Thumbs up for thumbnails

Design James Walker.

Our Dawn of the Unread YouTube channel has 63 videos. I’m pretty proud of this, especially given that we don’t have a studio, budget or team of paid employers. The videos have been created mainly in collaboration with students and have been filmed on everything from a fancy phone to borrowed cameras.

Our first upload was on National Libraries’ Day on 8 Feb 2014 and featured disabled performance artist Simon Raven crawling across the streets in a sleeping bag and mask pretending to be a bookworm. The film was originally created for another commission, but Simon kindly allowed us to use it to kickstart our project.

Over time, themes for the videos have developed – some strategic, others more random. We have a ‘how to make a comic’ series which does everything the title suggests. These were originally embedded at the end of each comic with the aim of encouraging aspiring writers and artists to do similar. Our ‘Nottingham Essay’ series explores literary figures from Hood Town and was created to help Nottingham in its bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature.

The rest are a mixed bag related to our core themes: books, libraries, bookshops, reading, comics, promotion and Nottingham. The most recent one is a trailer for our Ms. Hood comic and was created by Zachary Omitowoju. Again, I’d love to have a promo like this for all of our comics, but we’ll see…

Recently, I’ve taken a bit of time out from our current project, Whatever People Say I Am, to go back and tidy up old content. This has involved doing a bit of training in graphic design via training sessions on LinkedIn and learning new programmes such as Canva – a graphic design programme that provides user friendly templates for all social media platforms.

Screenshot of playlists.

This has resulted in new thumbnails for all our videos which make it easier for users to distinguish between content. I’ve also included our logo, a strong image, and a block of colour in the designs. I’m really happy with the results and hope that this helps attract a few more visits.

Dawn of the Unread was created for many reasons, most notable of which was to raise awareness of low literacy levels across the country – particularly in the East Midlands. But digital literacy is becoming equally as important – not least in our ability to distinguish between fake news, conspiracy theories, and the insidious incentives of algorithms. But another form of digital literacy is being aware of your own digital presence.

It’s too easy to just keep lobbing up content and moving onto the next project. Sometimes you need to pause and go back and perfect or update previous work. New platforms like Tick Tock and Instagram Reels have high production values and consequently, audience expectations are rising. The age of the amateur is dead.

Taking the time for a digital spring clean has been a priority and hopefully our account now looks worth a visit. We now have playlists to help distinguish between different types of video. If we want viewers to embrace the themes of our project and share in our love of reading, we need to be as professional as possible. I’ve also welcomed the opportunity to upskill and learn new stuff.

Further Reading

  • Linkedin Learning on YouTube (YouTube)
  • 25 Graphic Design Tips for Non-Designers and Beginners (Canva)
  • Time for a Digital Spring Clean (
  • Your Easy Guide to Making a YouTube Thumbnail (
  • Building A Brand: Why A Strong Digital Presence Matters (

Spoofing sexist adverts to promote reading

DotU edit 1 jealous
Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

For 12 years I was the literature editor of LeftLion magazine. It was an incredible experience, particularly the editorial meetings where it was compulsory for everyone to smoke and swear. The LeftLion attitude back then was not to take yourself too seriously, prod and poke at anyone who thought they were summat, and to find unique ways of saying stuff that had been said many times before. In local dialect this meant being chelpy.

It’s probably because of this that I’ve enjoyed creating these spoof adverts with help from a very talented English student called Izaak Bosman. A lot of the adverts below appeared in women’s magazines, many from a period in history when the only purpose of a woman was to look pretty, get a man, and do as she was told. You could say that we’re subverting meaning, that these appropriated adverts represent semiotic warfare, but the truth is we just like fannying about on a computer and this is more fun than tweeting me me me me me.

