New job: digital content curator

I’ve had huge fun working in The Open University’s Open Media Unit, but time is up and I’ve started a new role in the OU’s Communications unit working on content strategy for the university.

OpenLearn, the website I worked on, is a terrific thing: there can’t be many sites that offer such a wide range of free (in both senses) educational content on every subject and in every medium, serving millions of people over the years. But I’m excited by the challenge of the new role—I have broader responsibility for ensuring the content of all the university’s websites (and they are legion) is properly commissioned, produced and maintained for them to be as effective and useful for all users [1] as possible.

I’m sad to leave OMU and my amazing colleagues, many of whom I consider good friends after my three years there. It was a creatively satisfying job and I had the encouragement and confidence of others to try new things out on a regular basis. There are lots of ongoing challenges to make the site as usable, accessible and successful as possible. Luckily, they’re all experts and I know they’ll be successful. I’ll stay in touch with them and with the field of Open Educational Resources in general.

So, onto the new thing. Lots to do already. I’ve joined a team who are complete experts in web standards, including content strategy, information architecture, search, visibility, optimisation and analytics—I’m going to learn lots from them, and if I can add something on the way, I’ll be delighted.

  1. I dislike the impersonal users as much as the next person, but in this case I can’t think of anything better that communicates the vast array of potential students, current students, alumni, staff, collaborators, interested parties…  ↩

Terminal Cities

I made a little video about Terminal Cities to accompany the new BBC series Airport Live.

It was produced in a slightly back-to-front fashion. Due to limited availability, instead of setting a voiceover to a pre-existing video, I did it the other way around. I asked Simon Bell (who you might remember from the Guide to Diagrams I described a few months ago) for his thoughts on the issues and complexity of modern air travel. He recorded his thoughts on ‘terminal cities’, the huge collection of buildings, vehicles and people that comprise a large airport.

It was then a case of digging through the BBC/Open University video archive for some footage of Heathrow, the airport in question for the duration of the series. Luckily there were some programmes that had covered the subject during previous features on Terminal 5 and the ongoing discussion around a third runway.

I grabbed a bunch of tiny clips, most only lasting a few seconds, put them in an order that seemed to fit with what Simon was saying, then added a music bed courtesy of johnny_ripper. It all fell into place really quickly and easily.

Simon was the academic advisor to the series. Although it will be live, and inherently difficult to prepare for, he’s helped ensure that the production team cover some really important and interesting topics that might otherwise go missing during a prime-time TV series.

In keeping with his fondness for understanding situations through diagrams, Simon produced a rich picture and spray diagram to make some sense of the inherent complexity of terminal cities. The fact they aren’t completely polished and they’re scanned from lined paper is kind of the point—see those guide to diagrams videos I mentioned earlier for an explanation. You can see the diagrams by using the tabs at the top of the page.

Unlike, say, Design in a Nutshell, this was a project with a £0 budget, so I was pleased to produce something at all. It would have been great to take this a little deeper and explore some of the issues in more detail, but I hope the series and the videos and articles on our website encourage more people to think about the enormous issues around modern air travel as well as the challenges faced by everyone involved at an airport like Heathrow.

Airport Live starts on Monday 17 June on BBC Two at 8pm. It broadcasts on four consecutive nights.

Airport Live

Design in a Nutshell

Design in a Nutshell‘ is our attempt to explain a few key design movements for the uninitiated. It’s six short animations, and a way to share your design alter-ego based on your design preferences.

The movements are Gothic Revival, Arts and Crafts, Bauhaus, American Industrial Design, Modernism, and Postmodernism.

To make this, I worked with Clive Hilton, from The Open University’s Design department, and Thought Den, a bunch of talented and handsome designers, developers and animators from Bristol.

With more time or money I’d have loved to include a couple more design movements. But I really like how this came out—there are some genuinely funny moments in the videos, and the quiz/diagnostic tool thing is pretty great. People seem to really like sharing their design alter-ego on Facebook and Twitter.

One thing to note is that the design department at the OU is based in the Maths, Computing and Technology faculty, and so is more focused on product design than what we might naïvely term art and design. I don’t think this is a problem, though: these design concepts should be of interest to designers of all types and help us all understand how we got where we are.

