Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Design Thinking Exercise and the Stories of Redirected Edges

I've written occasionally about how I use an adaptation of George Kembel's design thinking framework in my teaching and research. Back in April 2016, I gave an overview of how I use it in CS222; today, I will give a few more details, since I saw something new happen this semester that I haven't seen before.
A Design Thinking Framework
I introduce this design thinking framework during the third iteration of the CS222 final project. I tell my students about how I use it and how my teams have used it, usually by leaning on the story of my VBC seminar—a story that is repeated in my Meaningful Play 2012 paper. The short version of that story is that, even though that team knew this reference model ahead of time, they fell into an Ideate-Build-Test loop that brought them further and further away from the community partner's needs and an understanding of the audience. It wasn't until an outside force pushed on them that they were able to recognize the problem and realign themselves.

The CS222 exercise has each team start by drawing the model on the whiteboard, and I challenge them to trace their paths through the different phases, starting with what initiated their project pitch. I encourage them to annotate each arc with evidence, noting how they know that they shifted between phases. I have to be careful to tell them that no path is wrong, especially since they didn't have this model ahead of time; rather, we are using this reference model to describe different kinds of activities and consider the transition between them.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of working at the whiteboard, a student team might come up with something like this:
The above diagram is from a team who decided to create an Android project, and they did not know what kind of challenges they would face by having to learn a new platform. It's not uncommon for these teams to have no activity in the Empathy area: it wasn't required, and teams usually jump in with Ideate. After all, my CS222 class is the first place in the curriculum where I empower them to make what they want, since I'm evaluating the processes they follow rather than looking for a specific implementation detail.

Some of the teams take a bit more care in laying out and labeling the diagram, producing something like this:
This happens to come from a team that is building a tool to assist students in scheduling classes. Again, it's not so much the content of these figures that's important, but the form. Once everyone has completed their diagrams, we go around the room and ask for an overview of the process. This usually leads to some interesting discussions, for example about the role of empathy, or the difference between identifying problems and coming up with solutions.

On Tuesday, I noticed something on the board that I didn't remember seeing before. Check out this diagram from a team that is creating a Dungeons & Dragons character generator:
In particular, look at the arc coming out of Ideate and how it heads toward Build and then spins back around to Identify. I asked the team about this to make sure I was reading it right, and they confirmed: after coming up with ideas, they were prepared build a model... but then they realized that they weren't really sure what problem they were solving. In pure graph-theoretic terms, it's just a directed edge from Ideate to Identify, but it's clearly so much more than that: the team felt a force on them, they felt a shift, and they pushed themselves purposefully in a particular direction. I am not sure what to label this phenomenon. I thought about "storytelling arcs" but that sounds like three-act structure, and I thought about "narrative arcs" but that's even worse. I'll call it a "redirected edge" for now.

I talked to this team as they were working on the diagram, and a few minutes later, we had the class presentations. The first team to present is working on a tool that aggregates online information for people who are moving to a new city, and their diagram looked like this:

Look at the black arc from Identify to Build: it's another redirected edge! In this case, the team identified the problems that they would like to solve and had planned on using the Zillow API. When they sat down to start building experimental code, it was only then that they realized the API would not work, and so they bounced over to Ideate to come up with new potential solutions to their problems. Now, one might argue that they had in fact been in the Build state, or that they were not really coming from the Identify phase because they had ideas of how to solve the problems, but that's not relevant here.

I'm not so interested with how well the students understood the design thinking framework after a thirty-minute introduction, but rather with how they are using the diagrams to build a visual narrative of key events in their project. The rest of the arcs in all the diagrams I have shared are drawn in a pragmatic way, with some care toward making the lines clear and reducing edge crossings. These redirected edges are different: they are capturing a feeling the teams had. In the case of the D&D team, they had a feeling of moving in one way and then being pulled in a different one. In the case of the Moving Cities team, they felt like they "bounced" off of one phase and landed in another.

I am not entirely sure what all this means, but it strikes me as interesting. I don't remember having seen it before, and the fact that I saw it twice on Tuesday struck me. If nothing else, I want to keep my eyes open to this kind of phenomenon, where the team is breaking out of the genre norm to express something meaningful to the team. Maybe there's even something there that could be used as a seed of a team retrospective meeting. The diagrams reminds me in some ways of when I used to use mind maps in CS222, that most of them would be somewhat perfunctory but occasionally I would see one that told pieces of a coherent story. I have since cut that exercise primarily for time's sake, although I think about bringing it back in.

