Preparing Documentation12 Aug 2016
This is designed as a quick guide to thinking about how to document your creative projects. It’s by no means an exhaustive
What is documentation?
Simply put, documentation is the representation of your creative work through multimedia.
It can take many forms.
- It could be a really well produced and edited video
- It could be a webpage.
- It could be a slidedeck
- It could be an oral presentation
- It could be a written narrative
Most often, it’s an online description of what you made and how you made it. It normally has a mix of text, images, video and audio as needed to best illustrate your project and ideas.
Purpose of documentation
Why do we ask you to document your work and your creative projects? For a few reasons:
- It helps make your thinking visible;
- It helps you practice communicating your ideas to other people;
- It helps you reflect on the outcome by thinking through how it’s presented;
- It helps support critique - a shared reflection and review of projects;
- It helps with evaluation, especially for team/collaborative projects;
- For team projects, it show who has contributed by showcasing a record of how the project was assembled, the process,
These are just a few of the reasons we ask you to document your work.
What pieces do we care about?
Building documentation for a course project is a little different from sharing it with outside audiences. When you share with external folks, most often you’ll want to showcase the outcome - the PRODUCT. When you’re documenting within the context of a course, we often care just as much about the way you made it - the PROCESS.
When you’re building your documentation you’ll need to balance the two. Essentially, we’re asking you to:
- create a good representation of the work you produced; and
- reflect on how you made it.
When you build your documentation, here’s the things we often want to see:
- What did you make and why? (this one is key);
- Did you think deeply about the why in particular!
- How did you make it? Have you incorporated some traces of your process.
- Have you made your learning and thinking visible through the content you’ve included
You should put a big emphasis on two things:
- Clear communication of what was made; and
- Clear communication of why and how it was made.
How do I showcase my process?
The best documentation talks about how the project was made and how it evolved throughout it’s development. To help with this, we recommend you think about the following:
Notebooks: The best resource for good process documentation is a journal. Get in the habit of keeping notes, sketches, ideas, and research a notebook. Then when it’s time to prepare your project’s documentation, you can quickly review and synthesize your process. Including photos of key sections of your notebook is a great way to quickly summarise your process!
Precedents: Almost every project is informed by something else. It might be a theory, an image, someone else’s work, an idea, source code, etc. Typically, at the start of a project you’ll gather sources of inspiration. Make sure you capture these and acknowledge them later. Not only is it good practice to give a hat-tip to other creators, but it tells your instructors what ideas you drew on. Re-use and hacking is encouraged, but if it’s not acknowledged it looks like plagarism. Remember to be clear about what your contribution is; demonstrate how you add, extend or advance over these sources.
Capture everything: When you’re building your project, you may not know what the key moments are until it’s completed. This is why it’s important to capture as much as possible while it’s happening. Document iterations and variations e.g. taking a screen capture of a design variation. Keep a camera handy and take photos during meetings of sketches or whiteboarding. When working digitally, create a project folder and keep everything in one place. Archive substantive iterations of designs. This makes sure you have the content to create your process documentation later.
Reflect: When you come to the end of the project, set aside time to review your project’s process. Review design decisions and think about how you got from the original idea to the endpoint. At this point, you’re beginning to filter what you might reveal in your documentation. You’ll find it helpful to sketch out a diagram of your workflow and process. Then use this as a guide of what to include in your final documentation.
Synthesize: Don’t throw everything in! No one needs to see every single element of your process. Good documentation relies on you being thoughtful about what you include, not exhaustive. How can you tell us the most about what you did with the least about of content? Set hard limits on how much content you include and stick to it! This constraint will force you to be really considered and critical about your process.
Learning: The most valuable things you can include in your process documentation are the things you learned. Find the best failures. These will most likely highlight something really instructive. Why did you fail and what did you do to fix it? Next, think about advice or lessons learned. What would you tell someone else who wanted to do something similar? How would you do it better next time? Is there a principle you could teach someone else because of this exploration?
Preparing great documentation
In conversation with faculty, we asked three things:
- What makes great documentation?;
- What are examples of excellent project documentation?; and
- What should a student focus on in their documentation?
Below are some of the responses.
What makes great documentation:
Everyone agreed it should be to the point: clear, consise and simple language; short focused responses, brief video (no more than 2 minutes) and limited well-chosen images). While it should be short, it should also be rich and informative. Good documentation communicates the most amount of information in the least amount of content.
Sample Response 1:
In short: Photography, Video, Writing
For the first two, this means intentional lighting and thoughtful placement. For video, good documentation also means skillful editing, narration (voice-over or text) and some narrative, even if it’s simple.
For writing, students need to be capable of expressing the idea behind their project and why their project matters.
Sample Response 2:
Reflective, analytic commentary.
Complete technical documentation: all code, CAD files, etc. This is partly about discipline, partly about having the means to make detailed technical critique.
Well-chosen images. Images should support the development story, not be a raw dump.
Clear, concise video. This is often the only durable and accessible result after projects are taken apart.
Examples of excellent project documentation:
Below are some examples of project documentation that you can draw on.
Botanicus Interactus - Disney Research
Reason: Like most documentation coming out of Disney Research PGH, it’s well scripted and has a clear voice-over. Simple photography, clear narrative, and shows enough of the “guts” to make their point.
Augmented Hand Series - Golan Levin
Reason: Thorough documentation which uses video well to showcase both the concept, implementation and vistor responses. Beautifully illustrates the hand transformations and connects them to theory, science and cultural precedents.
Tactum - Madeline Gannon
Reason: simple photography, beautiful typography, simple language and text
Shade London - Simon Heijdens
Reason: Great project, but simple, well shot, steady video
What should a student focus on in their documentation?
At a high level, you should focus on:
- Analytic writing skills.
- Basic media production (stills, video).
- Basic document production.
Technical camera usage (aperature, exposure/framerate, ISO, focus, focal length, etc.)
Composition strategies for camera use (rule of thirds, choosing focal length, etc)
Lighting (soft light vs hard light, three-point lighting setup, leveraging natural light)
Narrative, storytelling, and sequencing, and when preparing videos: and timing.
Presentation skills (the ability to speak confidently and succinctly about a project or concept)
Media Design (illustration and documentation, how do we communicate and even market ideas?)
Notice that good documentation cuts across: Photogrophy, Videography, Sound Recording, Video/Sound Editing, and Lighting!
Within IDeATe, you have access to a tonne of equipment from DSLRs, magic arms and USB mics to help you prepare great documentation. All of this can be checked out from the basement of Hunt Library. Get familiar with what’s available to you
Hunt Library circulation (HL1) also has media technology to lend, including: audio mics, audio recorders, AV accessories, digital still cameras, HDV camcorders, Pico pocket projectors, webcams and more. Take a look at Tech Lending
Don’t underestimate the tech in your pocket. Your smartphone has awesome capture capabilities. With a megapixel camera and apps like Vimeo’s Cameo you can quickly high quality videos with custom soundtracks.
Don’t forget to:
- use good lighting;
- use a tripod for stability; and
- use good mics when sound recording.
Below is an evolving set of external resources that can help you with your project documentation
Vimeo maintains a great set of resources for beginnings to learn about capture and editing. Take a look at their Video School.
Lynda (free to CMU user’s) maintains some wonderful tutorials on the basics of cameras, photography and documentation.