Visual Storytelling - T. Benjamin Larsen's Blog

When less becomes more

-Why Google's redesign misses the mark

Google recently redesigned their classic home-page. The new design removed all elements apart from the logo, the search-bar, and, the two search-buttons. The new design is clean and is almost as simple as humanly possible.

New look Google

On the surface this sounds like a good thing, right? I personally think «less is more» is a good mantra in most situations, but there are times when "less" actually becomes "more", adding confusion and making things more complicated than they need to be. Google have recently made such a change with their start page

Same thing after the fade-in

On the surface it seems they've just streamlined the user interface by removing all clutter and focusing solely on the search-field. Unfortunately this is only half the truth. As soon as you move the mouse-pointer the additional choices will fade in with a neat(ish) effect. So why is this a bad thing? There are actually a couple of reasons:

1. Your choices are not immediately available If you enter planning to do a picture-search, you will have to move the mouse, and locate the choice you want to make before being able to choose it. This ads an unnecessary extra step to achieving your goals.

2. The fade-effect commands attention Most people probably enter to do a simple web-search, and a clean page with only the search-field available makes sense in this context. Unfortunately the moment anyone move their mouse they will have a hard time not looking at the fading menus. Earlier the search-field commanded attention simply by design, it was bang in the middle and the smaller menus were modest and close to invisible to anyone not looking for more advanced features.

Now, I guess a lot of people would claim that these things don't matter and that I'm nitpicking on details no-one cares about. They could be right, but why on earth would Google do extra work to make their site less user-friendly, even if only slightly so? It seems almost like a flashback to the blink tag of early web-sites and I'm really surprised to see this coming from Google! If nothing else there is some comfort to find in the fact that somewhat so constantly great as Google can get it wrong on occasion.


Insulting Monk

It’s actually a fairly long time ago. But I just realised that I’ve never blogged about my second iPhone title «Insulting Monk». It’s a fairly simple little thing, being an insult generator, I did however put a lot of work into the presentation of the title. The idea was to make a really friendly application with an environment the user would like to return to. (Despite being constantly abused, that is!)

Anyway, as this blog is geared towards visual storytelling I figured I’d share a couple of videos I made to advertise the title. First, here’s a small one about the creation of the background-graphics:

And to wrap it up here’s the final trailer I made for the title. As I really didn’t have any big earlier titles to refer to I figured it’d be a funny twist to namedrop a couple of big titles.

Those of you interested can read more about the title here.

Video review of my app!

OK, to most of you this probably is as exciting as watching paint dry. Gray paint, inside a library, if you're blind. But this kind of made my day. The nice people over at have found reason to review Ben's somewhat spiffy-looking but ultimately craptastic rock-paper-scissors game!

Frankly I think they got it spot on. After all I like to claim that the game is the most accurately titled game on the App Store so in some ways you shouldn't really need a review at all…


iPhone Development

One of the things I have been able to do during my hiatus from the blogosphere is dipping my toes in the iPool, or the world of iPhone development to the rest of you. A couple of months back I released my first game the not too snappy, but incredibly accurately titled Ben’s somewhat spiffy-looking but ultimately craptastic rock-paper-scissors game(tm). Not exactly the kind of title to set the world on fire* but a suitably sized project to start my, no doubt, prosperous career as a games developer. Winking

I’m already working on no less than two other projects and believe a lot of this blog will be occupied with posts pertaining to this. Not to worry though I will try to attack the matter from a design point of view rather than a technical standpoint. As a taster for the things to come, here’s the game-trailer I made for my first game:

You can read more about it here or even buy it here!

*Why would anyone want to set the world on fire?! Surely that would be arson?!


I'm back baby!

That should probably read, I’m back with baby as I stepped into fatherhood last December. Needless to say, things have been hectic both leading up to, and after, the big occasion.

It’s been more than a year since my last blog-post and if you thought this blog was abandoned I can’t say I blame you. When I made my last post in last September I had already started slipping when it came to regular updates, but I didn’t imagine it would ever take this long. It did though, as life simply got in the way for stuff like this. All in a good way, mind you, I’ve stepped into fatherhood and both the last few months leading up to the birth of my daughter and the time since has left few hours left for my cyberlife.

