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.


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?!


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.


The making of a presentation (part 4)

This is part 4 of «the making of 'Cultivating Creativity'», a presentation I entered in’s «World’s Best Presentation Contest».

Graphical refinements

As I had already went through several version of the presentation in my mind things were starting to click. A short doodling session gave birth to a whimsical looking character I decided to use instead of the generic 'loose appendixes' one.

Some of the different stages on the way to a finished slide

Quick drafts of the different slides came about within minutes and could begin to consider the finer points. One of these finer points was to refine the earlier idea of somehow separating the two main-segments. I decided to make the 'feed'-slides with a strong line and strong colours as they referred to the more active side of my inspiration-recipe. In contrast, the 'rest'-slides should have a calmer, softer more organic look. Water colours seemed to fit the bill and even the fonts were either painted or traced by hand to make them more humane in appearance.

Know your audience is another mantra that it is wise to adhere to. Unfortunately I had no way of finding the key-demographics among slideshare-users. I did however know a little about the judges of the competition. I even recalled reading Guy Kawasaki praising the 'art of sucking up'. I decided to give it a shot. As all the judges are also authors, I decided to include imagery of these in the 'Read'-slide. The judges should recognize their own work, but it should not distract from the presentation as a whole. Certainly too good an opportunity to be missed. As I finished my illustrations I scanned them into my Mac and combined them with the text in Photoshop where I also performed some additional touch-up. The hard (but fun) part was over...


The making of a presentation (part 3)

This is part 3 of «the making of 'Cultivating Creativity'», a presentation I entered in’s «World’s Best Presentation Contest».

Going graphic

While the text-problem needed fixing I was also working on the graphic elements. My initial idea was to use a character where the head and hands floated freely in the air.

Original doodles in the background, first serious draft in the front

The head would be as generic as possible to avoid provoking anyone. (Similar to what I used in my Electing #44 video). Unfortunately, just like with my initial text-experiments I found the design didn't work particularly well. It just seemed too bland and didn't deliver anything the viewer would be bothered to spend time on. Needless to say it wound up in the giant archive beneath my desk.

These early problems got me to rethink the whole presentation. While I was stilled convinced the basic idea was sound it clearly needed some fine-tuning to reach its full potential. My first step was to cut down on the number of slides, particularly for the "feed"-segment. I decided to use the five strongest words and leave it at that. I'm a huge follower of the short-is-sweet-school (although reading this blog you might find that hard to believe). Keeping it short would also increase my chances of getting people to read through the whole deck. To further streamline my presentation for the purpose of the competition, I decided to combine the large words and artwork in the same slide. (If this was to be a live presentation I probably wouldn't have done this). Next step: Designing the slides.


The making of a presentation (part 2)

This is part 2 of «the making of 'Cultivating Creativity'», a presentation I entered in’s «World’s Best Presentation Contest».

Finding a form

OK, so now I had a plan for my presentation. Not only that, but I already had a fairly clear idea about the look of the piece. As this would be designed exclusively for the Slideshare-contest it had to work without sound an the text would have to be legible even in a small embedded flash-player. The idea was to use huge type in a one-word-per-slide layout emphasizing the do's and do's. I planned to display each word followed by a similar slide where an illustration was composited on top of the former slide.

As the two big-word parts of the presentation were to deal with different tasks I figured I'd better find some clever means to separate them visually as well. For the "feed your brain"-part I decided to go for an 'active' colour like green, while I reserved a nice pale blue for the more passive "rest your brain"-segment. I immediately fired up Photoshop and after experimenting I decided on the font Hattenschweiler.

To make the text a little less boring I gave them a slight gradient. I still wasn't 100% satisfied with the look, but finished the first iteration of these slides to see how it played. Oh, what a snooze-fest. While there was nothing wrong per se with the slides I found it impossible to concentrate while watching through them. If I couldn't entertain myself, how could I expect to keep the anyone else's attention!? Back to the drawing board then...


The making of a presentation (part 1)

This is part 1 of «the making of 'Cultivating Creativity'», a presentation I entered in’s «World’s Best Presentation Contest».

Finding creativity

For those of you who have yet to see the ‘Cultivating Creativity’ presentation, just scroll down to my last post. As a huge part of my blog-posts have been about Slideware Presentations I figured I had to participate. And if I was to participate, I wanted to do it right, meaning: adhering to my own ideas and philosophies about what makes a great presentation. As an oral presentation wouldn’t be possible I would have to use more text than I would normally do, but it had to be strong visually. First thing’s first though and the first challenge was to decide upon a topic for the presentation.

The very first physical piece of the presentation-puzzle

Some of the topics I considered were myself, Norway (my country), Visual Storytelling (surprise) and anything else that popped into my mind. In the end though I decided to go for a shallow but entertaining meta-presentation. (A presentation about itself.)