We’ve all been in relationships where it suddenly ends and you have to start sharing out the possessions…which is why I’ve always insisted on keeping my books on my bookshelf so that none of them get pinched. To this day I am still fuming that an ex kept my first edition copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin when we went our separate ways. The cover, its place on the bookshelf are so vivid I have nightmares still to this day. So the advert above is for all of those with a broken heart (and a stolen book).

kiss jpeg x 2
Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

You want a man to kiss you? Get the right lipstick! But from our perspective the only thing that will put you both ‘on the same page’ is reading the same book. This advert was also an opportunity to promote Five Leaves Bookshop. At every opportunity Dawn of the Unread has tried to promote and support other organisations.

WelcometotheFutureDOTU (1)
Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.
DotU4edit ashamed
Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.
what is she reading
Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

We added the ‘what is she reading’ to this one. I can’t remember what ‘she’ should have been doing. It was probably something like ‘But what is she cooking?’

we can read
Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

“We Can Do It!” is one of the most iconic adverts in history. It first appeared as an American wartime propaganda poster produced by J. Howard Miller in 1943 for Westinghouse Electric as an inspirational image to boost worker morale. The little brain on the lapel relates to one of the four tasks we set readers on our App and coincided with the launch.

DotU3 jpeg
Design Izaak Bosman/James Walker.

If you google ‘woman reading’ you’ll find millions of paintings. I particularly like this one by Charles Edward Hallé (1846–1914), an English painter of history scenes, genre scenes, and portraits. Expect many variations on this in the future…

DOTU Round logo

Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Shakespeare Off the Map

Competition flyer.

This guest post is from Abigail Parry, the National Videogame Arcade’s writer-in-residence. Here she discusses an innovative poetry challenge that involves Shakespeare and Twine for the Off the Map Interactive Text competition.

Alrighty. What is it?

Off the Map is a yearly competition run between the British Library and the National Videogame Arcade, which invites participants to respond to a text by ‘gamifying’ it, or making it in some way interactive.  There are three categories in the competition: 2D games, 3D games, and Interactive Text.  It’s the last of these I want to talk about.

The 2D and 3D categories demand some affinity with game design software – but the Interactive Text category does not.  We really want to encourage Humanities students to participate in the Interactive Text category of the competition this year.  We’ll be looking for entries that respond innovatively and creatively to the resources available – and if your flair is for storytelling, or intertextuality, or wordplay, or any other form of textual manipulation, then we want to see something from you.

Hmmm.  Do I smell an agenda?

Quite right.  I’m a sucker for cross-disciplinary collaboration, and literature and games are two mediums with a lot to say to one another. The NVA, my hosts, are committed to bridging the divide between tech and the Humanities, and I mean to do my damnedest to help.  I want to see everyone getting into in bed with everyone else.  Creatively speaking.

twine image
This is how a Twine story looks.  Don’t be scared!

Fair dos.  As you were.

If you’ve never used an interactive text tool before – well, chances are you’ve read a Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook.  It’s the same thing – a means of presenting a branching narrative – but with a computer programme doing most of the work.  I’d recommend getting started with Twine, which is free to download and easy to use.  We’ve put together a guide to getting started, which can be found here.  Alternatively, you may prefer Inklewriter, which has its own excellent tutorials on the website.

(Confession time: I wish I could say the tech bit of my brain was all sleek chrome and orderly banks of purring consoles.  It really isn’t.  It’s staffed by a wheezing nonagenarian on unpaid overtime who blinks myopically at me when I come knocking.  My background’s in the dusty end of academia, not in sexy STEM stuff – so I don’t use a word like ‘easy’ carelessly.)

Abigail poet
Abigail Parry at Game City. Photo James Walker.

Is there anything else I need to know?

Yes!  Actually, one very important thing: the theme of this year’s competition is Shakespeare.  You’re free to approach this in any way you like, as long as it speaks to the British Library’s resources in some way.  You can work with the text itself, or rework a story, or focus on a bit-part character, or on a single line or stage direction.  One of the reasons for Shakespeare’s enduring popularity is the facility with which his work can be picked up and played with.  Go nuts.  Entries are invited on one of three themes: ‘Castles’, ‘Forests’ and ‘The Tempest’ – but these may be interpreted broadly.