But, as the headline said: I’m back. Not that I necessarily will be able to get back to my twice-a-week updates schedule, but you should be able to find new stuff here more often than once a year from now on. Oh, and thanks for stopping by!


Windows without walls?

Apple (the Macintosh-maker, not the fruit) have been rather successful with their «Get a mac» campaign. The whole campaign is based on poking at Microsoft and while it is done in a humorous manner the Seattle giant have been less than thrilled.

A collection of «Get a Mac»-ads from youtube

This week they launched a new commercial as part of their $300 million campaign to improve Windows Vista’s tarnished image.

Microsoft’s new «I’m a PC»-ad

As a whole I think Microsoft (or their advertising company) have done a great job. The quick presentation of different people from all walks of life, all being «PCs», seems well suited to strike an emotional chord with the audience. Heck, they’ve even sprinkled it with a handful celebrities! As a piece designed to win mind-share and reassure their users it should work brilliantly. I don’t think it’ll improve Windows market-share though, but then again they have something like 90% alread. I think even Steve Ballmer acknowledge the possibility that a tenth of the human population might actually prefer something else.

I think the commercial fails when it comes to convincing dissatisfied Windows-users to stay with the program. If you’re frustrated with your computer «everyone else does it» is a meek point. Particularly when Apple is targeting this demographic directly (and looking at the numbers, quite successfully). Microsoft is hardly oblivious to Apple’s attack though, and handles it with aplomb and miss the target completely - all within a minute!

Microsoft’s new slogan is a stroke of genius: «Windows - Life Without Walls». It lends itself to spoofs (try replacing that ‘w’ with a ‘b’ or how exactly does windows work without walls? etc). But this could be a good thing if MS is looking to build mind-share. Every spoof, no matter how brutal, will help people remember the product. It is also brilliant in more ways than one:

  • It’s a pun, which makes it easy to remember

  • It gives a positive message about the endless possibilities a PC can offer

  • It could be read as a subtle attack at Macs as these force you to buy from one company

But as I’ve already mentioned, they’ve also made a grave mistake. The very first part of the commercial directly refers to Apple’s campaign. They have simply taken Apple’s «PC»-character and tried to change his message. My immediate reaction was that this was kind of cute, but after having some time to think about it I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a disastrous decision and this is why: They remind people of Apple’s campaign.

Why on earth would you want to remind people about your competitor? Especially as this competitor is targeting the dissatisfied people among your users? It also gives Apple ample opportunity to bite back. How long will it take before we’ll see John Hodgman* selling fish or sporting a beard? It’s not like MS offers much Apple can’t match and by doing this they make sure almost every blogger or journalist writing about their campaign will also mention Apple...

*The actor portraying PC in Apple’s ads



Ouch! Half-a-month since my last post! Well, time flies when you’re having fun time flies. Things have simply been too hectic outside the blogosphere lately but hopefully things will improve from now on. One of the things I did get round to was to catch Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E in the local theatre. Being a huge animation (and Pixar) -fan I had been looking forward to this film ever since it was announced. The panegyric reviews it received upon its stateside release further fueled my excitement. Thankfully the film was well worth the wait.

Look - No Words!

I figure most of the people on the planet have an idea about the plot already so I want reiterate this in any detail. The film centers on the relationship between the two robots Wall-E and Eve. Perhaps more interestingly, it also includes some fairly serious social commentary.

The plot itself doesn’t necessarily redefine the art-form. It is however well structured and tells a concise story with one amazing constraint: For the most part the film is told without any dialogue what so ever. The two main characters don’t speak at all (apart from a few robotic renditions of their names). This is one of my favorite aspects of the movie and a truly brave decision of the filmmakers. It serves as a reminder that storytelling doesn’t necessarily require loads of words to work. (Unlike this blog-post).

Taking its time

Another surprise was the film’s willingness to slow down and «smell the flowers». On several occasions Stanton slows the action down and lets the audience drink from the fountain of amazing visuals. Normally I would be critical of an approach where the progress of the story is sacrificed for the looks. Yet, in the context of this film it works beautifully. Wall-E’s character justifies it. He is in essence a child and we get to share his awe of the wonders of space and futuristic technology.

