"The internet is a dialectic hybrid: a utopian archetype at once pragmatic and mythical, borderless and structured, it is a potentially infinite space with no geographical, political or otherwise material boundaries." {49}

Jessica Helfand
A New Webbed Utopia


As a visual narrator, my medium shifts to accommodate my interests and the needs of the project. I’ve spent the past two decades telling stories with images. These stories have taken the form of black and white illustrations for newspapers and mixed media paintings for galleries. They have taken shape as collaborative theater projects. Others have been made of clay, narratives disguised as the decoration on ceramic vessels. Most recently, I’ve turned to telling stories digitally, using the computer as both design tool and delivery format. I am intrigued by the way the delivery format shapes the narrative. When I was painting onto hand built pottery, I found that the two sided vessel form lent itself to telling two sides to a tale. Now in the digital environment, multiplicity is more possible than ever. Images can be duplicated and altered, their stories revised and retold. I am busy pondering what this bodes for the future of storytelling.

Much of my research has been an exploration of one of the oldest of narrative genres: the fairy tale. I am interested in the ways that fairy tales have been molded by the desires and location of both teller and audience. It strikes me that this process is similar to the complex practice of graphic design. Both graphic designer and fairy tale fabricator leverage symbols and emotions to craft their narratives. Both employ a language of signs to promote value systems, ultimately influencing the wants and actions of diverse audiences. Graphic designers can play an important role as storytellers in our culture.
As Americans, our country promises us the right to pursue happiness. Fairy tales and consumer culture dangle this same gratification of desires. Designers are in the curious (even powerful and privileged) position to critically reshape a new wave of cultural narratives. As designers are asked to author the content for advertising campaigns, websites and new media projects, the responsibility is enormous.

Morphing is the process of transformation, a key function of both design and fairy tales culturally. Fairy tales present the utopian possibility of a better future, with in the tale there is often the physical transformation of a character, representative of transformation on other levels as well - psychological, social, economic...the transformation of identity.

Once upon a time, these stories may have reassured the downtrodden that their lot could improve. For fairy tales image change. I believe that graphic design can serve the same function, providing the sense of a morph-able future for the individual consumer/citizen, and for the society as a whole:

Be all that you can be.

Just Do it.

Think Different.


And like the computer desktop that is customizable for it’s user, the fairy tale and new design interfaces are morphing language-objects.
They can be altered to fit the individual’s needs. Many promises, many products. Design, as fairy tales often have, offers the promise of change and the hope of fulfilled desires.

Recently a television advertisement for Schwab features the real ex-princess Fergie teaching her daughter to invest wisely in case it doesn’t work out with the prince. The commercial plays with the fairy tale’s classic ending, creating a newly empowered version of happily ever after. This time the little girl will learn to take charge of her own finances and be less dependent upon the generosity of her powerful step family.

Joline Blais’s Fair e-tales is a well conceived example of how digital design software can be used to morph a fairy tale.
This experiment shows the writer’s understanding of the core dynamics in our commonly held version of the tale, for Cinderella contests the family hierarchy. Blais’s multiform version fundamentally messes with patriarchal assumptions about the family food chain. Instead, it shows the multiple alliances formed in families that tug at and redistribute power. Blais is a writer and uses Flash (TM) to facilitate this text-only piece.

<http://www.three.org/fairetales/ >

"Fair e-Tales" is an attempt to enlist Flash (TM) technology to show plot transformations in a simple fairy tale, in this case, "Cinderella." Rather than relying on the conventional point-and-click hypertext links, this transforming narrative uses gradually morphing screen shots to show shifting alliances between major characters. The idea is to SHOW and TELL what happens to the Cinderella story when, for example, the evil step-sisters and the Prince ally themselves; or when Cinderella joins forces with her step-mother. While conventional hyperfiction allows a user to navigate only among forks in a single narrative, this example of "metafiction" allows one to play out all of the possible dynamics implied by a set of characters--producing a more balanced spectrum of plots than those prescribed by the patriarchal tradition handed down from Grimm to Disney. {51}

Joline Blais
Fair e-Tales

Another example of multiform fairy tale on the web is Nick Montfort’s The Girl and the Wolf, readable online at Beehive, a hypertext / hypermedia journal. Montfort is a writer, but a designer’s hand is at work in the effective interface for his variable versions of Little Red Riding Hood. A square graphic ornament, likely one from the vast offerings of Renaissance clip art, has been sliced into nine equal squares. With an axis for sex and another for violence, the reader may use this ornamental grid to navigate into the morphed story.
"To read a continuation of the story, choose the amount of sex and violence you would prefer using the woodcut grid above. Clicking in the lower left corner provides the least of each, the upper left corner the most sex and least violence, the lower right corner the most violence and least sex, and so forth." {52}

Nick Montfort
The Girl and The Wolf, A Variable Tale

By using a graphic element, the decorative woodcut lifted from the conventions of early book design, Montfort reminds us of Janet Murray’s claim that digital narrative is hovering in a state of incunabula. I believe that concrete visual elements, ornamental motifs, provide transitional objects for readers who venture into new media, just as they might have helped ground the process for readers of the first printed books. Fairy tales provide perfect texts on which to perform these metafictional experiments. Implicit in the fairy tale is the multi-tale, sliced and diced and reconstituted in the story teller’s kitchen over the ages.