So with this in mind I began doodling and brainstorming on paper. While doing so however I felt that the topic was perhaps too shallow. While I felt fairly comfortable that I could make a presentation interesting to watch, it might be a hard sell to actually get anyone to watch it in the first place. Yet, I didn’t have any better idea, so I pushed on. When it suddenly hit me: My search for creativity was the answer. How often hadn’t I found myself in search for the creative spark? How often hadn’t I experienced the creative part of my brain firing on all cylinders when laying in bed waiting for Mr. Sandman to arrive? And even better: I knew how to treat my brain to spark the creative process in the first place!


World's Best Presentation Contest

-Cultivating Creativity

No reason to elaborate I guess. I have entered the following presentation in Slideshare’s World’s Best Presentation Contest. Looking at the competition it’s unlikely it’ll win any prices, but I had some fun creating this and succeeded fairly well in what I set forth to do.

I’m planning to run a series of posts about the creative process behind the presentation. Anyone interested in learning how I attack the creative process should look in over the next few weeks. Cheers!

Edit: as the version on slideshare is lagging quite heavily I’ve included my own Flash-file here.

Edit2: After a less than perfect experience it now seems everything is in order over at the Slideshare-site, so I’ve put that version back up...


Great Coffee [logo] (?)

Why the Starbucks logo isn't really that great

This post came about after reading Garr Reynolds' excellent blog-post about Logos & identity. The Starbucks Logo and its many rip-offs is one of the things Garr dig into. Through the links in his post I also found my way to where Starbucks' logo is placed eight in the "All-Time Ranqued logos". As you've probably gathered from my sub-heading I don't think it deserves this honour.

-Faulty by design

One of the most important elements of a logo is that it is instantly recognizable. It should immediately separate itself from other companies' logos so that the customer can recognize it at a glance. The problem with the Starbucks Logo lays in the shape. Why the circular badge looks pleasant it also has the same shape as gazillions other logos:

Now, as long as you watch these logos displayed like this in full colour displayed you should have little problem separating them. Although at a distance you might already be forgiven for mixing the Skoda and Starbucks logos. Let's try in black and white:

As you can see the logos now appear even more similar. Flipping through a newspaper I doubt if any of these would evoke immediate recognition. The identical geometry becomes a problem. Just look at these silhouettes:

You might argue that none of these logo-owners would ever present their logo in a simple silhouette and you'd be right. But a strong silhouette improves the recognizability. Furthermore, Starbucks (or any of the others) surely can't expect to copyright a circle?! Other companies however have clear, distinct shapes that both stand out in a crowd and are hard to copy:

How close do you think anyone would come to these before becoming synonymous with copyright infringement? As mentioned earlier: a logo should be instantly recognizable. One of the easiest way to achieve this is to design a strong and exclusive silhouette.


Drew Struzan

Childhood Hero

While I briefly mentioned Drew Struzan in another post he definitely deserves a post of his own. He is, according to George Lucas, "The only artist worth collecting since World War II". While I think this is erhaps taking it too far, he has been one of my heroes since my childhood. Not that I was aware of it at the time, but I used to marvel at those fantastic movie-posters wondering what kind of magic was used to make them. A film with a poster like that had to be worth seeing!

Incredible But True!

Only several years later did I find out about the man behind the art. No magic-tricks, just an amazing talent in the visual arts. That his parents actually named him Drew is one of those coincidents that it is hard to believe. But it is nevertheless true.

The Hero Of A Thousand Faces

Better Than The Movie?

Being one of the most recognizable poster-artists in the world he is probably best known for his work on Indiana Jones and Star Wars. Even if people don't know about the man, they're likely to recognize the style. In addition to the almost super human technical talent, he also seems to recognize the storytelling aspect needed of a Movie Poster: Teasing the audience to see the film. I dare say Drew's work is often the best thing about a movie!

Personally I just find it gratifying to see someone build their success on an indisputable talent. Mr. Struzan makes the posters with a variety of natural medias and techniques, without the aid of Photoshop or other digital tools. Come to think of it, that sounds a little bit like magic after all...


The 10th Anniversary Of The iMac

Sweet As Candy And The Birth Of i...

That's right. 10 years ago Apple released the first iMac. It was in its time a revolutionary product on many levels and can in many ways be considered the first big step in the resurrection of Apple.

The most obvious differentiation from its peers was the way that it looked. The all-in-one-enclosure was a friendly looking egg-shaped machine in a blueish hue. The material had reportedly been created in cooperation with a candy-factory and I think it is safe to call the machine a genuine design-classic. It was by and large the first computer made where the manufacturer really considered the esthetics to be as important as the technical specifications. As Steve Jobs (Apple's CO) said: "...the back of this thing looks better than the front of the other guys'...".

It also gave birth to a new naming convention, starting the name with a lower-case "i". Today, using a lowercase first letter is fairly common, but back in its day it was another thing that told the audience that the iMac was something special.

Apple is today one of the strongest, most popular companies in technology. This is of course largely down to the fact that they release high quality products. But, it is also because Apple honors the fact that the "story" matters...

First iMpressions (ooh, that's clever)

As I've been mentioning going on and on about in my last posts, the first impression is incredibly important. Apple's focus seems to be on delivering the best possible user experience and they obviously understand the importance of a good first impression.

