Sketching the Future

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(Also published on AIHA’s Synergist blog and my LinkedIn page.)

Vision? Check. Direction? Check. Concept? Check. Artist? Check.

With our key components in place, it was time to push forward on this burgeoning IH Professional Pathway idea.

I mentioned earlier that we did some extensive focus-group interviews with a variety of AIHA members. The seemingly random and odd questions I inserted into our question bank were about to pay off.

To properly showcase each “career stage,” we had to have scenes involving our avatars. Each scene had to be relevant and appropriate to the different career stages of development, but also be intriguing enough to catch the eye and showcase our future-forward concept.

To that end, we couldn’t really show someone sitting at their desk, evaluating reports, or holding phone conversations. Fortunately, I had a wealth of stories from AIHA members that showed they were just as active in the field as they were in their offices.

I spent a couple of weeks going over the responses from the focus groups and came up with at least two scenes for each stage. After some discussion with other members of the Marketing and Communications team at AIHA, I then narrowed it down to one for each stage.

After writing out detailed descriptions of each scene—I had to “paint the picture” for our artist, after all—I submitted them to our then in-house Certified Industrial Hygienist, Mary Ann Latko. A few earnest discussions later, we had our first look at our project.

Here’s what I had written down for our initial scene involving our early career professional:

Location is a refinery (oil or gas). Female, mid-twenties/early 30s, Asian features, shoulder-length (or longer) hair pulled into ponytail, braid, or bun. She is observing a welder, who is in the midst of construction work. (See dropbox for various photos of welders in action.) In order to have both subjects in close proximity, the welder should not be welding BUT it would be great to see some welding action being done in the background, at a distance. Possibly up higher, using a scaffold.

Female is dressed in a heavy workshirt, jeans, and work boots. She has safety glasses/goggles on (these can be “forward-future” looking) and is consulting a clipboard or tablet (possibly using a pen or stylus). She has a badge, possible lanyard/keycard, a belt accessory back (with small tools/sensors clipped or pocketed). The welder should have a welding mask (raised), tank, torch, possible cart (for a larger tank and fire extinguisher), heavy work shirt, jeans, boots, heavy oversized gloves. He could be kneeling or on one knee, bored, waiting for her assessment of his work. Welder can be any gender/ethnicity.

The immediate work area should be cordoned off in some fashion, either through caution tape, a flexible barricade, or possibly a ‘futuristic’ version of such (maybe with small flashing yellow caution lights?). A construction truck/vehicle (or part of one) could be seen as well, if desired. Try not to use smokestacks or other indications of pollution in the background, but making the area worn out, used, and grimy is fine.

Additional background people are fine, and should include hard hats and safety goggles/glasses.

Mary Ann consulted with a few CIHs and welding professionals and provided some great feedback, which we incorporated into our descriptions for the artist. He then turned back to me with some initial sketches.

sketchpad

Thanks to Mary Ann’s help, I was able to pinpoint and provide our artist with real-world examples of equipment, procedures, and gear. While he wouldn’t be using the examples directly, they did help him achieve the future-forward visualization that we wanted while still retaining some accuracy as to the common tools and resources used by IHs worldwide.

Interestingly, after we submitted the descriptions, references, and notes to the artist, we realized that our first four avatars might not fully encompass the breadth of our membership’s diversity. Adding another four scenes would have broken our budget, so we instead contracted a fifth scene that captured the “flipside” version of each avatar. Each of our alternates would have similar gear, clothing, theme, and other identifiers. (And later, the same letter to their first name.) These four would make up our fifth and final scene for this phase. They would also give us alternate biographical images, so we could double up our avatar count for minimal cost.

Our artist Klaus added the fifth scene to the project, and soon after we had our first look at the future of IH professionals.

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Artistic Character

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Klaus Scherwinski, artist, illustrator, and way-cool guy.

Last we met, we’d figured out our scope and direction, sketched out our character ideas, and begun sorting out the method of our medium. I’d like to expand on that for this installment, as it’s probably the most-asked question I’ve fielded since the rollout of the IHProPath project.

Why not photographs?

Part of the answer goes back to a concept I mentioned previously: “future forward.” By placing our characters and their scenes a bit forward in the future, we would not be beholden to the stricter details of today. I realized this early on during our character design brainstorms – one of my experts asked me what type of gas chromatography mass spectrometer devices we’d have shown in our student scene. I balked at that, because I first had to look up what that terminology meant!

It became fairly evident rather quickly that aiming for the ‘here and now’ was not going to work. It would mean slavish adherence to every detail, to make sure we got it all absolutely correct. That process alone would add months, if not a year or more, to our tightening timeline.

It would also impact how we presented the images. Photography was the first consideration but it was soon pushed aside after the above implications. Never mind constructing the ‘perfect’ scene with all details covered – finding the right subjects would also increase the project’s time. (And budget!) Rather than go into such mind-boggling detail, I turned to a mainstay I have used in my ‘other’ life as a game freelancer: illustrative art.

Art Trumps Photography

Using artwork has a number of benefits, the biggest being the ability to create a future reality with regards to workspaces, equipment, and backgrounds. By using real-world elements in combination with more futuristic stylings, we would cement the image with identifiable material for the audience while still conveying the idea of just-beyond-the-horizon technology.

ecp-clipUnsure what I mean? For an easy illustration, look at the tablet in the hands of Melinda, our Early Career Professional. The shape, size, and obvious use of the device easily tells you of its function. But by making the screen holographic and transparent, we’re seeing a common tool of today ‘futurized,’ adding to the scene’s more advanced bend.

