Documenting Projects 101

Documenting projects feels tough. It feels boring. It honestly is a chore for most people and because of that, it almost never gets done. I’m never surprised when I ask developers and artists if they have documentation of their projects and they say “no….not really…maybe a few pictures on my phone?” The only result of this is that you’re missing out on developing your career and being able to talk about your work in any serious capacity. IN this post, I’ll highlight why documenting your projects is important, why it shouldn’t feel like a chore, and three areas to focus your documenting process.

Why is documenting important?

Marketing and promotion

I could probably spend the rest of the post talking about this but I’ll keep it brief. There are many reasons why documentation is important. The first and most obvious is marketing and promotion. As much as some folks would like to remain a “pure artist,” the reality of the industry is that if people don’t know you do good work, they won’t call you to make more work. If you don’t get called to make work, you won’t make money. If you don’t make money, you have to get another job to pay your bills, which means less work in art. If you’re making less art, then you’ll have even less to share. It’s a vicious cycle! This alone should be a reason to document your projects.

It’s actually fun…

Outside of the marketing aspects, documenting projects can actually be a fun, expressive, and interesting thing. How are you going to have conversations about your works and their meanings if you have no pictures or videos to show for them? How can you share your work to your followers, fans, and fellow community as inspiration or educational materials if you can’t show them what the final thing looks like? Documenting your work not only is good for marketing, but it also gives your works a longer lifespan by allowing you to do so much with the ideas and beautiful art you made even after the project is done. Giving your work a longer lifespan I’d consider to be fun, because making art work is fun and being able to carry a project into new areas of expression when it’s finished is something I consider to be valuable.

Three pillars of documenting

When it comes to documentation, there are three areas that I’d consider critical. Documenting is creative just like any other form of art and expression, so of course you can document a project in ways that are outside of these three, but if you could only get 3 items in there, these are the key things.

Text

Yup! Text. Your favourite! Most folks hate writing about their work. This is probably the most chore-like aspect of documenting. This is why I always recommend keeping it short. Most people don’t even want to read long paragraphs of text talking about how you’re bending spacetime with projections and a fog machine and how you plan on reversing the heat death of the universe. I approach this kind of text like a journalist would, which is to stick to the 5 W’s. This will sound like a high school english class, but you really only need the following information:

  • Who
  • What
  • Why
  • Where
  • When

That’s it. Don’t get too fancy. If all you ever did was write 1 sentence for each of those (5 sentences total!), you’d have more valuable documentation than 80% of the industry. And these are easy questions to ask yourself:

  • Who is working on the project? Who are the clients? Who are all the people involved (credit everyone!)
  • What are you building? What is the project?
  • Why are you building it? Why is it important? Why did you build things the way you did?
  • Where is the project happening?
  • When is the project happening?

That’s it. Seriously. You don’t need a PhD dissertation for your text. You just need to quickly hit the key points to set people up for the visuals. The visuals are what they actually came here for, not the text. So do yourself a favour, keep it short and sweet. Easy for you to write, easy for the reader to get through.

Images / GIFs

The next important step of documentation are images and gifs. I group these two together separately from videos because they have their own key functions and delivery methods. Images and gifs are great at capturing a single moment. They’re great at highlighting the beauty of something at the maximum resolution. They should show off the best parts of the installation or some key aspects of the behind-the-scenes, like screen captures of TouchDesigner or your hardware diagrams. I’d almost consider images and gifs the ideal way to explain your art work visually. An image of someone touching a touch screen immediately says “interactive.” No other words necessary, don’t need to scrub through a video, or anything like that. This is the beautiful function of images and gifs. You can pick out the most important feature or visual or interactivity element in the work and capture it in an image.

Images and gifs can be dropped anywhere and everywhere. You can include them in emails, text messages, websites, powerpoint presentations, and more. While you may think “oh well I can send video links in those places too,” I wouldn’t consider those native delivery methods for video. I don’t care what anyone says, a few images in an email will almost ALWAYS get viewed, while a link in an email will rarely get clicked unless the person REALLY cares about it.

Images and gifs are fantastic ways to document a project. If you had only those 5 lines of text mentioned above, and a beautiful gallery of images/gifs, you’ve already put yourself in the top tier of project documentation. The old adage is true: an image is worth a 1000 words (which means my blog posts are worth 1 image??).

Videos

Above all else, a video should create hype and craving. Everything else is secondary. While I think images are great for explaining the work visually, I think that’s not the main function of a video. A video should give the viewer a taste of the experience. It should show how excited people are to be there and see it or use it. It should only be the absolute best shots of the work that you have cut back to back at a quick pace (don’t have shots longer than 10 seconds). It should have a driving beat or upbeat music behind it to create a positive and exciting emotional response. It should be short so that the viewer is left hungry for more and is compelled to email you about the piece! I’ve written about video reels specifically before, and all those concepts apply to project documentation videos.

With all that said, the video’s function really isn’t to explain the whole project from start to finish. It may not even fully explain how user interactions work or show all the features. More than anything it needs to capture the emotion of the experience, the success of it, and the magnitude of how awesome it is. The video needs to have its own narrative and have emotional highs and lows (but mostly highs!). It’s important to know that “project documenting” isn’t the same as creating “behind the scenes explainer videos or help documents.” Make it hype, make it exciting, make it short, leave them wanting more when it’s over.

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A good mix

So you’ve kind of got a sense of the three pillars but how do you actually get the job done? I always recommend a mix of all three. How much of each is really up to you and what you feel is appropriate for each piece. Generally I find my ratios to land roughly around:

  • 20% text
  • 30% image/gif
  • 50% video

It’s really not that much documenting at the end of the day. Especially if you consider that I recommend videos be less than a minute. If 50% of your documentation is a video less than a minute, then 30% images means less than 10 images. Which means 20% text is a small paragraph that answers the 5 W’s I mentioned above. That’s it! Honestly! You don’t need to spend days and days toiling over project documentation. You just need 1 short paragraph, a handful of awesome images, and a less than 1 minute video.

Alternatively, if video making isn’t in your strong abilities, the bare minimum I’d recommend is 25% text and 75% images/gifs. Better would be to hire a videographer to do that video, but obviously that won’t be feasible for some projects with no budget. So in the cases where you can’t get video, or you don’t know how to make videos (yet!), you can leave into a 25/75 split between text/images.

Wrap up

Documenting projects is important. I think we all know that deep down. But a lot of us also think it’s a chore and you get nothing out of it, neither of which are true. If you’ve ever wanted to talk about your art works or share them or get more work, then you’ve needed the results of good documentation. Maybe up till now you’ve been lucky and had other people documenting projects for you, but hopefully with these strategies and ideas, you can take charge of your documentation, and more importantly, your narrative.