One of Spark!Lab’s three core messages is that “everyone is inventive.” This means everyone, regardless of physical ability, language, or academic background. Our volunteers and staff dedicate themselves to helping visitors from every background and language engage in the invention process.
Over the past year some of our staff and interns have been meeting with the Smithsonian’s accessibility department. The conversations flowed around the idea that Spark!Lab is already a rather accessible space, but with a little effort we could really raise the bar. A seed was planted and it was not long before it took root with our team. Recently Spark!Lab staff sat down to discuss our goals for the 2017-2018 year. In that discussion we concluded that we want to ensure that everyone who visits Spark!Lab can feel and be inventive. We want to be more accessible to all visitors.
One of the areas we are exploring regarding accessibility is wordless instruction panels. It is my job to create the hands-on activities in Spark!Lab and part of that is drafting the text-based instructions and background panels for each activity. It seemed only fitting that I would also work at helping develop wordless visual instructions for the activities.
When we develop activities for our space, some of our goals are to provide multiple points of entry. When we create, for example, an activity that challenges visitors to invent a prosthetic grabbing device, we want everyone to have a chance to create a successful outcome. Activities need to be friendly enough for a 4-year-old but challenging enough to engage a high schooler. Our activities are also fairly open ended in nature. One thing we like to say is that “there is no right answer.” Given the hands on component of our space and our project based challenge approach, we bear a mild resemblance to a makerspace. Our setup would prove to be both conducive and challenging when it comes to creating visual instructions. The last thing we wanted to do is make a step-by-step path to a prescripted final outcome.
Last week I began working toward the open-ended outcome visual instructions for our space. When our team began discussing what visual instructions might look like, the first word on the table for discussion was Ikea. I began by combing through Ikea instructions for different furniture pieces. I also spent some time looking at Ikea instruction spoofs that used Ikea visual speak to show how to make famous monsters like The Fly or Alien from the movies.
As I continued to look for examples of visual instructions, I also went on to safety information. How to use a fire extinguisher and what to do in an airplane emergency are two widely curculated and visually simple instructions. I was now certain that our instructions would need multiple panels, like a comic book. My goal now was not one but three images to convey our instructional message.
I was riding the train home after my day of visual instruction research when a vague memory came to me. When I was younger, I saw a comic, without words, in a magazine I liked. I thought it was in Popular Mechanics but soon found out the comic lived in a neighboring periodical, Popular Science. After a little searching, I found the comic. It is called, “Wordless Workshop,” written by Roy Doty. It debuted in 1954 and ran until Roy Doty passed away in 2015. The model of this comic was perfect, it defines a problem, shows the spark of an idea, and then illustrates the work to create a solution. By combining the modern visual style of airplane emergency instructions with the innovative thinking process, illustrated by "Wordless Workshop," I had my inspiration for our visual instructions.
The general plan was now in place. The next challenge was drawing our instructions. I chose the computer as my drawing tool. I started simple in scope and worked my way around a number of programs. I started by working with Gimp and Inkscape, both programs where I am at best a skilled novice. I then tried using Paint and Word. After a few hours of trying I realized that I just was not happy with the views and perspectives I was getting with these programs. It just so happens that a month ago I ventured out on a creative exercise where I drew a full 3D model of Draper Spark!Lab. The program I used for that was the free version of Sketchup. By combining elements from my creative exercise with some basic drawings I created a virtual 3D invention studio for Sparky, the Spark!Lab mascot. The studio is not much, a floor, 3 walls, a simple table, and Sparky. Within that space I can add activity elements, arrows, and symbols as needed. We can then positon our camera to take an image at any location within the studio, creating images with depth and perspective. From there we take the 2D photos and put them into a Word document to create a simple visual sign.
As of this writing we have one prototype visual sign, for our “Become an Innovative DJ” activity. That single visual instruction is currently being tested with visitors. We will likely need to make some tweaks but once we hit on a good formula for images we will be ready to try our hand at more signs. Our continuing challenge, however, will be how to convey our broad range of activity instructions visually. From my current vantage point, it is one thing to do a label for being an innovative DJ. It is wholly different thing to make a visual sign for activities like “Create an Adaptive Driving Vehicle” or “Invent a Way to Clean the Trash from the Ocean.” I do, however, love a creative challenge.
By combining the visual instructions with other accessibility tools we are developing we really do hope to reach our goal to “ensure that everyone who visits Spark!Lab can feel and be inventive.”