Thanks for reading, and if you're reading this on the day it was published or its anniversary, Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Painting Massive Darkness: Base Set Heroes

Let's talk about priming. I'm coming up on the four year anniversary of my return to the miniature painting hobby, and regular readers may remember that I just don't like rattle can priming. I've gotten past the early hurdles to a point where I can do it with confidence, but it still seems awfully fiddly. The narrow temperature and humidity requirements mean that I cannot always spray prime when I would like to. Of course, the smell is terrible, too. I've had some success brushing on Vallejo Surface Primer, as recommended by Brant "Ghool" Benoit. This approach has some benefits, including the sort of pre-painting meditation that gets me familiar with the model. It takes quite a bit of time compared to spray priming, and occasionally I have had problems of—for lack of a better word—hydrophobia on the primer layer. I talked to Benoit about this, who acknowledged it as a problem of the technique that is overcome by using relatively thick base coats.

Lately I have been intrigued by the potential of zenithal priming, wherein a model is primed in black, then in grey from roughly 45 degrees, and then in white from above. The result is a sort of brightness map, showing where highlights and shadows lay. Like so many of the techniques I have tried, it was watching Sorastro's videos that really pushed me to explore this idea. Zenithal priming can be done with rattle cans or an airbrush. We're heading into winter here, which means I'm out of rattle can season. Also, after a bit of a stressful run at work—some of the stressors of which have clearly eaten into my blogging time!—I ran a successful event and received some other good news. I decided to take the plunge and buy myself an airbrush set-up. Another inspiration for the airbrush is that my two older boys and I have been having a surprising amount of fun with Massive Darkness. There are way too many miniatures from the Kickstarter for me to even consider paint-to-play, but the fun we've been having means it merits some beautification.

Step one was cleaning my hobby table, which was long overdue. I needed to make room for the portable booth that I bought, the same type Dr. Faust reviewed. It does indeed collapse down into a tight package. However, that doesn't take into account the huge and awkward exhaust duct. Also, it's much louder than I expected, so loud as to drown out any reasonably-volumed music or podcasts. However, it has great suction. The first time I used it was during the day, and the natural light combined with my desk lamp were perfectly adequate for lighting; the second time was at night, and if I could go back, I would pay a little more for the model with embedded LED lighting.

I did a fair bit of research, and it seems to me that there are two philosophies about the airbrushes and compressors themselves: either you should buy a nice one from the get-go to avoid the problems associated with cheap airbrushes, or you should just buy a cheap airbrush because it will be fine. I am primarily [pun intended] interested in priming and varnishing, although I hope to expand to some other techniques once I learn the basics, especially for some of these enormous Massive Darkness monsters. I ended up buying a cheap Master G22 airbrush that came with a small tankless compressor.

Once I got all my materials, including the cleaning pot shown in the photo, I eagerly set to, and I got about a minute's worth of puffing air before the whole thing stopped. I referenced this particularly useful customer comment on Amazon to ensure I had set up everything correctly, and although I had indeed forgotten that the pressure gauge would only be accurate while spraying, this didn't explain why my airflow had stopped. I kept my chin up and started searching the Web. After some time, I found this crystal-clear video about how to disassemble and reassemble a Master G22. There was a minor difference between his and mine, but this gave me the confidence to follow along. Unfortunately, even after lubing up the moving parts with some sewing machine oil, I wasn't getting more than about two seconds of air before it stopped again. There was a part of the airbrush that the video didn't cover: the assembly where the hose meets the brush. This required getting pliers to loosen up, but it led me to the discovery that my valve was a bit wonky: there's a pin that opens the valve, and mine was getting stuck. After manually fiddling with the pin and reassembling twice, the problem went away. I don't know if maybe some of the lube worked its way in there, or if it just needed to be jostled into alignment, but I was grateful to get regular airflow.

I decided to start with the six base set heroes from Massive Darkness, and here's the result of the zenithal priming:

Six heroes, zenithally primed
I remember when I finished them worrying that there was still too much black showing, but looking back at the photographs, I don't feel that way. This approach really does help show the model's details better than priming entirely in white or black. I have read about a "speed painting" approach where you put thinned paints directly over the primer, and I may try this with some of the dozens of Massive Darkness minions; however, the heroes deserved a little more careful attention. Without further ado, here are the finished results in the order I painted them.

I decided to start with Bjorn, which has a great variety of textures and details but without having an overwhelming number of fiddly details. Also, he looks like Conan, which seems like a powerful way to start. I took several work-in-progress photos as I tried to sort out the effect of various techniques. For all of these figures, I followed the color scheme on the card art where possible. The flesh was painted in a solid base color, a mix of VMC Medium Fleshtone along with some Buff and Ivory. I used the same mix on Siegfried. Here's an early WIP:
Barbarians receive two or three layers of base color on the flesh
Even with just a few layers of a thinned base color, the zenithal priming doesn't seem to make a dramatic difference. The difference diminished as I worked with it, adding a wash and layered highlights. However, it did provide an excellent surface on which to work, in two ways: it was a smooth surface that accepted paint well, combating the hydrophobic effect I've had brushing on the same primer, and it was very clear where the model's features were and highlights should be.

