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We Were Randomly Assigned Literature

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Back in 2009, we received a phone call from a student from the York Sheridan Program in Design who explained he and a project partner were working to profile Toronto’s literary scene via mapping techniques, and would we mind answering a few questions? Being focused on Toronto’s literary scene ourselves, we were instantly intrigued by what they were working on. Mapping literary Toronto? In a design-y way? Amazing. Tell us more.

We asked the two students to get in touch once they wrapped the project, that we would love to see the results. Creators, designers and innovators Marcelo Hong and Matt Wiechec (remember these names!) fill us in on their strategy, inspiration, process and discoveries while exploring and mapping Toronto’s literary scene. We know you will be as delighted as we are, reading about their project and seeing our city’s book scene laid out in their smart and compelling interactive interface.

Open Book: Toronto:

Hello! Tell us a bit about yourselves. Give us a bio each.

Marcelo Hong:

I am of Korean background, born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I completed my studies in Advertising & Marketing at Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing. In 2005, I moved to Canada to pursue my second undergraduate degree in Graphic Design at York University/Sheridan College. As a recent graduate, a lot of my work and interest has been in exploring the city as a creative space.

Matt Wiechec:

Matt Wiechec is a recent graduate of York University/Sheridan College Program in Design (YSDN).

He has focused his studies on exploring interactive design and new media. Currently Matt is working on projects which examine the relationship between design and new technologies in enhancing user experience in physical environments.

OBT:

How did your literary mapping project come about?

Marcelo:

This project was inspired by Richard Florida’s works, which explain the role and relevance of creativity in revolutionizing the global economy. He has coined the term “creative class” and has written books on how creative cities offer better opportunities for people. Simultaneously, we were exposed to the fact that the city of Toronto has been investing and promoting itself as a creative city. We were asked to research and prepare a presentation that would give a profile of Toronto’s literature landscape. The goal was to use mapping techniques to create a comprehensive document on this topic.

Matt:

Our mapping project came about as course work for an Information Design class at YSDN. It was the beginning phase of a semester’s worth of work centered on a specific cultural area in Toronto. Marcelo and I decided to team up and work together. We were randomly assigned literature as our area of research.

OBT:

What did you know about Toronto’s literary scene before the project?

Marcelo:

My knowledge of Toronto’s literary scene was very limited prior to working on this project. I knew mostly of big bookstores and the Public Reference Library, but I was not aware of how many independent bookstores were out there.

Matt:

I really didn’t know much. I knew we had some smaller chains of bookstores throughout Toronto but I wasn’t aware of the literary scene beyond that. Much of my knowledge extended to where I could find books on design.

OBT:

Any expectations, going in? Any concerns about mapping literary Toronto?

Marcelo:

I think both Matt and I were really open and willing to see what we would be able to discover through this extensive research. I wanted to learn something new about Toronto’s literature landscape and to be able to understand how it fits within the big picture to set Toronto as a creative city.

Matt:

I remember when we were randomly assigned literature as our topic. I turned to Marcelo and said we got the hardest one. The other subject areas included visual arts, music, design and film — all things familiar to a design student. Toronto’s literary culture was something I was really unfamiliar with and I thought it would be difficult to gather substantial information on the topic.

OBT:

Walk us through all your steps: deciding your approach to mapping literary Toronto, gathering the information and data.

Marcelo:

The initial step to mapping literary Toronto was to gather as much data as we could through secondary research. We compiled a list of bookstore locations through an online search and visited some libraries to see if there was any kind of information on such topics. This initial research led us to focus on downtown as a core region to do a more in-depth study. We felt the need to explore downtown and do field research, enabling us to look at the places and get a real sense of what those places look like, or what they feel like.

We also used photography to collect data. We felt it was important to not only know where the literary locations are, but also to understand what these places look like and what is around them. Personally, I think mapping is not only the act of locating a certain place, but also understanding its surroundings. The relationship between the place and the environment is what makes a map understandable and relevant.

Another strategy we used was to research and contact organizations and key people in the city that were related to the literary scene in Toronto (such as Open Book and Amy Lavender Harris from Imagining Toronto). These people were able to direct us to certain places and also to help us quickly understand what were the main aspects of literature in Toronto.

Finally, we also did very short interviews to get a sense of Torontonians’ perceptions about the city’s literary scene.

Matt:

We started by defining what literature meant in a broad scope to try and expand possible areas of research &emdash; were we going to look at written or spoken works, printed material, venues, etc.