Notice the other object in the background, to the left of our futuristic tablet? You can easily identify it because it has a familiar shape and is a common item found in setting of the piece – a fire extinguisher. You automatically processed its presence without actively searching it out, and that helped cement the entire scene for you.

So then, my next question – how difficult would it be to recreate this entire scene as a photograph? And if we could, imagine the cost! The illustration conveys a much richer and complex snapshot at a fraction of cost that a photograph could do.

Enter Klaus

Of course, you need to make sure you’ve hired an artist with such skill and capabilities. Fortunately for AIHA, I have a few in my arsenal of contacts.

I quickly put together a Call for Artists document, which gave an outline of the project and a request for a (very) rough sketch based on a sample scene I provided. The Call then went out to several illustrators who have worked in various entertainment-oriented industries, such as comics, animation, video games, and tabletop games. While I did have a shortlist in mind, I wanted to see what this community could come up with.

A few artists responded to my proposal, about half submitted sketches and follow-up questions. Much to my surprise and delight, Klaus Scherwinski, an artist I have worked with extensively on game product in the past, was one of the respondents. He requested a Skype call, during which he proceeded to not only ask great questions about the project as a whole, but also gave some creative suggestions that we’re incorporating in Phase II, coming in 2017.

Klaus is an accomplished illustrator, working as a creative artist for more than a decade. Based in Germany, he’s worked on comic books, game publications, video game art, and at the time, had just begun branching into full-blown animation. When I found out he was not only available for the timeline of our project, but also excited about participating in something revolutionary in a completely different industry, it was a no-brainer to tap him as our lead illustrator for the project.

It would be up to him to give life to our burgeoning vision.

Creating Character

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Art by Klaus Scherwinski and Luisa Preissler; ©AIHA; used with permission.

(A continuation of my look back at the blending of my two work cultures over the last 16 months.)

“You’ve sold the idea, but that’s the easy part. How do you bring this brainchild into the realm of reality?”

I knew early on that we didn’t want our future avatars based solely on one individual. Their strength and appeal would rely heavily on being composites. With AIHce 2015 right around the corner, we had to act pretty swiftly to take advantage of our audience.

We set up several focus groups through our Volunteer network. They helped us target a diverse group of members within that community, most of whom gladly joined us at the conference to share about their job, career path, and day-to-day activities.

But we didn’t stop there.

I really wanted a lot of data, anticipating all kinds of ways we could picture our avatars in their careers. As we hadn’t nailed down an artistic path, I wanted to make sure we got everything we could, including the proverbial kitchen sink. We talked to members at conference and via email, and set up several phone and email interviews that stretched through the summer.

A small sample of questions I tossed at our participants:

  • What is your normal day-to-day work wear? (shoes, outerwear, hair, jewelry, accessories)
  • What type of environmental extremes have you faced?
  • What’s your first exposure/experience/job within IH?
  • If you could do something else as a career, what?
  • What skills would you want someone in your position/field to have if they worked with you? To feel confident in their work?
  • List important character personality traits that you find are essential in your current position.
  • The stereotypical image of someone in your job/position includes what?
  • What’s the most dangerous task you’ve faced, and how were you equipped?

A lot of these seem strange at a glance, but they’re very valid. It’s a process similar to one I use in my game designs when setting up a new world or environment, or detailing a new main character. For instance, when trying to envision how an alien city might look, ask yourself some crazy questions like, how do they handle sanitation? What is the due process for an accused criminal? How would you describe the process for handling air/spaceport traffic?

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Meet James, one of our student avatars; ©AIHA; used with permission.

Those questions force you to think outside your normal assumptions. They also help you connect to the character you’re trying to create. By asking some non-linear questions, I can begin to visualize our avatars: who they are, what motivates them, how they work, what they aspire to. This is important, because the next step is going to be crafting our main scenes, showcasing our new professionals in their native environment.

But before that step can be fully taken, we also had to answer another critical question: What is our timeframe of reference?

Certainly, the more ‘safe’ answer was the here-and-now, the present. But there were dangers with this approach, including:

  • The scene would become dated.
  • Materials, equipment, uniforms would need to be exactingly detailed to standards, in order to pass muster with our CIH experts.
  • Our avatars would be ‘stuck’ in the present.

The more ambitious answer, therefore, would to be more future-forward. But that also came with its own dangers:

  • The risk of being too ‘advanced’ and therefore, unrelateable.
  • Our avatars might be too disconnected to current-day professionals.
  • Scenes might be too comic-y and thus, not taken seriously.

However, there were a lot more positives with a future-forward presentation. We could sidestep the hyperaccuracy of tools and equipment, giving current designs a more streamlined look but remain recognizable. By using some touchpoints to the modern day, we could keep them relatable. Most importantly, using a future-forward perspective would show that the profession is still evolving and adapting to the needs of the ‘now.’

Interestingly, the more we fell into the future-forward perspective, the more it also answered the question of whether to use photography or illustration to depict our avatars and their jobs. And that’s a decision rooted deep in art and design that we’ll cover next time.