That's why they spend money on stuff like packaging. Where most PC-manufacturers will send out their machines in a brown cardboard-box, Apple will pack their machines in specially designed cartons with 4-color printing and often creatively designed styrofoam designed to make the unpacking easy but also to create an experience in its own right.

Ad for the original iMac

Telling A Story

Some will shrug at this and say that it doesn't matter. Well, it doesn't matter if your product doesn't live up to the experience, but it certainly puts the receiver in a mood where he or she is ready to be further impressed by the hardware. When people spend hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars they want to feel well catered for. The same feeling of quality and attention to detail seeps through from Apple's advertising all the way to the finished product. It tells a story. The story of a company that cares about their products, not just about cutting costs to improve the bottom line.

Above you'll find a video from the release of the birthday-kid. It's also a nice example of how to give an effective presentation.


Visuals in Neutral

Trying to keep the visuals out of the way

I came across this on TED and found it most interesting. It's not exactly storytelling but rather a music video where the creators try not to let the visuals dominate the music.

"Moonlight in Glory" (David Byrne & Brian Eno)

I'm not 100% sure about the use of text, as I find it impossible not to read when I see text and as a result I'm distracted from the musical experience. Also the designer, Jacob Trollbäck, is Swedish; and as a Norwegian there are limits to how much praise I can give to one of those.


Nevertheless, I find this to be an excellent piece and a brilliant example of using the right visuals for the right job.


Bayeux Tapestry

When it comes to classic examples of visual storytelling the Bayeux Tapestry is one of my absolute favourites. The tapestry depicts the Battle of Hastings where the Norman army led by William the Conquerer defeated King Harold's Saxon army. A truly defining moment in British history and one that among other things is largely responsible for the heavy latin influence in the English language. (Something to think about the next time you eat pork).

In the context of this blog I will naturally focus on the use of visuals to tell the story. Told sequentially from left to right with vivid imagery and latin inscriptions it is constructed surprisingly similar to modern day Comic Strips. It is rather ironic that while the Bayeux Tapestry is celebrated as a brilliant piece of medieval art, comic strips are still occasionally shunned upon as an art form.

If you are dreading the continuation of this post to be a dry step-by-step description of the actual tapestry you are in luck. As the tapestry itself was meant to be experienced visually I won't spoil it for you. Thanks to animator David Newton the story depicting a huge battle, Halley's Comet and the fate of a nation can now be experienced in a better way:

Purists might object but I think this is a really clever example of how to present an ancient piece of artwork to a contemporary audience.


Alien Aztecs, the curse of knowledge and the mother of all design-assignments

The mission

Imagine being given the task of explaining the origins of an object to an unknown recipient. A recipient that doesn't understand your language, has no knowledge of your alphabet and not even a basic understanding of the symbols we all consider universal.

This might sound absurd but it was exactly the assignment Dr. Carl Sagan and Dr. Frank Drake set off to accomplish when starting design on what was to be known as the Pioneer Plaque.

To infinity and beyond


NASA's Pioneer program consisted of space probes being sent out to investigate celestial bodies. The Pioneer 10 and 11 would actually travel to the end of our solar-system and continue into deep space. Journalist Eric Burgess was the first to present the idea that the satellites should contain some information about their origin in case of alien interception.

What a design challenge! How on earth (pun intended) can you possibly imagine what it would be like for an alien to witness imagery from a totally unfamiliar world? Will they even have the ability to understand artistic renditions? It might seem obvious to us but the majority of beings on our own planet cannot. They did make a few assumptions that limited the challenge slightly. As the chance of the satellite ever coming in contact with an alien civilization was slim at best, they figured that the best chance would be for it to be picked up by an alien space-craft. This would mean the collectors weren't exactly cave-men.

And when watching the imagery it certainly seems decodable. While I don't instinctively catch the deeper scientific bits. I recognize the planets and the two human figures. So credit to Drs. Sagan and Drake and to Sagan's wife at the time - Linda Salzman Sagan who actually prepared the finished artwork.

The curse of knowledge

However: It is hard for us, as it was for the plaque's creators, to escape the curse of knowledge. We all know about the stuff the pictures are describing. The human figures are nearly instinctively obvious to us as we're trained to recognize other humans from the moment we open our eyes the first time. For otherworldly beings however all this could be potentially confusing. Just think back through our own history when [legend has it] that the Aztecs mistook the Spanish conquestador Cortes for a good when he unmounted his horse. We all view our world based on knowledge, culture, religion and other filters society have bestowed upon us. The earth used to be flat remember?

So to try to round this up the plaque-creators had a seemingly impossible task and they probably knew it. They gave it their best shot however and whether they succeeded or not we'll probably never know.

The point you should keep in mind is this: Your audience, whether you're making a speech, lecture or film, might be Alien Aztecs. They might be completely oblivious to what you trying to convey. Therefore you must try to put yourself in your audience's shoes. Otherwise you just might end up as an Aztec deity on The Forbidden Planet...