The British Library have made a load of Shakespeare-related images and sound files available through their digitised archives, and if you’re feeling adventurous, these can be incorporated into an Interactive Text submission (this may require a degree of tech nous – but the internet is there to help).  This certainly isn’t expected, however, and it won’t count against you if you don’t.  The judges will be looking for inventiveness, and that doesn’t have to mean digital wizardry.  Your entry must respond to these resources in some way, however.

The competition will be judged by a panel of industry professionals and academics, and the winning entries will be exhibited at GameCity Festival in October.  There’s also a big goody bag of books involved.

Anything else?  Oh yes – the deadline for entries is the 1st of July 2016.  Also, you must be a full-time student to enter the competition.

Further details, together with resources and submission guidelines, can be found on the National Videogame Arcade’s website, here.  At the time of writing, we’re in the process of updating these guidelines, so it might be best to check back in a week or so.

If you have any questions, you can email me at  Please do.  I still get disproportionately excited when someone sends me an email.

If you’re after additional inspiration, the BBC has made hundreds of TV and radio programmes from its Shakespeare archive freely available HE students, and they can be found here.

Also, Ryan North has reworked Hamlet as an adventure gamebook, To be or Not to Be, which is available as both a physical book and a playable game.

I think that’s all.  As the man himself says – bid the players make haste.

DOTU Round logo

Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.


B.S. Johnson and the art of digital gobbledygook

Background image by Michal from Pixabay. BS Johnson (1968) Macmillan Photograph: /Macmillan. Design James Walker.

You are not radineg tihs wnorg. All wlil be eplxaneid ltear. And pselae be paniett. I do ellevntuay get on to B.S Jhnsoon

The theme of this year’s Being Human Festival is creativity and as part of this I gave a talk on digital storytelling. The aim was to explain the nuts and bolts of putting together a large multi-collaborative multi-platform literary project.

There are many explanations as to why writers bother putting pen to paper but I think we can probably boil it down to two: therapy and control. Is this why more people are writing now than at any other point in history? Are we more fucked up (and can’t afford an hour on the proverbial couch) or are we all feeling a lack of control as our lives become increasingly mediated through the virtual? Answers, please, on an ecard.

It’s certainly easier to get published now (we’re all one click away from a bestseller on Kindle) and so this may have raised confidence and accessibility. As well as delusion. Or perhaps the Selfie generation has taught us our opinions matter and we have 900 followers on Twitter to prove it (or 9,000 if you’ve decided to buy some). But less sceptically, I think more people are writing because it’s a cheap and easy way to make sense of our lives in an increasingly noisy world. The irony, of course, is one of the things that is making the world so noisy is the endless digital platforms encouraging us to speak up.

Issue 12 of Dawn of the Unread explored some of these issues.
Issue 12 of Dawn of the Unread explored some of these issues.

Writing enables a weighing down of the self. We create characters and situations and through this explore all of those important issues about the human condition: how does it affect me. If writing is about control then I must be a serious control freak because instead of mastering one world I am attempting to master entire universes and solar systems. Digital storytelling projects such as Dawn of the Unread are not just about thinking yourself into the mind of a character but into how that character exists across mediums and digital platforms, all of which come with their own grammar.

One argument levelled at the Selfie generation is that we are no longer able to focus on one text. Consequently, our attention spans are diminishing. There may be more people writing books, but, equally, there are less people reading. Hmm. In the worst case scenario this is seen as a dumbing down of culture. A more pragmatic view is that our brains are adapting and instead we are able to consume multiple forms of bytesized chunks of information at once. Hence, the physical book can’t compete with the latest HBO series that can be binge watched in one sitting while texting, emailing and arranging the latest date on Tinder.