(Btw, my design alter-ego is Ludwig Georg Van Der Pound, modernist. Have a play and see what yours is.)

Design in a Nutshell launch image

Image copyright The Open University, used with permission.

Guide to diagrams

My most recent OpenLearn project was a guide to using diagrams to solve complex problems. Working with a team of Open University academic colleagues, we made a series of videos and a quick scenario-based quiz.

Shall I draw you a picture

At the outset, I had very little awareness or understanding of diagrams, at least in a technical or academic sense. Sure, I’d heard of and had occasionally used mindmaps, but wasn’t sure what else there was.

A quick telephone call with OU academic Simon Bell was enough to both open my eyes and scare the living bejesus out of me. Here was a seemingly sane man talking to me about Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the role of rich pictures in historical human storytelling, the Book of the Dead, modern hieroglyphs, and fighting a fight against the ‘gravity of dullness that permeates diagramming and systems thinking in academia’. All in the same sentence.

I had to work with him to make something about diagrams that the general public would be interested in and want to learn from. He wanted something that would make people want to “draw the picture or die”. At this stage, I wasn’t not totally sure what I was in for. Weren’t we supposed to be talking about Tony Buzan?

What the hell is a systems map anyway

Fast-forward a few weeks and I’d had further chats with Simon and his colleagues and I’d seen examples of other, different diagram types. A rich picture about flood management looked bonkers: seemingly childlike in its simplicity, somehow this collection of stick men, doodles, symbols and landscapes helped me understand the set of problems faced by a variety of people in a single situation. Systems diagrams were a sort of huge Venn showing what was part of what (and, importantly, what wasn’t). Multiple cause diagrams helped you see how different factors produced different effects. It was quite overwhelming, but I could see there was something there that could be useful and interesting to people other than university professors.

We quickly settled on video as the ideal medium to demonstrate how these diagrams could be created and why they should be used. Finding a narrative to hang it together was more of a challenge—I was working with a group of academics that used these diagrams to model complex environmental problems. Would this hold the interest of people brand new to diagramming, let along environmental decision making?

The final product

We took the view that people could use different diagram types depending on the amount of understanding they have of a situation. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but I quickly learned that it can be a useful approach. For example, when your understanding is a mess, and there are multiple viewpoints to consider, a rich picture can help get everything down in one place. A spray diagram helps organise and group these components. As understanding grows, systems maps and influence diagrams help define the boundaries and relationships within the context. Once this understanding is in place, multiple cause diagrams help you form causal chains that can explain why a particular event has happened.

Simon picked a suitable topic and we filmed him drawing these diagrams in sequence, beginning with a mess of understanding and, while not arriving at an answer per se, ending up with a thorough understanding of the main context and its associated factors. A complex problem now had two or three key areas that needed focused attention to bring about resolution.

The final product is a video player that takes one long YouTube video and breaks it into 7 smaller pieces. We’ve got two introductory animations, one that explains why we use diagrams in the first place, and one that sets the scene for Simon’s chosen topic. Then, for each of the 5 diagram types, there are speeded-up videos of Simon drawing each diagram with a voiceover (recorded later) where he explains what he’s doing. There is an extra example of each diagram type at the end of the 5 videos, explained by Simon’s colleague Kevin Collins.

This is followed up by a quick quiz—the viewer is given 5 different scenarios (including supermarkets, game developers, and a hospital A&E department), each with a different problem facing them. He or she is then asked to suggest a suitable diagram to help approach the problem.

Here’s the final thing. Please don’t be one of the people who wonders how Simon learned to write backwards so well.

Yes, but is it any good

This was a tough project. We took a subject that the Open University teaches at postgraduate level, and tried to make it accessible for the interested layperson. I think we succeeded. I’d have liked to develop the quiz functionality into something slightly richer and more personal, possibly allowing the user to try different diagramming types out. But time and money only go so far.

Still, I’m happy, and the videos have been popular so far. I’ve used a couple of the techniques when faced with complicated problems at work, and I hope that others get something useful out of it.