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Ava's Creative Design Process, Part II: Agile Sprints and The Lean Start-Up

Previously in Part I, we described our initial phase of diving headfirst as novices into the world of picture books and showed you some images from our first take. In Part II, Mary and I continue sharing our story about our Creative Design Process. We'll explain how successive iterations and software development practices helped us create the published version of Ava's Triumph as you know it.


Agile Development and Minimal Viable Product

Neither Mary nor I had done a picture book before, and Ava's Triumph was not quite a picture book either. It was part picture book, part animation, part diorama -- we didn't have a category for what we were going to create, let alone a process to create it. So again, we borrowed from what we knew and hoped it would work out well enough.

Our creative design process was loosely borrowed from Linda’s experience in software development:

1. Our iterative process is a form of Agile development, which uses short cycles, also known as “sprints'' to validate an idea and plan out your next set or sets of features to be developed in future iterations.

2. Our focus of an end-to-end but minimal version of Ava’s story comes from Eric Ries’ notion of Minimal Viable Product (MVP), described in his book The Lean Start-up.

Here is an infographic on the Agile Iterative Process, adapted slightly for Ava's case. You aren't seeking to perfect each stage, you are seeking to learn what it is you want to create, and in that process you also get better at doing it.

Here's another infographic, this one on Minimal-Viable Product (MVP). The key concept is to go end-to-end with your idea.

It's important to go end-to-end, and not sequentially from beginning to end, because in the process you gain insights, learn what works and what doesn't, and use your increased understanding to build better each time. Here's another infographic illustrating this cyclical idea of development.

As it turned out, these software development concepts and practices worked very well for our creative process.


The Spill, The Eureka Moment, and The Unveiling

Our first iteration was composed of the minimal scenes required to tell Ava's story. Our MVP was composed of: The Spill, The Eureka Moment, and The Unveiling. We shared them in Part I of this blog post. Here they are again; this time shown side by side with their respective Iteration #2 version.

The Spill

Iteration #1 Iteration #2

The Eureka Moment

Iteration #1 Iteration #2

The Unveiling

Iteration #1 Iteration #2

You can see our first iteration was very basic, but that was by design. We shot with our cell phones and used minimal staging. Keeping this iteration quick and easy also helped reign in Mary’s and my perfectionistic tendencies. In our second iteration, things were coming together. I started to bring out my photography equipment little by little. Mary had put together more rapid-prototypes and started to refine props from the previous iteration. But again we didn't try to accomplish everything as successive iterations would give us plenty of opportunities to refine.

These two images in particular changed my expectations about what we could achieve. The cheerful light-filled studio with the wooden floors, the pops of color coming from the art on the walls, the brightness of the paint cans reflecting light, and that beautiful yellow Mary had chosen for Ava’s studio door. Positioning Ava was a challenge, but we could feel her story coming across through the images. We were learning more about the limitations of our medium, and what we could do to overcome and turn them into strengths instead.

By this second iteration, we had become absolutely hooked. Mary was already planning ahead with more props and ideas. And for me, the project was entirely too captivating to think about working on anything else. What we had discovered from working on these MVP elements of the story was that Ava had a story to tell, and this was just the beginning of Mary's beautiful creations. We were determined to realize both by carrying out this iterative process for all the scenes of Ava’s story.


Discovering and Learning by Doing

When creating something new without the benefit of experience, there are a lot of very basic things you just don’t know yet. Also, in our case, the writing, scene-making and photography process were intimately intertwined. We could dream with the text and narrative, but getting behind the camera in front of props that don’t move is entirely different. The realist, the Disney realist, had no trouble rearing its head immediately. We needed to see things behind the motionless frame of the camera, and then decide whether the narrative was still working or whether the amount of time to design or refine a prop was going to be worth it.

An example of how the writing, scene-making and photography work were intertwined, was in the studio scenes after Ava has come home with her ruined painting. We had envisioned her looking at her painting in different locations from different angles: from her bed, from up on her ladder, and from a cushion in front of her canvas. We had this idea of Ava actively changing-up her perspective to find a solution to fix her dear painting. We gave this idea many attempts, but no luck. Not for lack of trying, as we even tried Ava on the ladder upside down!

Thanks to the realist and critic in us, we steered to a better idea. Although Ava is moving, the camera’s eye is still on her ruined canvas so the reader wasn’t going to feel that movement of her working to reach her Eureka moment. To have the reader feel the movement of Ava’s active struggle, we needed the reader’s eyes to feel this change of perspective as well. And to do this, we aimed the camera onto the different walls of Ava’s studio which effectively resulted in the reader turning around in the room. This resulted in more images, and obviously resulted in many changes to the text of our narrative. Our Back at the Studio scenes: Ava’s tearful moment with her lovey in front of her canvas, the inspiration wall, the baguette snack, which in turn led to Momma and little brother in her doorway - all came out of the iterative process.

When Mary and I worked on what would be the last iteration, the seventh, after having done many sprints by then, refining that last iteration was exceptionally gratifying. Even though we didn’t know exactly what would be the shot we would choose later that week for the book layout in InDesign, we knew what we needed to do. We sprinted with confidence into the iteration - the text, the scene, the details of the props, the photography angles, and the laying out the page on InDesign. We were in the “flow” for that last sprint! We had gained a level of mastery that made practicing what was now “our craft” a delight. And it took iterating, the repeated practice of improvement, to develop that feeling of mastery. Without this process, I doubt very much Mary and I would ever have been able to go from that first image of Ava in front of her canvas (below) to what would become the book cover.

Our humble beginnings

Successful creation is about successive discovery, learning, improvement, practice, persistence, and refinement - perhaps in other words, resilience and a growth-mindset, just like Ava!

Our Ava's Triumph book cover and a dream come true!


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