ stage, 04 to 06, represented by circles, this stage encompasses the communication process; and the ‘reader’ stage, 08 to 10, represented by hexagons, this stage encompasses the perception and acknowledgement of the idea by a 'reader'. Number 3, idea, and number 13, ideation, are areas of the fields of study that share common interests and values. They form a bridge between the two fields of study. Ideation is seen as an area of great importance to the study. It has been identified as the area most likely to provide new research opportunities, as indicated by it’s unique size and shape(diamond). The sizes of the shapes in the diagram indicate the relative volume of research conducted in each area.

Selected findings from the literature

Comics and comics theory
The sequential format adopted by workPlay is directly influenced by storyboards, a pre-production sketching system used in the advertising and movie businesses. The current form of storyboards, a sequence of scene sketches with textual notations, is widely attributed to Walt Disney who was influenced by the ability of early comic strips to communicate narrative quickly and simply. Research for this project included: the history of comics history, highlights of which are shown here; the graphical conventions they use, an analysis of comics theory and claims that comics should be considered a 'visual language', a subject which is addressed in the critical evaluation paper.

Comics history A 13th century Catalan manuscript reminds us that the form of the comic as a work of sequential art has been around for some time.

Thomas Rowlandson pioneered speech bubbles and accompanying notations within the imagery.

This Harriet and Smith strip appeared in Robin Annual, 1958, Illustrated by Paddy Spratley and written by Jane Gross. It shows the use of frame numbering and narrative text set beneath the imagery. No speech bubbles. Comics have come a long way in the past hundred years. Increasingly they are being published online, either by the authors, their agents or reps. An indication of the trend towards ubiquitous authorship is the recent proliferation of online ComicMakers. philosophical context

The philosophical context for the imagery used in workPlay might best be described as turbulent. Plato(c.429-347 B.C.)would have loved it. Leonardo DaVinci (1452-1519 AD) would have hated it. These two giants of western culture appear to have had very strong opposing views about linear perspective.

Adhering to the pricipal of being just-barely-good-enough(JBGE), with the goal of simplicity, the style used in the workPlay imagery system is distinctly pictographic. It’s form rigidly follows its function(Greenough, Sullivan). That it is pictographic might not be controversial, but that it is pictographic and based closely on a figurative system that has not been in use for two thousand years might be. Plato upheld a pictographic ideal, that of conveying information in a pure, unbiased form not distorted by a personal perspective. He exempted Egyptian art from his scathing comments about mimetic artists(Neiva). Later, the Christian church found their own justifications for keeping with the pictographic tradition, but the approach ultimately lost out to science and the edicts of daVinci(Gombrich). Since Leonardo’s time, western art has embraced linear perspective and moved methodically towards a more mimetic(mimicing reality) form of representation.

'For Plato image making must be understood as part of the process of cognition. In this process, we find a perceived thing, its name, its definition, its representation, and finally, on a higher plane, understanding and true knowledge.’ (Neiva 1999, p.78).

On Plato’s moral posture on images, ‘Images ought to be judged in terms of unambiguous ethical principals and never be left solely in the hands of their makers and consumers.’ (Neiva 1999, p.79).

In defence of perspective and in opposition to pictures that have more than one scene or perspective, like those that used registers in the early Renaissance period and in Egyptian art, DaVinci has said that they were the ‘height of stupidity on the part of the masters’ (Gombrich 1961, p.16). Leonardo Da Vinci championed perspective. Through his numerous inventions, he also had a hand in furthering the development of the camera. Because of his prominence, many artists fell into line with his views on linear perspective, and by the ‘beginning of the sixteenth century, the old compartmentalized system was no longer acceptable’ (Gombrich 1961, p.34-35). Realism and the perspective view was in, and to this day many people judge images by a benchmark of what they perceive to be 'realistic'.

As a consequence the ‘mimetic ideal’ (Neiva 1999, p.82), supported in it’s relentless pursuit of perfection by ‘..the phenomenal advances in computer modelling and animation [that] allows us to create ever more realistic synthespians– human and animal models..’ (Cotton 2000, p.29).

Fortunately there are distinct differences between the areas in which each of these approaches finds its place. Other than its use in holograms, computerized simulations and virtual reality where the duplication of reality is acknowledged as a duplication, the mimetic ideal is to be found wherever products are directly consumed, as in the entertainment sector, a sector dominated by movies and games. Here (as in advertising) because of the directness of the link to the consumer a form of courtship takes place. The consumer is seduced, placated, enticed to consume. Any device that will help in that cause is brought to bear. It might be said that imagery and images used in this way are consumed – taken-in like food. The pictographic approach, in the form of pictograms, symbols, icons, and logos, work in a space that is one step removed from direct consumption, and, their purpose is not to entertain but to inform. Here, people use imagery, they do not consume it. In this space of the lineage of Plato’s pictographic ideal, reside also diagrams and infoGraphics. This space might be considered more businesslike, where imagery is enlisted to help people understand, learn, benefit and attain knowledge.