Here's Bjorn after finishing the flesh, hair, and some leather bits, with the solid base color for his green skirt in place:
Bjorn WIP
I finished up the skirt with wash and layered highlights, leading up to this potentially-finished version:
Bjorn, unaware that he's a work-in-progress
As I continued to work on him, I started thinking about another technique I've been watching Sorastro use: different colored washes and glazes to introduce tonal variation to large, monochromatic areas. The skirt here is a good example: could I make it even more interesting by adding some other colors to it, without ruining the paint job I already had laid down? That question was actually what made me capture the image above, which I sent to my brother. By the time he sent his reasonably conservative response, I had already jumped in with a purple ink glaze. This led to the actual final version:

If you compare the WIP to the final image, you can see the subtle difference, and the final result really has a lot more visual interest. It especially helped the folds on the rear of the skirt, although I don't have a WIP photo from that angle. Looking back, I could have done the same thing with the flesh, adding some tonal variation there as well. I did not go back and alter Bjorn, but working through these thoughts and techniques gave me courage to practice these approaches on other heroes.

The axe, by the way, is just OK. Compared to the incredible motion and detail in the muscles, pose, and skirt, it's just a static instrument of destruction. At first I was unhappy with it, but now I'm looking at it as a material contrast. I am still not sure what I could have done to make it bit more visually interesting, though, since it's not clear that runes or gore would make it significantly better.

A quick word about the bases: I decided to just do simple grey and black bases in the interest of time. I wanted to minimize the time these would have to be off the table, although my boys and I can generally only play Massive Darkness on weekends. I figure I can go back and add texture and flock later if I wanted to, but I opted to keep it simple: these are just Americana Slate Grey and Lamp Black.

Next up is Bjorn's pit fighter friend, Siegfried:


Siegfried has a lot more detail, with his hair and beard weaving around his chest and the adjacent cloth and metallic details on his ... battle apron? Billowing cloth seems to be a visual theme in Massive Darkness, and with Siegfried I decided to try something a little different. You guessed it, I decided to take yet more inspiration from Sorastro. In his videos, he has started using wet blending to block in the base colors. I figured I would try that with Siegfried's dark blue skirt. In fact, I ended up wet blending the whole thing, with just a little highlighting touch-up at the end.

His hammer struck me as being like Bjorn's axe [pun intended]: it's a lump of plastic on an otherwise fantastic figure. His card art looks like a shining gold hammer, but the sculpt has cracks that suggest stone. There's not a clear way to add runes or other effects, so I decided to wet blend colors to suggest a kind of granite texture. Like Bjorn's axe, it's passable but not that interesting.


Next up is Sibyl, not to be confused with Sybil. Oh, I know, people get them confused. Sibyl's card art suggests a soft blend from pale green to deep purple, and I was very excited to sit down and try to paint that. I mixed up the endpoint colors with some Liquitex Glaze Medium to extend the drying time, and I made a half-and-half mix of those to get the mid tone. After carefully wet-blending the two, I ended up with what I consider an excellent gradation along the skirts. Once that was dry, I was able to go back in and accent the shadows with the next tone darker. The rest of her armor is a brighter variation on the base pale green color that was given a medium green wash and then highlighted in layers.

Her hair is fairer than Bjorn's or Siegfried's, and it provides an example of how zenithal priming was useful. Most of the highlights you see on the hair are the result of using thinned browns to paint the hair, which let the bright white primer show through. I did also work in a few darker shades into the shadowed area along with a modicum of manual highlighting.


Who doesn't love a blue-robed, white-bearded wizard? He breaks the stereotype by wielding a longsword rather than a spellbook. Good for him. Elias is mostly one color, and I decided to continue some of the new techniques from the rest of the series. He provided an excellent case study for wet blending, which I did for the entire blue robed areas and hat, along with a bit of edge highlighting in near-white. After that, I mixed up another dark purple ink glaze and painted it into the recesses. This gave some real visual interest by getting away from the simple blue gradations.

The staff is a mix of blue and silver, and at first I left the orb atop it pure white. I had thought about object-source lighting, but at this point I had not taken into account that light source in my highlighting, and I certainly didn't want to re-work the areas that would be hit by it. It didn't work to leave the orb white and not make it look like it was shining. My son offhandedly suggested adding a warm color to contrast with the cool ones, but I decided to add contrast in a different way: I tried reusing similar colors but in a marble texture. I think the result is nice, suggesting a magical stone or dragon's egg at the end of the staff.


