Cognitive animates 'big ideas' for new Profile ebook series

We get insider info from Cognitive on how the forthcoming Ideas In Profile animated ebooks were created

A landmark series of fully animated eBooks is set to be launched by Profile Books to offer concise, clear and entertaining introductions to big subjects, written by some of the brightest minds.

Fusing text and animated images from Cognitive Media, the award-winning team behind RSA Animate, the Ideas In Profile series kicks off with Politics by David Runciman. one of the world’s leading political scientists. The onsale date is June 12, but Digital Arts managed to get an exclusive interview with Cognitive founder and director Andrew Park about the project. Future titles in the series include Art History by Martin Kemp, The Ancient World by Jerry Toner and Shakespeare by Paul Edmondson.

MB: What did you want the animations to add for the reader, something which print doesn't convey?

AP: "Animation is a time-based medium whereas print is static. This means that one can be very directive in the animation as to where the audience pays attention. It is possible to do this in print but the format limitations of the print book, length and size meant that we had to be quite sparing with the storytelling illustrations in print.

"With the print version, I think there are definitely more illustrations to support the text whereas the animated versions are standalone films with a voice over that can be understood separately from the source text."

Use the slideshow controls above and right to learn how to animation was created.

MB: How did you decide on the aesthetic for the animations?

AP: "The aesthetic came from the limitations of the print book. At first we were only going to use black, but I pushed for another colour, red, as I thought it would lift the illustrations a great deal. Profile was very accommodating and agreed to this. Two colours are really three colours if you allow for the white of the page to be used.

"I settled on red and black as a nod to the work we do with the RSA on the RSA Animate series. Red and black seem to be very easily read."

AP: "Time was tight for this project. I spent a lot of time in R&D trying to find an appropriate style that fit with the print constraints. This was the challenging bit. I also needed something that could be quick to produce. I opted for Adobe Illustrator, using the pencil tool and drawing simple shapes.

"During this process, I leave the ‘fill with colour’ option on the pencil as it allows me to work with colour shapes which I stack on top of each other and build up the image. I also use the Pathfinder tools and also the Knife tool to sculpt areas away from the shapes. It’s quite quick and dirty really."

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MB: What were your influences for this book?

AP: The Cartoon Modern book by Chronicle (right) is a big influence and is always at hand when simple design is needed. I plunder that all the time. It’s such a treasure chest of good ideas and solutions. I was also looking at Jim Flora – his limited use of colour was a massive influence

MB: What type of reader did you have in your mind's eye when you were creating the animations?

AP: "As solipsistic as it sounds, I have myself in mind when I work. By this I mean that in order to understand anything I read, I have to unpack the content and put it back together for myself first. This is because I am not very bright! I don’t seem to see things the way other people do – I have to map content in space otherwise it just doesn’t make sense.

"Hopefully the repacking of that content in pictorial form helps other people understand, which is a beneficial by-product. So to answer your question, it was a basic reader, like me."

MB: How did the creative process for the animations work in conjunction with the author?

AP: "I met with David Runciman and the publisher. We talked about a couple of key influences in the book and other books that fed into the narrative. The nice thing about the kind of work I do is that my frame of reference is quite broad. I have unpacked and repacked a lot of content into visual form in my work, so I knew in detail the references that David mentioned. We were on the same page instantly.

Right: Andrew's sketchbook for the project

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AP: "David had a small amount of input into the animation process. He was enthused about the different approach, making an animated product sit alongside his words. He was very helpful in providing a voiceover for us to work with.

We were unsure about whether to use a David Runciman character but I always like to include a guide to the information. Little avatars, such as the one cartoonist Scott McCloud uses in his Understanding Comics book (right), are great devices. They can be a bridge from one idea to another."

MB: How did you find the right balance between giving enough detail in the animations without overwhelming the reader with stats and info?

AP: Sometimes it’s a really hard thing to get the balance right. I know I am often guilty of trying to show the whole kitchen sink in my work. I have a demon on my shoulder whispering -‘I have researched all this stuff goddammit and so it will go in!’

The key is to find a balance between information and emotional involvement, which helps turn information into memorable knowledge. Nobody is going to remember stats on their own, it’s how you frame them. Humour plays a big part in this.

MB: Which book are you working on next, and what will be your approach to that project?

AP: I am working on Art History with Martin Kemp. We are trying to use the red/black style as a defining look for the series. My challenge will be to talk about colour theory using only three colours!