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!

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