In this post, Mary and I would like to share with you the creative design process we followed and some of the concepts we borrowed from other disciplines to go from our pie-in-the-sky ideas to a completed picture book with images and text. This Part I post describes our initial phase of diving headfirst as novices into the world of picture books. Part II describes in greater detail our use of software development design practices.
Mary and I came from different lines of work. I was in software, and she was in fine arts. We knew that our work ethic and aesthetics made us well-suited to do a project together, but neither of us had ever created a picture book before. We were mostly poker buddies actually! We had only a vague idea of what we would create. How would we start?
There is a wonderful quote by mathematician and Fields medalist, Maryam Mirzhakani, a role model for resilience, creativity and kindness, which the world lost to cancer in 2017. When Maryam was asked about her approach to solving mathematical proofs, she said, “It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.” That was indeed Mary and me!
If we wanted to create a picture book, we needed to use all of our knowledge to figure out what and how to create it. Every day was like being in a jungle, being resourceful, learning on the job, and coming up with tricks.
What better way to start than to learn from the many picture books already out there. How thankful we are to all the children’s authors and illustrators past and present! Between the two of us, Mary and I gobbled up at least a hundred titles using San Francisco’s wonderful public library system. We focused on gathering every Caldecott and Caldecott Honorable Mention title we could get our hands on. We had lists (and physical stacks) of our Caldecott titles, of Social Emotional Learning (SEL books), lists of books we had loved growing up (Winnie the Pooh, The Littles), and titles we were reading currently (Llama Llama Red Pajama, Knuffle Bunny, Iggy Peck Architect) to the young children in our lives. And the title Frederick, by one of the greatest children’s book authors of all times, Leo Leonni, was on every one of our lists!
We were (and still are) reading widely on parenting (or “raising adults” as we prefer to call now, but more on this in a future blog post!) not because of Ava’s Triumph; rather, it was the other way around. It’s because the topic of raising adults is so dear to us, that the book we wrote would ultimately have this subject at its heart.
So, the first couple of weeks of our adventure was an unstructured brainstorm of ideas and bustling activity along with a generous amount of nostalgia and free-association conversation. However, there was one piece of structure we consciously adopted early on, and that one piece was that Mary and I were going to be dreamers for each other's ideas during this ideation phase. We took this piece of structure out of a page from Walt Disney’s Creative Strategy playbook. The teams at Disney had three different phases for the creative process: Dreamer, Realist, and Critic. The basic premise behind the dreamer stage was this:
“...any creative idea starts with a dream full of passion and enthusiasm, this dreaming style is halted by reality and does not have the space to go further on... In this Disney Creative Strategy, the first stage allows the team to share their dream without no restrictions or criticism. This helps to build a pool of creative ideas. Some of these ideas are viable and others are not. Determining the viable creative concepts comes later as a result of the second and third thinking styles.”
Disney assigned different sections of the room for each phase. Mary and I didn’t go so far as to create different spaces for dreaming (her whole basement garage with walls of pink was the stuff dreams are made of anyway!), but we were very deliberate about supporting and always running with whatever either of us came up with. Sky’s the limit. We would have plenty of time to be realist and critic later.
During this time, we started to take a few images of Mary’s lovey characters. We built a set around an initial idea we had at the time. Ava was an artist, and she was going to take her friends to the art gallery and explore art together. This is one of our earliest images -- the bunnies at the Art Museum looking chic. Fun memories!
This photoshoot was one of our first important lessons about how a good idea in your head may not go very far. While the set didn’t take very long to create, the amount of time we put into it was unnecessary to learn something very basic - our story idea would be utterly boring in a picture book for three-year-olds. The other important thing we learned was that whatever the story, our characters would be bunnies! Why bunnies you might ask? We needed as many loveys as Mary could provide, and the loveys that Mary had the most of already were lambs and bunnies, and the bunnies won out! Why? Because bunny ears are wonderfully expressive and funny!
Mary and I discussed our ideas, reflected on our own childhoods, talked about the zeitgeist of childhood and the school playground, and the always evolving world of parenting we saw around us. After a couple of weeks tossing storylines back and forth, we had come to some themes and a narrative we thought would work. We broke up the story into eight scenes and listed out some props. We were ready to proceed further, but what would be our next step?
It might make sense to simply start with the first scene and complete each scene in sequence, but instead we focused on the must-have scenes - the absolute minimal number of scenes we had to include in order to relay Ava’s story. The three scenes were:
The Eureka Moment, and
To conclude Part I, we are going to leave you with images from that first iteration, which we shot with our cellphones and minimal staging. You can see our first iteration was not much to look at, but that was by design, which helped curb Mary’s and my perfectionistic tendencies. We would have time to refine later as we learned more about what we wanted to create using practices and concepts from software development. In Part II, we will show you a much improved iteration and elaborate on how we continued this process in successive iterations. Indeed, one of the images below would grow up to become our Book Cover.
Many thanks for your interest in reading our blog!