Digital on a Shoestring

Creating web-based and in-gallery digital learning resources in-house and on a minimal budget.

I joined Leeds Museums and Galleries (LMG) in June 2017, just as approval was given to totally redevelop the website My Learning (www.mylearning.org) which hosts free learning resources from the arts, cultural and heritage organisations, and is aimed at teachers. LMG is a council run service covering nine sites, and my role involves developing our digital interpretation and learning offer across those sites, and managing My Learning. However, with almost the entire budget taken up with the website redevelopment, the challenge is to create quality digital learning resources, both for use online and in-gallery, and all on a shoestring budget.

This blogpost covers some of what I’ve learned in my first eight months on the job, including:

Open source software and asset repositories, useful for creating (digital) learning resources.
Suggesting a web app for creating multi-media interactive images.
Detailing how Powerpoint can be hacked to create online and in-gallery interactives.
Suggestions of where to go to upskill and find out more.

Open source software and asset repositories

Creating templated graphics: Piktochart (www.piktochart.com) and Canva (www.canva.com) are web based apps that offer a range of fully customisable templates. Great for creating web or print media, both have a truly useable free version.

Basic image editing: Pixlr (www.pixlr.com) is a web based app that lets you remove backgrounds, work in layers and add a range of artistic effects.

Full image editor: Gimp (www.gimp.org) I’ve only ever scratched the surface of using Gimp, but I have it on good authority that, despite its slight clunkyness and a rather steep learning curve, Gimp offers pretty much the same functionality as Photoshop, without the crippling price tag. It’s totally free.

Sound effects: Freesound (www.freesound.org) offers a range of useable sound effects and soundscapes. Just check the copyright and attribute as necessary.

Icons: Freepik (www.freepik.com) like Freesound, a great repository for hundreds of icons. Again, check the copyright restrictions and attribute as necessary.

Example of a graphic produced using a combinations of free software and assets (Piktochart, Pixlr and Freepik)

Multi-media interactive images.

Thinglink (www.thinglink.com) is an online web-app that enables the creation of interactive images. You upload a base image and add ‘hotspots’ to it, which act as pop outs with uploaded content. You can upload text, and in the paid for version, images and audio, and link to video content (for example from Vimeo or Youtube) and also link to any other websites. They also offer a 360 version, giving a more immersive user experience.

The free version of Thinglink is quite limiting, allowing you only to use text in pop-ups, but the paid for version offers customization of hotspots, a range of font sizes (important for accessibility) and full upload capabilities, as well as a branded ‘Channel’ to host all your content. Personally, I think it’s worth paying for the full service (LMG received a 50% museum discount on their ‘Professional’ package and paid £110 for a year’s subscription in 2017).

Screenshot of an interactive image made using Thinglink. Click here to view the actual Thinglink.

Their support is pretty good too and the analytic tools, while quite basic, do offer useful insights, such as overall dwell time, and dwell time on individual hotspots, so you can see what type of content is working best for your audiences. Thinglink can also be easily embedded into websites, widening the reach of your content.

As third party software, bear in mind that if Thinglink ceases trading, your content will most likely cease to exist.

Using Powerpoint to create interactives

From flyers through to introductory video animations and touchscreen interactives, Powerpoint can be hacked to accomplish a surprising range of outputs. It’s also stable and unlikely to be discontinued. For those creating content with and for, windows machines (which includes most classroom environments), Powerpoint offers a low cost, low risk solution.

Example interactives that can me made using Powerpoint include flowchart activities, different types of quizzes, hidden objects game and ‘choose your own adventure’ style of non-linear storytelling. It’s also a great way to hold multi-media content such as photographs, audio and videos, with users being able to drill down into content and choose what they view.

Here are my ‘Top of the Pops’ for creating Powerpoint touchscreen interactives:

Kiosk view: Go to: Slide Show / Set Up Slideshow / Browsed at kiosk (full screen).

Show your Powerpoint in this setting, take away the keyboard and mouse and you are left with a ‘locked down’ presentation. Pair this with interactive elements and you have a fully workable interactive.

Action button: This is at the heart of creating any interactive Powerpoint. Use the ‘action’ button to create clickable objects or areas and link these to other slides, creating different pathways through your content. Note: If you group multiple objects, you can’t then assign an action to them. Instead, insert a shape over the grouped objects (e.g. a rectangle), make it transparent and use this as your clickable object. This hack is also useful when your clickable object is small — overlaying a larger, transparent clickable area, increases accessibility for those with poor fine motor skills and also makes it more likely to work for teachers, for whom an interactive whiteboard that stays accurately calibrated for more than a couple of days, is a miraculous thing.