But the willingness to slow down isn’t used exclusively to show off extra-terestrial visuals. No, the earthbound opening is a particularly interesting part in this respect. Here we are presented with a dystopian future-earth deprived of (almost) all life. If you think this sounds dark for a family-film you’re right. The tone of the film is one of dark melancholy and while it betrays this feeling occasionally the feel of the piece is certainly not the un-compromised positivity you might expect from Disney/Pixar. This might sound like a turn-off to some of you but the film is all the better for it.

Wall-E is simply put a masterpiece. It challenges the genre and treats the subject matter in a way that’s quite uncommon in contemporary Hollywood. In many ways it seems to borrow storytelling elements from asian animation (Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro springs to mind).

If you have any interest in films, storytelling or animation go and see it.


André Franquin

One of my greatest childhood heroes was the Belgian comic-book-artist André Franquin. Doing the research for this piece I found that he is mostly unknown in the English speaking world. I feel sorry for all of you and find it almost unbelievable that no major publisher have had the good sense to publish his work in the English-speaking world. Okay, rant over, let’s get back to the great man himself:

Le journal de Spirou

André Franquin was born in Etterbeek, Belgium in 1924. According to the man himself he was always drawing and while he only got about a year of actual drawing lessons before these were cut short due to the war in Europe. His talent was obvious however and eventually he wound up working for the Belgian magazine Spirou, a comic magazine that was the original home of several European comics (perhaps most notably Peyo’s The Smurfs). Spirou was the name of the Magazine’s title character a red-haired bellboy. The character, as well as his best friend Fantasio and pet-squirrel Spip was invented by Robert Velter.

Champignac and The Marsupilami

When Franquin joined the magazine the series was being handled by Jijé but despite his well proven talent his efforts with the series do come across as a poor man’s version of Hergé’s Tintin. Jijé himself grew tired of Spirou and Franquin was called upon to continue the series, in the middle of a story no less - without a script to work from!

The Marsupilami

The young Franquin managed admirably and it wouldn’t take long before he more or less redefined the series. In a manner similar to Carl Barks’ work with Duckburg, he really defined a world and expanded character rooster that has remained with the series ever since. His most eye-catching character was definitely The Marsupilami, a fantasy animal from the imaginary south-american country Palombia. More important to the evolvement of the series was the invention of The Village Champignac. This quintessential french village would be the starting point of many an adventure and the home to many of Franquin’s new characters, most importantly The Count of Champignac. The Count, or Pacôme Hégésippe Adélard Ladislas de Champignac (yes I did look it up) fast becomes a close friend of Spirou & Fantasio. In addition to his noble lineage he is also an eccentric scientist and as we all know, eccentric scientists = high adventure.

Gaston Lagaffe

Eventually Franquin, like Jijé before him, grew tired of Spirou and passed it on to a younger artist (Fournier). While Fournier and later Tome & Janry kept the series well alive, it never reached the same constant brilliance as it had done during Franquin’s reign. Franquin himself continued to draw and write, concentrating on his own characters. Fantasio’s lazy, clumsy but equally kind and inventive subordinate Gaston Lagaffe seemed to receive the maximum attention. Unlike Spirou and Fantasio, Gaston was way too lazy to ever embark on any expeditions or fantastic journeys, perhaps a result of Franquin himself growing older. In 1997, at the age of 73, André Franquin passed away.


Games as art revisited

Artistic integrity

As long time readers might remember I’ve blogged about ’Games as art’ once before. In the mind of the general public I think there are very few who immediately recognizes games as a «proper» art-form, although I certainly believe it should be.

One of the «problems» is of course the gaming industry itself. Game-production has become more and more expensive over the years and the financiers are obviously eager to make money from their investments. This has often led to games being overly «commercial» in their subject-matter, something that in this context often means appealing to the young-male demographics, often with hyper-violence and scantly clad women with gravity defying anatomy. The other extreme have been the brightly coloured fluffy-bunny-flower world of «family» games that make Disneyland seem like a post-acopalyptic nightmare.

Look to Japan

Most games probably belong somewhere in-between these extremes and games like Hideki Kamiya's Okami and Kenji Kaido's Shadow of the Colossus should definitely be considered works of art.