Another argument levelled against digital is that it is lowering literacy levels. As culture becomes more visual language is lost as a result. With it goes rationality and logic, the grammar of this medium. Texting is seen as the epitome of this malaise. Not only have words been replaced with emoticons but the few words we do use are reduced to abbreviations and informal language. Do U C what I mean? But our brains are incredible complex machines that are constantly seeking out patterns so that order can be restored out of any gobbledygook.

As lnog as the fsrit and lsat ltteer of erevy wrod are in the cocerrt oderr our bnairs wlil mkae snsee of a stnenece.

All of which brings me onto B.S Johnson (5 February 1933 – 13 November 1973), one of the greatest digital writers of all time. Even though he died way before Google, Facebook and the smartphone were invented.

B.S Johnson’s best known novel, at least in these parts, is The Unfortunates (1969). This was published roughly around the same time as the US Department of Defence had developed packet network systems, such as Arpanet, that connected up computers so that everybody could communicate underground if there was a nuclear war. This was the beginning of the internet as we know it today. The Unfortunates takes on many of its characteristics.

The novel was originally published in a box with no binding so that readers could assemble 25 of the 27 chapters in any order. The only rule was the first and the last chapter had to be read in order. The chapters vary in length from a single paragraph to 12 pages. Johnson’s other books include one which has a hole in it so that readers can see what is coming next and another comprised entirely of case-notes. I guess my point is that writers have been attempting to escape the confines and conventions of the page for decades. Digital has simply made this process more explicit.

The Unfortunates tells the story of a sportswriter sent to a city on an assignment. But instead of reporting on the match he is confronted by ghosts from his past and the tragic passing of a good friend. Although the city and match are unnamed, it is quite obviously based on Nottingham.

To capture the spirit of the book, playwright Andy Barret has created an event called I Know This City where there will be readings of individual chapters at various locations. Andy said, “The venues will be cafes, benches, pubs, the corners of shops, theatres and hotel foyers. They will be near enough to each other so that people do not find themselves following a similar route”. It all sounds very digital –the non linear way he is encouraging us to navigate the city, the way we will make sense of random locations, and how a physical book will become a living breathing experience rather than an ordered page of words.

DOTU Round logo

Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Related reading

Untold Stories: Building a digital project with students

This is our first draft of a logo by Paul Fillingham. I wanted to use the Russian artist Petr Pavlensky as it's such a great image. The quote is adapted from Oscar Wilde.
First draft of project logo by Paul Fillingham. I wanted to use the Russian artist Petr Pavlensky as it’s such a great image. The quote is adapted from Oscar Wilde.

Last month I wrote to every UNESCO City of Literature to see if they were interested in being a partner on Dawn of the Unread II: Untold Stories. To be a partner I have requested that they fund a writer and I’ll take care of the rest (the letterer, colourist, artist, script editor, digitiser, etc). There are three reasons I approached the UNESCO cities. Firstly, part of their remit is to build global relationships, particularly between the Creative Cities network. So providing projects that achieve their goals means you are more likely to get a response. Secondly, this means the marketing takes care of itself. Dawn of the Unread was successful because it involved so many people. Extending this globally is a natural progression. Thirdly, in order to achieve Arts Council Funding I need to bring in money and support in kind. This is why multi-collaborative partnership take so long and on average it’s usually around 8 months of planning before I submit a proposal.

New College Nottingham students
New College Nottingham students. Photo James Walker.

In thinking through the concept of Untold Stories I’ve approached two ‘focus’ groups. Richard Johnson of New College Nottingham has created coursework for FdA Design students where they will either create an alternative logo for Untold Stories or pitch an idea of the kind of stories they would like to see in the comic serial. By making it a formative assessment I am guaranteed that the students will take the work seriously. The benefit for the college is they link up with external stakeholders who offer creative industries experience. To quote Del Boy, everyone is a winner. I gave a talk at the college for a couple of hours and offered tutorial support. So it hasn’t really been too time consuming. They were given one month to complete the coursework and it was handed in on Friday.