With our definition in mind we conducted initial secondary research online. Our primary goal here was to simply identify areas of literary importance with which we were unfamiliar. We created a shared map on Google Maps where Marcelo and I could add place markers to signify any precise area of importance — be it a bookstore, library, university, museum and so on. This gave us tremendous insight into the hotspots for literary activity where, more importantly, we could carry out primary field research.

Using the early information we had gathered online about Toronto’s bookstores, literary events and recognizable works we took to the streets conducting short interviews with Torontonians and photographing surrounding areas around key points we had identified.

Exploring the city and interacting with people directly were the most valuable. We were exposed to insights that simply could not be found online. We received pages of new information on literary venues, events, notable books and persons.

OBT:

Putting it all together, what were your main observations and conclusions about literary Toronto? Any in patterns we should know about?

Marcelo:

Toronto’s landscape is scattered with many literary locations — most notably the city has an extensive network of public libraries that are distributed quite evenly and reach many of the city’s neighborhoods. Secondary to the library system are the major bookstore chains such as Indigo, which help supply books to great number of the population. However, the most exciting area is the downtown core where the streets are packed with a variety of locations that define Toronto’s unique literature culture.

Toronto has a very active literary community. You can find a literature-based event for every single day of the week (mostly poetry readings). A lot of these gems, however, are hidden. I think the city would benefit if there was a greater initiative to promote these events.

The main literary areas are the Annex and Queen Street West. Our study shows that the reason why they are more prominent — aside from the larger number of bookstores or literary events — is the fact that there is a big creative environment. What I mean by that is that they have restaurants, universities, museums, galleries and are easily accessible by public transport. When these creative outlets are all located in one area, it seems to create a much more attractive place for all of them — including literature.

Matt:

Toronto has a fantastic system of libraries and major bookstores that extend throughout the city, but the real vitality of literary Toronto is in its downtown core.

We found that the Bloor Annex and West Queen West are especially vibrant areas of not only literary work but art culture as a whole. Many of the venues here are active in hosting literature events regularly and the local pubs and hangouts are frequented by many of the city’s authors and artists.

It’s really these pockets of culture that form the unique landscape of Toronto’s literary scene. The community is very strong and supportive but definitely hidden away from your average large chain shopper.

OBT:

How about presenting the results, how did that go?

Marcelo:

The presentation of the results was a challenging, but fun experience. We were able to explore and try different mapping methods and techniques that could highlight information that could have been overlooked otherwise. An example of this was the “heat map.” We used them in the same way and it gives a much more vivid and faster way to spot where the most number of literary-related places are.

We also used photography, elevation drawings, interactive maps and even a calendar so that our study could provide as much information as possible to the public.

Matt:

Presenting the results was really a burdening experience. I think the amount of information we had gathered exceeded our expectations and this always makes for a challenging and compelling design solution.

We began by creating easily understandable and relatable geographic maps — one of the metro Toronto area as an overview for the audience and another more focused map of our defined area of focus (the downtown core).

We also explored several more unique mapping solutions such as heat maps, which distinguish high and low density areas as relevant to literature, through colour variation. We also looked into dividing the map into Toronto districts and highlighting some of the most mentioned areas of interest during our field research. Additionally, we created more detailed street-level maps which looked at the density of relevant locations as they related to the literary scene in a particular area.

Finally, we organized a detailed annual calendar of events highlighting frequent events such as poetry readings and more major events such as The Word on the Street and International Festival of Authors. We also developed an interactive timeline documenting the operational hours of literarily significant locations in the city of Toronto over a regular seven day week. The user is able to adjust and move a slider through the timeline to see the literary landscape "light up" over a day or entire week.

OBT:

Did any of your findings surprise you?

Marcelo:

It was really great to see so many independent bookstores around the city. Some had used books, others were specialized in comics, and still others had rare books. At the time we were doing the project, I was a bit sad and worried about the rumors of so many bookstores closing. We were told, however, of a bookstore that was opening a new branch and of how people in the business were not really so pessimistic about what was happening. That was very encouraging to hear.

Another pleasant surprise was knowing that you can find a literature-related event for every single day of the week. While most of these are poetry related, it still shows that there are people who love what they do and that there is an audience for it.

Matt:

I was really surprised by how persistent the literary scene was. There are a lot of smaller independent stores and venues who are really passionate about their love for literature. I would have never thought to have discovered such a great and knowledgeable community just hiding under the cultural surface of Toronto.