Owen is basically two colors aside from his armaments and small details. My first pass at the gold armor was a bad match with bad coverage, and I probably mixed six different combinations trying to get a good color. For all of these, I was using one of my gold metallics as a constituent in the mix. It wasn't until I broke away from this that I was able to make some progress: by mixing yellow, buff, and ivory, I was then able to add Metallic Medium to give it a metallic sheen. A brown ink wash added depth, followed by layered highlights. The robes were painted like Elias', using wet-blending for the basic colors, additional layering of highlights, and deepening of shadows with a violet ink glaze.

The sword hilts originally looked very much like the gold armor color, but I wanted more variation here as is present in the card art. On a whim, I tried hitting it with the same P3 Armor Wash that I used on the swords and shield, and this worked perfectly: it brought the color down more than I expected, and a touch of highlighting got it right to where I wanted it. I mixed a very thin blue glaze that I used on the swords and shield to add some tonal variation. It's barely perceptible, but you can see the effect on the lower-left side of the shield. I probably could have taken it further, but I'm going to leave fancier metallics for another technical experimentation session.


Silence is mostly cloak. He's more cloak than man, that's for sure. This one has the most significant differences between the sculpt and the card art: in his drawing, he has a bare fists with spiked armbands. In the sculpt, obviously, he's wearing gloves and has one hand completely wrapped within his cloak. Why is he doing this? Is he hiding something? A gold coin? Eczema? Nobody knows.

With this much cloak, the only reasonable way to proceed was with more wet-blending, a full-cloak dark purple wash, layered highlights, and additional purple ink glaze for color variation. I thought about doing something like green to really vary the palette on Silence, but I decided to go all in on the cool blues and purples. He has a few spots of shiny metallics where I reused the approach I used on Owen, applying P3 Armor Wash to bright gold elements to get a bright but not overpowering tone.

Completed Base Set Heroes
The final technical experiment of this project was airbrushing varnish. I used my Vallejo Matt Varnish straight out of the dropper bottle, and it worked fine. I think I had the pressure up to high originally at 20 PSI, which created some pooling on the first ones I varnished. Once I turned that down I was able to get a more careful and deliberate coat. A few needed a second coat, in part because the glaze medium lends so much shine, but this was all very easy to do, and it was no harder to clean up the airbrush afterward with that than with the primer. I think I actually used more varnish this way then when I brush it on, but this might also be from my inexperience with the airbrush; time will tell.

I really enjoyed painting these six heroes, and I'm excited to get them to the table during Thanksgiving break. The characters have wonderfully dynamic poses and fine detail. The casting was also top notch, with very little cleaning required and only one tiny bit of Elias' hat where I needed a dab of putty. My only criticism is something that I may not have noticed if it weren't for having recently watched Dr. Faust's storm giant video, and that's the fact that every piece of fabric is frayed. Bjorn looks like he should have a worn and tattered skirt, but what about Owen? Shouldn't a Paladin of Fury be taking more care of his appearance? It's a minor quibble. Maybe I should be taking the time to add more weathering to the fabric, to really send home the "tired and tattered" theme. However, for now, weathering is in the same bin as improved metallics: a project for another day.

I'm sure that part of the reason I had such joy in painting Bjorn was that he has such wonderful exaggerated detail compared the last thing I painted, the tiny 15mm figures of The 7th Continent. It wasn't until I was working on Elias that I thought: these miniatures don't just have great details because they're bigger than The 7th Continent, I think they're just plain big! My Descent heroes were handy, so I grabbed Avric Allbright and set him up next to Bjorn, in what looks like a heated dispute that's about to come to blows.
Go ahead, make my day.
Yes, definitely bigger. Despite the extra quality that can be put into the larger figures, I was a bit disappointed to discover the scale difference. One of the reasons for my backing the Kickstarter was to get a quantity of miniatures that I could bring to the table for a hypothetical fantasy tabletop roleplaying game, but these guys would be all out of scale. The unique monsters will likely be fine, but Bjorn and Avric would look a bit silly side by side, and who ever heard of seven-foot goblins?

By the way, you may have noticed that these photos look a bit different than recent ones. I'm still using my collapsable lightbox, but the biggest difference is that Google finally released a patch for the Nexus 5X that includes manual exposure control! Now I can shoot these similar to how I shot my old minis on my Nexus 4, although the controls are more fiddly now than they used to be, requiring resetting between shots. Still, I can happily say that the figures on my table actually look like the figures in these photographs. Progress!

I have nine more heroes already primed that should have me painting through the end of the semester. My pocket notebook is filled with thoughts to blog about, but if I don't get to those you can be sure I'll devote time to my annual between-semester reflection and planning posts. Thanks for reading!

UPDATE: Here is my write-up about the other heroes I painted.