You can read the coursework brief NCN brief untold_stories_2015-16

I first met Richard Johnson at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio in 2009 and was impressed with how he had used social media to engage with his audience by asking them to draw characters from his Erth Chronicles. Reading is a completely individual experience in that we all conjure different images from the words. Richard (who writes under the pseudonym of James Johnson) got unique feedback from this which in turn shaped the way he went about describing future characters and situations.

I’ve also created a focus group of ten students from NTU as part of their Humanities at Work Module which requires them to fulfill a 30 hour placement. I want them to have some kind of ownership from conception to inception. Too often placement students are used as an expendable workforce to do the jobs other people don’t want to do. I’m hoping that involving them from the planning stage will either help to create a great project for us or show them exactly how these projects are born so that they will go on and do similar one day.

Employability is one of the key goals of NTU’s strategy and they recently achieved a top 20 ranking for its teaching quality in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2016. Vice-Chancellor Professor Edward Peck said: “Our pledge is for every course to contain strong links to employers and we are already a long way down this road with associations to businesses who offer work placements; many courses offer professional accreditation of periods of work experience.”

This animation is from Issue 1. You can view the animation here.
This animation is from Issue 1. You can view the animation here.

There’s also some tidying up to do with Dawn of the Unread which is delaying the publication of the physical book. With this in mind I’ve been working with a Korean-Italian student studying B.A (Hons) Media at NTU called Vincenzo Yun Chang Huh who is creating animations for six of our 16 comics. Every issue has one tiny animation but we didn’t have time to do it all when the project was live because a) it was something we hadn’t budgeted for and b) it was something I realised I wanted to do once our first issue came out. I felt the last page of our opening issue didn’t have enough Nottingham references and so I had the eyes of a ‘zombie’ flickering between Shippos and Home Ales Breweries. Having one animation per issue brings in another gaming element to Dawn of the Unread in that readers have to find them. This is exactly what our target audience (Youtube generation) would enjoy.

Vincenzo also created the above video which explores locations featured in Dawn of the Unread which he’s filmed and then overlaid with pages from the comic.

Vincenzo Huh. Photo James Walker.

Let me tell you a little bit about Vincenzo’s ‘Untold Story’ and why I think it’s important to give students a chance. He was born in Caserta, Italy, spent seven years in Brazil and finished off his secondary school education in Moscow. During his schooling he set up an advertisement service group and went on to produce promotional videos for Zeitgeist Literary Magazine and producing presentation slides for TEDx speakers. He even found time to work with some independent game developers as well as get involved with a family entertainment show.

Perhaps because of his nomadic adolescence, and a bright mind that seems to be satiated through entrepreneurialism, Vince suffers from anxiety issues and describes himself as an introvert. Social media and creative projects have offered a means of connecting with the outside world, albeit from the safety of a laptop. Dance has also served as an outlet to express himself and he’ll be performing United the Scene on 6 November. You can also catch him busting some moves in this coursework (designing an App) he did at Nottingham Trent International College.

I can’t believe how lucky I am to have someone like Vince working on both Dawn of the Unread and Untold Stories. One of the reasons he wanted to be involved is because he believes in the principles that underpin these projects. He said:

“Youtube introduced me to short-films which taught me inspirational life lessons and different perspectives in life. One of my all-time favourite short-film that moves my heart is called With a Piece of Chalk by JuBa Films. One of the goals of Dawn of the Unread is to combat illiteracy. Producing a promotional video for them could change some people’s lives for the better. I may never find out who these individuals are or how it affected them, but I feel good knowing that I produced something that could have a positive impact.”

Untold Stories will have a theme for every issue which will shape the story. The embeds will include a philosophical discussion of the theme and a Call to Action from a real life case study (Amnesty, English Pen, Liberty, etc) Our first theme will be ‘Anxiety’.

DOTU Round logo

Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.