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Curiosity

Believe it or not, musty old text books make for marvelous muses. As a kid, I’d pored over yellowing books with broken spines that my dad had saved since grade school. Years later, I found them awaiting me on the basement bookcase, and realized I was still as enthralled as ever by their accounts of the beet sugar refinement process and balloon-based meteorology. I loved absorbing information at my own leisurely pace via lessons (literally) fit for a 10-year-old. Why must these explanations of how the world works end once we leave school? I lamented. No sooner had I enrolled in my university’s publication design course than I had pledged that my project would educate, even if unwittingly.

Project pretext: Academic
Assignment: Design print and tablet versions of a fictitious publication
Timeframe: 8 weeks

Opportunities

Process

When I attempted to present my topic idea during our first group critique, it was met with complete confusion and utter dismay from my classmates (admittedly I may have described it as essentially a rebranding of children’s textbooks for adult leisure reading; evidently no one else had the habit of studying simple machines over Sunday brunch). I still believed that my fundamental idea had entertainment potential, but it was clear that I needed to more carefully consider how I communicated it.

Illustrations categorized and labeled by the concepts of alive, dead, and never alive.
Charming illustrations coupled with the basic tenets of the physical world: what’s not to love about antiquated primary school books?

In an effort to identify the particular strain of readership that just might consider pulling the magazine of my imagining off the proverbial shelf, I took pen to paper, listing all the traits I presumed they’d exude. Inquisitive, analytical, investigative … but the adjective that resonated most was curious. In its noun form—curiosity—I had found a namesake: it seemed to describe a lifestyle and a natural state of being. In the way readers of other lifestyle magazines had hobbies in gardening or motorcycling, mine most certainly spent their spare time demystifying the ways of the world.

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My notebook is my open frontier: I let my ideas roam wild before allowing the convergent part of my brain take over.

This was still not a typical topic for a magazine, though, so I went to work crafting a concise tagline that would crystalize the concept in viewers’ minds and validate it as legitimate and worthwhile. “A museum in your hands” alluded to the common educational activity that is museum-going, while simultaneously touting the relative convenience and portability of periodicals. From there I wrote a mission statement to clarify my publication’s philosophy and scope: “Curiosity explores how the world works and why, as seen from the realms of art, language, history, science, and math.” The straightforward categories afforded by school subjects would prove helpful when it came to organizing my content.

Meanwhile, style awaited: look and feel could also be employed to broadcast my magazine’s mission to viewers. I examined periodicals, deconstructing the way their visuals affected my interpretation of their subject matter. I applied these insights when I went on to build a moodboard of found imagery as guidance for future stylistic decisions.

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Photos featuring bold colors and varying textures appealed to me for the energy they conveyed; their zoomed-in subject matter and uncommon camera angles suggested new outlooks on our seemingly familiar world. I experimented with overlap to add depth and pulled in retro lettering that harkened back to my original inspiration.

As I outlined a table of contents and searched for articles to populate it, I quickly became aware that this would be an exercise of what not to include: there was just too much intriguing information out there waiting to be reported. I assigned my magazine issue a theme to help filter and channel the content. The notion of perspective was flexible enough in its differing interpretations to be taken several directions. Meant metaphorically, it alluded to critical thinking by way of examining ideas from various view points to arrive at an informed understanding; this complemented my magazine’s mission perfectly.
 I wanted anyone to be able to crack open Curiosity without any pre-requisites and take away a nugget of new understanding, so I carefully chose articles that avoided delving too deep into esoteric topics, and in some cases I edited the text to fill gaps in knowledge that my readers might have.

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To ensure the content remained diverse in its approaches, I charted how prospective stories mapped to the theme’s various meanings.

Once I’d sorted my selected articles into the sections I’d referenced in my mission statement, I explored how to visually convey each category and the full breadth of ideas it represented.

Sketches explore the icons I assigned to each section.
I brainstormed objects that symbolize various aspects of science—a lab beaker, an insect, and an atom, among others—repeating the exercise for the remaining subjects. I then took each list to the drawing board where I iterated how to best combine the objects into an emblem evocative of the domain they stood for.

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I settled on a simple line-based illustration style, which acted as a visual foil to the bold photographs I planned to incorporate.

I wanted to use visual aids wherever I could to better communicate abstract concepts central to the the text. An article I’d planned to run regarding the real physics behind flight had personal significance: I’d never fully fathomed what I’d been taught in school about equal transit time*. The alleged idea that lifeless air molecules were physically obligated to return to their original alignment, post-wing disruption, had always baffled me. In the article, a NASA aeronautics engineer myth-busts the belief by calculating the proportions a wing would need if the dubious theory was indeed responsible for lift—a 747’s wing would need to be taller than it is wide!—and goes on to provide the correct scientific models. If I could juxtapose the proportions demanded by equal transit time against actual wing proportions it would concisely sum up the issue taken on by the author, and compel the reader to learn the truth.

*Equal transit time, also called longest path theory, claims that air molecules separated from one another when a wing slices between them must meet back up at the trailing edge of the wing. This purportedly results in a negative pressure zone caused by the upper molecules traveling a greater distance and therefore spreading further apart than their below-wing counterparts.

Two wing cross-sections of varying heights but constant lengths are shown: the tall one is the shape demanded by the theory of equal transit time.
The cross-section most resembling a cartoon whale (on the right) shows the shape a wing would need if the traditional understanding of lift was in fact responsible for flight.

The article about flight also provided an opportunity for interaction within my publication’s digital version, the screens for which I’d been building with InDesign’s Digital Publishing Suite. Lift is determined by the speed of the wing through the air and its “angle of attack”. I created a flipbook-like module that animated through a series of images at a rate corresponding to the user’s swiping speed (which represented air movement); the changing angle of attack and lifting of the wing depicted in the flipbook frames followed, providing instant feedback to the user based on their action.

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I built each frame of the flipbook individually before loading them all into InDesign and building the swipe-sensitive interaction.

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A single swipe allows the user to observe a wing lifting and lowering based on changing speed and angle of attack.

I fully embraced my Editor-in-Chief responsibilities, balancing the consumability of individual spreads and screens with the pacing of the publication as a whole. Thumbnail sketches helped me set the foundational tempo of images, text, and white space at a holistic level before I solidified page layouts.

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I am prepared to admit to having the doctor’s handwriting of the wireframe world at times. It’s just that I truly believe in establishing a strong storytelling structure; in this case that meant deconstructing potential page elements so I could then put them back together in a meaningful way.

An animated .GIF shows the spread designed for "The Artist's Perspective" article, while the grid I used flashes on and off
By the end I had plotted out 52 pages of text, titles, images, captions, and pullquotes—all of which would have fallen apart like a house of so many cards were they not anchored by a sturdy and well-tested grid system.

Outcomes

Peruse a PDF of Curiosity online, or download it for later.

Curiosity is a print and iPad publication that explores and explains how the world works from the ground up, through approachable articles and illustrations.

The print version’s page designs embrace the unique French-fold printing technique I’d settled on: I intentionally ran imagery over page edges to draw attention to the assembly method and printed a subtle pattern on their interiors.


Watch a tour of Curiosity’s digital interactions from the perspective of a (very fast) reader.

Curiosity’s iPad version introduces interaction as an aid to understanding. Users can play with simplified scientific diagrams that break down the affect of physical forces behind everyday phenomena like lift and lunar orbit.

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