Hideki Kamiya’s Okami

Kenji Kaido’s «Shadow of the Colossus»

Toshio Iwai's Electroplankton downright challenges our perception of what a game is. While only mentioning japanese games and designers might seem a bit harsh to my fellow «westerners» I believe the Japanese public simply take the form more seriously than we do here. I find it hard to believe that an american or european publisher could have financed something like Electroplankton.

Toshio Iwai’s Elektroplankton

While the japanese industry is certainly as prone to milk a commercial success as anyone else, it also seems willing to challenge the format and give artists a chance to try out fresh ideas.

The devil is in the details

But I don’t believe the western- games-industry is the only party that deserves blame. I also believe parts of the gaming-community should do some soul-searching, the recent «Diablo-controversy» serves as a perfect example. Diablo and Diablo II were two popular Mac/PC-games developed by Blizzard* (best known for World of Warcraft).

Diablo III - announcement video (trailer)

The two Diablo-games have a huge following and the recent announcement of the upcoming «Diablo III» was cause for celebration among the majority of gamers. Blizzard have a reputation for quality and a lot of people had long given up hope that there would ever be another game in the series. Soon Blizzard demonstrated some early in-game-videos and published the first screen-shots from the game, this is when things started to get silly.

Shit hit the fans

Over night a large group of the fans made their statement known: The game looked «wrong». The argument seemed to be that the graphical style was too close to the «Warcraft»-series and not gloomy enough for this particular group of fans.

Diablo III - in game video

Now, I think critiquing games on their artistic merit is something that should be encouraged, after all this is an important source of debate and deeper understanding of other art-forms. Some of these fans were not satisfied merely letting their feelings be known they actually started petitioning to make Blizzard change the look of the game. To me this is completely ridiculous. Obviously the design-group had already discussed several different options and made the brave decision to move the look of the game in another direction than the previous installments. Now, you might disagree with this decision - fine. You might critique it - equally fine. But to actively try to change it? This shows a complete and utter disrespect towards the artists responsible.

Now it could be argued that this kind of controversy is something that actually demonstrates that games are evolving as a true art-form. After all controversy has always been a part of other art-forms. Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring comes to mind as it caused on outrage on the night of its premiere. I can’t however recall anyone actually demanding the artists to change their artistic direction. If artists always conformed to the status quo how would things ever progress?

After all, if the people who love games can’t respect the artists integrity, how can we ever expect the rest of the world to do so...

* Designers not mentioned due to the sheer number, refer to the linked Wikipedia articles for details.


The making of a presentation (part 5)

This is part 5 of «the making of 'Cultivating Creativity'», a presentation I entered in’s «World’s Best Presentation Contest».

Challenging words

One of the challenges of making a slide-presentation that has to work on its own, is to find the right balance between text and imagery.

The complete slide-deck in all its «glory»

As I've mentioned on several occasions, I believe slide-presentations should be predominantly visual and compliment the information given orally. When making this presentation however, speech was not an option. Needless to say, text would have to do some of the job. This was probably the hardest part for me. If I were to give the presentation live I would have lots to say. I would talk about how inspiration might elude you when you desperately need it. How that great idea might appear just as you were about to fall asleep. I would also augment the key-slides with additional information e.g. Read: Novels, newspapers, magazines, blogs, cereal packages - anything.

Now, I could just have delivered all this information in text-form, but it would dull down the presentation. I figured the best way to solve it was to make the viewers fill in most of the blanks themselves. I'd only use a few key-sentences highlighting the message of how it is impossible to force creativity. I repeated the key sentence 'you cannot force creativity' to make sure it registered with the viewer. I am still not 100% sure I pulled off the balance between simplicity and information but hopefully I wasn't too far off.

Finishing touches

And that was it. I read through the whole thing a couple of times, made some small changes to the font-sizes etc. but as there was no way to make advanced transitions and the timing was up to the viewer, there was little else I could do. As presentations go I think it works out reasonably well. It does not overload the viewer with information and [hopefully] the key-message should be easily grasped. I am also quite pleased with the fact that I manage to keep it as short as I did. As this is the final part of this informal 'making of' I would just like to say that I hope you found some part of it interesting. If nothing else it should serve as a glimpse into one person’s creative process.