spring 2019
visual design
participatory design

A responsive icon system for reinterpreting traditional stories.

This project breaks down a piece of traditional Chinese folklore (the Legend of the White Snake) into semi-abstracted components and asks participants who identify as part of the Sino (Chinese) diaspora to tell a version of that story using those pieces. I was interested in seeing how familiarity—or lack thereof—with the “original” telling might affect retelling, as well as examine notions of what authenticity and tradition might mean through the lenses of different diasporic communities and people.

how it works —

Participants were given a set of icons representing characters and actions based on the original story. Each icon comes in a set of sizes, with each size revealing more or less detail. They then constructed a story using these different components, placing icons on a grid and using different sizes of the icons to reflect that character or action’s importance. The overall size of the grid also reflected how the participant defined the scope of their story. Once the icons were placed, participants highlighed the most important sequences in their stories by placing a circle of the cluster of icons that represented that event, and drew a line between the two characters with the most important relationship. Each participant was asked to write a short summary of their new story, and descriptions are included with the final visual outcomes.

outcomes —

I collected responses from participants over the internet to try to ensure a more diverse set of respondants. You can view the instructions/ activity here. Thanks to everyone who helped me out with this project!

by Christina Chung

The white snake spirit never felt that she belonged in the spirit world and chose to leave to only home she ever had to live in the mortal realm disguised as a human woman. In this new world she meets and falls in love with a mortal man. They live a quiet, simple life together. The white snake’s evil sister, the green snake, learns that her sister has abandoned her duties in the spirit world and descends on the mortal realm to force her to return home. In a human disguise, she tricks the white snake’s husband into drinking poisoned wine. She succeeds in killing her sister’s only reason for remaining, and having won, returns to the spirit world. The white snake, instead of returning home as her sister wished, uses all of her powers to bring back her husband, breaking the spell that gave her a human form forever. Her husband awakens, as a small white snake slithers out of their home. He spends the rest of his days waiting for her return, not knowing that she watches over him as the small white snake in their garden.

Cursorial by J. Wong

The white and green snakes were spirits who loved each other dearly. One day, the green snake is severely injured in a battle with the sinister turtle spirit. Unable to cure her, the white snake takes human form to seek the advice of the human, who is knowledgeable in lore and medicine.

When the human discovers the white snake’s true nature, he initially plots to betray her and capture the power of both snakes. However, seeing the white snake’s dedication and selflessness for the green snake, the human eventually has a change of heart; he and the white snake develop a mutual respect and trust. After an arduous journey, they find the herb they need to cure and save the green snake. The two snakes are reunited, and the trio share a lifelong friendship.

by @aurltas

[I used to be familiar with the original legend but only retained disparate bits and pieces; I pulled some elements from the memory of that in my own retelling.] Essentially, the premise would be that both snake spirits have longed to become human for as long as they can remember. One day, the white snake takes human form to investigate something in the mortal realm that could potentially help them become human; while she’s there, she meets a human who befriends her and eventually becomes extremely close to her in the process of helping her investigate. (the green circle is for the first major event, aka their first meeting) Meanwhile, the green snake has been doing her own investigating on the issue and discovers the human was essentially behind it all, and was intending to betray the white snake and turn her into something for profit... probably some kind of longevity elixir / bringer of fortune / etc. After everything is revealed in a major “final battle/confrontation”-sort scene wherein the human is overthrown and the white snake is saved by the green snake, the rest of the story would follow both snake spirits’ efforts to reconcile their initial longing for the human realm with such a betrayal. Honestly, I would want to place greatest focus on this reconciliation/healing process more so than the first part (which is why I placed the largest circle over the resolution/rescue portion).

by @dreamsandabyss

The White Snake and Green Snake were the closest of friends. But White was always better, and Green became envious. The Human is a confidant of White's (maybe romantic). Turtle is a "friend" of both Snakes, but he only made things worse between them.

The snakes' friendship/sisterhood turned into one of lies and deception (mainly on Green's part). Green no longer wanted to be "lesser" than White or to be acquainted with her. Green became selfish.

The Turtle sided with White, but not out of loyalty. He just wanted to side with the better Snake. Human and White had a falling out. Human found blame in both of the Snakes, but cares for both so he's neutral. Turtle only wanted to isolate White more, but White had enough and cut him off/ banished/killed him.

Both Snakes end up alone. But White ended up alone and lonely; while Green was alone yet free. Green is free to be herself and become the person she wants to be instead of wanting to be like White.

by @alibonbonn

It's basically the first part of the story, where the white snake, through deception, is in a relationship with the human, until the turtle spirit caused her to transform

by @ymage_

Turtle after many years of effort transforms into a human and the first human friend they make is the white snake. Both parties are unaware that other isn’t human. The green snake, who previously disliked the turtle and is good friends with the white snake, finds out the turtle’s identity tries to break up their developing relationship without hurting the white snake. It’s a (?) romcom (??) / drama (???).

initial exploration —

This project was very open-ended, & the only guidelines were that we were supposed to make something that either involved responsive or participatory design. From the start, I knew that I wanted to do something involving folktales, reinterpretation, and iconography. My original ideas involved telling different version of the same story, using increasingly abstracted icons. 

specificity vs abstraction —

I spent a lot of time debating how specific or general I wanted my focus to be. I read up on different classification systems for (mostly Western) fairy tales, & considered doing a more general icon system for building stories out of tropes (the hero, the monster, etc). Even then, I’d still have to make choices on how abstract or specific a concept like “hero” could be depicted, and how that might affect interpretation.

In the end, I decided to focus on a specific story—the Legend of the White Snake. I was more interested in working with stories I had at least some cultural connection to, and I was interested in seeing how people from similar cultural backgrounds might approach the story. I also felt the level of specificity could also help lead to more interesting & meaningful narratives.

creating the icons —

Even within this specific story, I still had to determine how much abstraction would be present. I decided to keep the main characters (the White Snake, the Green Snake, the Human, & the Turtle Spirit) fairly accurate to the story, since once they were removed from their contexts they became a little more abstract. To make it easier for participants to start to form a narrative, I also pulled some main actions & motivations (Transformation, Relationship, Deception, Conflict, Rescue, & Resolution) from the narrative. Again, these became more abstracted once they were removed from their narrative, but I also tried to keep them more vague intentionally to avoid falling into stereotypes (using Relationship instead of Romance, for example).

Once I had figured out my characters & concepts, I began sketching representations for all of them. I wanted participants to be able to manipulate the icon size depending on that icon’s importance to the story, so I started working with how these sketches would look like across grids & at different sizes.

designing the system —

As I was finalizing the icons, I began to create set of rules for using the icons on a grid system. Though the overall activity was fairly simple (place some icons on a grid in a specific order), there were a lot of components & I had to make sure participants could follow instructions on their own & also generate a visually cohesive outcome. I ran a few analogue tests with cut paper version of the icons & stickers to get a better understanding of how people responded to the rules, before switching to the final digital version.

final pieces —

I sent the final rule set & activity to participants over the internet, and translated their responses to a final outcome, including text from their written narrative on the pieces to give a glimpse of the story.

credits —

© 2019 allissa chan