OBT:

What is your favourite part of the the project; what are you most proud of or what pleased you the most?

Marcelo:

The interactive map is definitely the feature we are most proud of. The interface uses location, time and different categories to show when there is a “literary activity” in the city. What I like about an interactive interface is that it combines multiple ways of organizing a set of data to inform in a different way. It creates a richer experience, and I would love to see this being further developed so that people could actually use it to plan where to go to have fun!

Matt:

I think we’re both extremely proud of the abundance of information we unearthed. The design project is a culmination of this research, but I’m truly proud of the intimacy of cultural information we are about to make available straight from the people who participate in it every day.

OBT:

Now, post-mapping, what do you think every Torontonian should know about their city’s literary scene?

Marcelo:

Torontonians should know that Toronto is full of places to enjoy literature. The people who are involved with this scene are very passionate and dedicated to promote it.

It is important to understand that Toronto’s literary scene is part of a bigger system that makes Toronto a creative city. The places that were often mentioned by people or that were known as a literary spot usually have a good infrastructure that helped them to be reached. The traditional areas of the Annex and Queen Street West are accessible and often featured other types of stores and restaurants.

I think there are a lot of untapped opportunities that could be done with literature whether it is to promote more book-related events or to aid people in finding books or places they want.

Matt:

It’s out there! You really only need to scratch the surface to reveal the vibrant, unique and overwhelming supportive community of readers, authors and bookstore owners.

I would encourage any Torontonians who are looking to get involved in Toronto’s literary culture, or just to gain some unique insights into what books or events are hot, to visit one of the smaller bookstores downtown and talk to the owners and patrons. It is absolutely incredible how a few questions will illuminate your perspective on our city’s literary scene.

OBT:

Out of curiosity, what’s the last book you read (that wasn’t a course requirement)?

Marcelo:

Thinking Course by Edward De Bono. It’s a book that gives you tool on how to expand our thinking and his main argument is that thinking is more a matter of perception rather than intelligence.

Matt:

How to Be a Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul by Adrian Shaughnessy. I also just got my hands on Thoughts on Interaction Design by Jon Kolko and Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler which I’m excited to read through.

OBT:

Favourite bookstore?

Marcelo:

I really liked going to Pages, but other than that I really love Swipe.

Matt:

I love stopping by Swipe. Plus the big online retailers are great for all those books which you just can’t find on retail shelves or in libraries.

OBT:

Favourite Toronto spots, literary or not?

Marcelo:

Queen Street West, and Little Italy.

Matt:

I love the thriving life of Toronto’s downtown streets. Also recently I’ve taken a few trips to Liberty Village which seems like a very creative, revived, spot.

OBT:

Indulge us and please answer a classic Open Book question: if you had to choose three books as a "Welcome to Canada" gift, what would those books be?

Marcelo:

This is actually the hardest question for me to answer because I did not grow up in Canada, but I’d give:

Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Life of Pi by Yann Martel and;
Historical Atlas of Canada by Derek Hayes

Matt:

I couldn’t make any personal recommendations myself but let me mention a couple titles which came up during our research: The Perilous Trade by Roy MacSkimming and I Remember Sunnyside by Mike Filey.

OBT:

So, what’s next for two brilliant young men like yourselves?

Marcelo:

All I can see ahead is a lot of work to be done trying to grow as a designer! I would love to be able to continue exploring Toronto (and other cities) and developing more projects like this. Maybe a few years down the road I might apply for a graduate degree, but that’s still undecided!

Matt:

It’s been great to take the last few weeks after graduating slow to rebuild some of the creative stamina that was exhausted in the last push leading to the YSDN Grad Show. Now I’m really looking forward to catching up on some outstanding reading and tinkering around with design projects at a leisurely pace. Of course there is also tremendous excitement about entering a new stage of professional life and having the chance to learn and collaborate with industry pros on real world projects.

OBT:

Merci, Gentlemen!

Marcelo Hong

Marcelo Hong is of Korean background, born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he completed his studies in Advertising & Marketing at Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing. In 2005, he moved to Canada to pursue a second undergraduate degree in Graphic Design at York University/Sheridan College. As a recent graduate, a lot of his work and interest has been in exploring the city as a creative space.

Matt Wiechec

Matt Wiechec is a recent graduate of York University/Sheridan College Program in Design (YSDN).

He has focused his studies on exploring interactive design and new media. Currently Matt is working on projects which examine the relationship between design and new technologies in enhancing user experience in physical environments.

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