	‘Any tools, technologies, techniques, or toys that let people improve how they play seriously with uncertainty is guaranteed to improve the quality of innovation.’ (Schrage 1999, p.2).	 	

workPlay: a tool for anticipating possible futures? To predict the future is an ancient desire, but for some it is a compelling need. For companies and organizations currently struggling to keep up with an economic and social landscape that appears to shift like quicksand, getting a glimpse of what might be around the next corner, predicting the future has become a compelling need. Any tool or method that can provide some measure of insight into complex systems, events and issues has value in the information economy. One such method is Game Theory. WorkPlay does not crunch numbers, but it provides a platform for developing, mapping-out and communicating visual enactments of possible futures.

Game Theory
Game Theory has been around for almost three hundred years. It’s roots are in mathematics and economic forecasting, but with the advent of computers it has become a powerful tool for analyzing complex human events and issues. It has been successfully applied to understand social, economic, military and evolutionary theories and strategies, and has recently been applied to AI and cybernetics research. As a prediction tool it is a parallel, although somewhat more robust, cousin of workPlay. epistemology

The way different people think, perceive, and learn is a core consideration in the design of workPlay. Appreciating historical context and incorporating current theories in epistemology ensure that workPlay will be a relevant, defensible, and effective tool. Aspects of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and the TruColors personality system influenced the decision to incorporate a range of user options and inter activities on the publishing side. Rudolf Arnheim’s theory that all thinking is visual and other theories that support the value of imagery in communications have influenced the strong visual focus of workPlay.

Ferdinand de Saussure


	‘In order to have actionable meaning, the fuzzy mental models in top-management minds must ultimately be externalized in representations the enterprise can grasp.’ (Schrage 1999, p.14).	 	

Companies and organizations are beginning to realize the value of visualizing their products, processes and activities. The pace at which products and services are now developed demands it, and the increased capacity of computers and communications makes it possible. Spreadsheet software was developed to reduce tedium but it was soon recognized as a valuable tool for asking ‘what if’ questions, for making predictions, and for winning arguments. Tools that enable people to play with the possible, change how people interact and the types of activities they engage in. WorkPlay has the potential to be such a tool. Although the system may be viewed as a simple storytelling device, it is possible that some of its other qualities, such as cost, ease-of-use and availability(the same qualities responsible for the success of Lotus 1,2,3 and VisiThink) may lead to it’s application in other, perhaps unexpected, areas.

Visualization in action
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security chartered the National Visualization and Analytics Center (NVAC™) in 2004 with the goal of helping to counter future terrorist attacks in the U.S. and around the globe. A major objective for NVAC is to define a five-year research and development agenda for visual analytics to address the most pressing needs in R&D to facilitate advanced analytical insight. (

There are two recent sociological trends related to authorship that have an immediate impact on design of workPlay and a potential impact on the climate into which it might be launched: ubiquitous authorship – a dynamic of post-modernism – is a popular movement by members of the general public to author all manner of ‘content’, a realm that was previously reserved for trained professionals; and, self-authoring - a response to time constraints and security issues related to the disclosure of intellectual property. Both are connected to shifts in economic, social and technological change.

Ubiquitous authorship
Social indicators of the trend towards ubiquitous authorship include: so-called, reality TV; the indie music scene; online communities such as Facebook and U-Tube, and a plethora of Wiki’s and Blogs. In the visual arts; meaningful responses to major events, such as Hiroshima and 9/11, coming from a collective rather than a single spokesperson, as was the case with Picasso’s Guernica.

IP and security
IP is largely intangible, extremely mobile and often highly valuable. For companies creating new products and services, working with outside sources during development can pose a serious risk of disclosure and loss of IP. Providing people with the capacity to develop their IP in-house was the impetus for developing early versions of workPlay.

Another dynamic spin-off of the information age is the growth in the numbers of people collaborating on work projects. Collaboration is one of the three primary ways in which humans interact (the other two are conversations and transactions). Technology has erased the time and cost considerations that previously defined the type and quality of collaboration that was practical and possible. Collaboration tools, or GroupWare, are a growth area of information technology(IT). They fall into three categories; communication tools, conferencing tools, and collaborative management tools. WorkPlay appears to fulfil the requirements of a conferencing tool, and perhaps some of those of a collaborative management tool.

Practical application of workPlay

Application 1
A cross-department group might use WorkPlay to illustrate the features and benefits of a future product for use in a presentation to another group or to higher management. While two members of the group may work together to write the script, another member may assemble scenes, while yet another plans interactive features. Drafts are circulated and discussions are conducted via video conferencing or Synchronous conferencing.

Application 2
A school teacher may design a learning module that lets her pupils interact with a character in a historical story. The story is printed out for discussion in class. then posted online so the students can access it and interact with it at any time. The simple interactions allow students to choose different levels at which to read the story, so the teacher knows that all her pupils will be able to understand the story at some level. The inter activity encourages the students to explore higher levels of ‘reading’ in easy stages.