Animation painter: Save precious time by simply copying and pasting animations from one object to the next.

Selection pane: Temporarily turns the visibility of objects on and off, allowing you to work in multiple layers on the same slide. Just remember to make everything visible again when you’re done!

Forcing repeat animations: Powerpoint animations weren’t designed to work in never ending loops, but for an in-gallery interactive, that’s exactly what is needed. Trick the software into playing animations every time by placing a blank slide with an automatic transition time of zero immediately before the animated slide. Users won’t see the blank slide, but Powerpoint will act as if it’s the first time the animated slide has been visited, and run them accordingly.

Screenshot from a flowchart activity based on women’s jobs in the First World War. Inserting a blank slide before the animated slides means it can be played in a loop. Click here to download the interactive from MyLearning.org

Storytelling through slide transitions: Powerpoint offers multiple ways to transition between slides and each produce a different effect. Consider using the ‘wipe’ transition and varying the direction (from top, bottom, left or right) to create the feeling of a pathway through the content. This can be particularly effective when designing flowcharts.

In-built editors: Powerpoint offers in-built editors to crop images, audio and video. While crude, they can do an effective job if a simple crop is all you need, saving you time faffing around with other software.

Screenshot from a touchscreen interactive quiz designed for teachers to use in classrooms and also as an in-gallery stand alone. Click here to download the complete Powerpoint from MyLearning.org

Colour my world.

I find colour tricky. I can do the basics, but once different tones and values get involved, I become less sure of my colour-picking skills. Comprehensive brand guidelines that provide a useable range of colours are great, but if you aren’t lucky enough to have that, here are a couple of resources to help:

Website: www.coolors.co : This website should come with a time warning. Not because it takes ages to load or to get a useable output (it’s quite the opposite), but because it’s a bit like playing on a fruit machine except with colours, making it quite visually addictive. Coolors generates a random colour palette for you at the press of the space bar. Or, if you have one (or more) colours and need to find others that will work with your palette, enter the hex code for your colour and lock it into place (if you don’t have the hex code, search ‘hex code for’ and then the CMYK or RGB values into a search engine). Then press the space bar and Coolors will generate colours that harmonize with your chosen shades. You can repeat this until you get a combination you like.

Screenshot from www.coolors.co Lock colours in and press the space bar to generate harmonious colour schemes.

Book: Colour Index by Jim Krause: Rammed full of different colour combinations, and it includes graphics showing those combinations in use.

CMYK / RGB? And if you can never quite remember whether you should be using CMYK or RGB values, it’s helpful that RGB and WEB both have three letters and both end in ‘B’. Not very technical, but easy to remember! Use RGB for anything that’s going to be displayed on a screen. CMYK is for print.

Professional Development

I love learning new skills and then applying them in my work. Here’s an overview of some sites I’ve found useful when learning how to create quality digital resources.

YouTube: A bit of a no-brainer, YouTube hosts a ridiculous number of ‘how to’ videos. Some are better than others, and many are fantastic.

Udemy (www.udemy.com): Most Udemy courses come in at £11.99, making them nicely affordable. With lifetime access and, in my experience, good support, I especially like Udemy when I’m learning a completely new skill and want step by step instruction without having to spend hours trawling through YouTube to find the exact content I want.

FutureLearn (www.futurelearn.com): Free, online courses complete with support. You get a limited time to complete them, but if you didn’t manage to finish it the first time, you can always sign up for the same course again when it next comes round.

Museum tutorial (www.johnsear.com): John has an excellent section of ‘DIY Museum Tutorials’ on his website, covering, amongst other things, using NFC tags, telling interactive, non linear stories using Twine and creating Powerpoint interactives. An excellent source of tried and tested techniques.

Powerpoint (www.pptalchemy.co.uk): This website is a bit clunky, but it is great for a huge range of Powerpoint tips at tricks.

I hope this post of of use to those facing the challenges of a limited budget and looking at creating their own digital interpretation and interactives. It’s a great advantage to be able to produce content in-house when needed, whether it’s adding extra value to an exhibition, or creating useful and stimulating learning materials (or both!)