Donna Leishman’s Flash (TM) rendition of Little Red Riding Hood, is more visually ambitious.
Red sports a cartoony heroine and a persistently looping drum track. The piece is graphically bold and even a bit naughty, yet doesn’t reveal much about the nature of the tale itself, reducing Red to less than she might be. This sparseness of psychological texture is surprising considering Leishman cites Angela Carter as one of her inspirations. Though Red may make a case for returning to the essentials of storytelling, it is still an admirable test of text and image in an interactive environment.


I agree with Janet Murray, that this period of digital incunabula has yet to produce the next great bard. But in the work of authors like Montfort, Blais, and especially Shelley Jackson, whose work is keenly shaped by both luscious voice and sensitivity to the architecture of the digital delivery format, we have every reason to be hopeful.

The compact poetic language of fairy tales, rich with social and psychological resonance, make them good candidates for the reading environment of the web. The web’s slicing of texts and hyperlinking of notions, makes for a kind of associative poetry like that of the fairy tale. I believe it’s an environment ripe for a new wave narrative poetry, tales that would satisfy both our need for story and our desire for agency. One place where this potential is given space to breathe is a website developed by two graphic designers. Poems That Go <www.Poems that Go.com> is an online journal featuring collaborations between poets and designers in motion graphics. Here are clues for ways that motion graphics software may be used in illuminating a poem. I wonder if we might think of short Flash(TM) animations as fulfilling a similar function as the elaborately ornate images in illuminated manuscripts. Flash files nearly always take some time to download, forcing a moment of meditation upon the furiously surfing reader. The Flash movie induces a kind of spooky trance with its slowly unfolding images, sluggish audio and flowering text. Short Flash movies might also be inserted into a longer hypermedia text, serving as a transition between passages, just as illuminated letters did in the book’s past.

Subject: Baba yaga
Date: Sat, 3 Feb 2001 12:11:00 -0500
From: Joanna Kiernan

AND... what about the end?

In Bare Bones I have crafted a new version of Vasalisa and the Baba Yaga. By reworking its text, imagery and format I have attempted to build a bridge for the fairy tale audience between traditional media and new media. I have rewritten the story as a narrative poem for multiple voices. The text, as broken down into nodes, is meant to be experienced in an interactive story space. Its voices recall the informality of oral storytelling and also anticipate the increased agency of an audience for new interactive media. The image/objects created to accompany the text mix the nostalgic simplicity of storybook silhouettes with the layered complexity of digital collage. The ornamental flow chart provides the whole-at-a-glance view of this branching multiform narrative project. It’s decorative aesthetic acknowledges the long history of information design and its various graphic incarnations from early manuscripts to cathedral mosaics. It provides a structure for gathering audience contributions to the tale, as first tested in the rudimentary experiment, Hot House. Here it serves as an interface in the web version of this tale. Its miniature version, embedded throughout the fairy tale’s illustrations is a recurring visual motif that echoes the macrocosm of the flow chart. Just as the little doll is a homunculous hiding in Vasalisa’s pocket, this miniaturization inserts the effect of mise-en-abyme. Each of these aspects of the Vasalisa Project reflects my desire to craft a transitional object for audiences during this incunabula of digital media.

In the end, I have used the fairy tale itself as my own transitional object. Immediately drawn to the story’s characters and motifs, I was struck by how comfortably I could attach my own intellectual and developmental needs to them. Deconstruction of the story has been just one of the uses of this object, for it has been a thing onto which I could vent my own own negative impulses. Like a mischievous girl, switching the heads on her Barbies, I have used the story as as a thing to destroy and remake.

The story is an object onto which I project my own thoughts about life's varied struggles. I can test my ideas within its zone of comfort. Reconstruction of the story and its remediation for the digital environment, has been another more obviously productive use. Just as Vasalisa’s doll provided a guide for navigating through her series of tasks, the story itself has provided a map for my own interdisciplinary research.

Joellyn Rock
June, 2001

“And they lived happily ever after”...says the fairy tale. The fairy tale,which to this day is the first tutor of children because it was the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest." {53}

Walter Benjamin
The Storyteller