My Spark Became My Sway

Last summer I attended a month-long writing residency at the Anderson Center at Tower View in Red Wing, Minnesota. I took a ton of pictures while there, and a few videos, and even kept a journal for a few days until I decided I didn’t have time to maintain it. Upon my return, I wanted to take all of that material, write a larger narrative around it, and publish it on the web in some way, so that people could learn more about the residency, see some images of the center, the flora and fauna, the region, and our field trips, and so that I could share my experience. I also wanted to experiment with digital storytelling, which is a thing that has intrigued me for a while, since I’m a very enthusiastic photographer.

The question was, how would I do it technologically? I did a bunch of searching online, using search terms like “digital,” “story,” and “free.” (Free is my favorite price.) A lot of the tools that came up really weren’t appropriate for what I wanted to do, and a fair number are aimed at K-12 students. This is a great thing, but not what I was looking for. Among a small number of tools that looked suitable, what I chose to use was Adobe Spark.

I picked Spark for a variety of reasons: Adobe is well known and they make great products, it was free, the samples looked great, and the design options were strong. So, off I went, building away. However, after I’d gotten pretty far into the process, I discovered some issues. Critical ones. First and foremost for me, undo didn’t work. I could delete something accidentally and it was just lost. Forever. This would certainly not be acceptable. The next problem was that there was no way to export or save, and the company made it clear on Facebook they had no real intention of adding it. (Though apparently there is a third-party tool that will do it.) And, though I didn’t know it until I switched, if you copy and paste material from Spark into Sway, for example, or a Word doc, Spark randomly inserts extra spaces into your sentences, here and there. Bite me, Spark. (Being an online app, it can change constantly, though, so no guarantees these will continue to be issues.)


A short video from one of our few excursions while we were at the residency. Wonderful experience!

I did a bunch more searching for tools, and found Sway, which was developed by Microsoft and released in 2015. It’s apparently meant to be used for presentations, manuals, reports, and so forth, and worked really well for what I wanted to do. (And undo works, which is super keen since I accidentally deleted a huge chunk of the story I created at one point.) As with any of these tools, the design options are limited, and there are things I liked better about Spark, but I’m still happy with how it turned out. My biggest problem is that I was limited in the number of objects I could include in my Sway. Unless you subscribe to Office 365 (which isn’t cheap), you can have no more than 200 objects. An object is apparently a photo or video or paragraph of text. The digital story I created has just about 200, if you’d like to see what that looks like.

I would prefer more flexibility, more design options, more control over appearance, but that’s hardly shocking considering my background as a graphic designer (though it’s been a while). I’m used to being able to move things a pixel at a time, modify kerning and leading (if you don’t know what they are—trust me, they’re cool), and use hundreds of different fonts. But if you could do that, it would be too complex for most users. In particular, though, I wanted to be able to do more with the images and video. The choices were limited, and I didn’t like the way captions were handled (you have to click on them to read the full caption).

So, what’s next? I want very much to experiment more with digital stories. I plan to look at what I can do with WordPress templates, and keep searching for tools. I also want to try more things with image-centric and video stories. And I’m always happy to see examples and tool recommendations, free or otherwise, so send ‘em my way!

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