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Open University author connections map

From Coast to Bang Goes the Theory, The Open University works in partnership with the BBC to commission programmes covering a range of subjects across all BBC TV channels and radio stations. To complement these programmes, and enhance the learning journey for viewers, The Open University also produces online content at, from podcasts featuring university academics involved in the programmes to exciting interactives.

A recent example supported BBC Four’s In Their Own Words: British Novelists. This three-part series plundered the BBC archive to show Britain’s greatest novelists talking candidly about their life and work. The interactive was also created to bring attention to The Open University’s array of literature and creative writing courses.

After a number of ideas were discussed, it was decided that an interactive exploring the connections between the different authors would act as the perfect accompaniment to the series and also offer an evocative learning tool for people interested in 20th century literature.

So the team approached Manchester-based digital agency Stardotstar to produce the interactive. With a portfolio containing work for Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, theatre companies and arts festivals, Stardotstar have a sympathy towards bringing the arts to new audiences.  Approaching the project from the end users’ point of view, the agency’s objective was to create a journey of discovery that was as interesting to use to the lay reader as it is to the academic professor.

While the agency worked on a prototype, the team at The Open University worked with academics from its Arts Faculty to produce content on each of the 60 authors. A spreadsheet highlighting the connections between each author was also produced, covering shared genres, cultural themes, universities, jobs and awards among others, as well as the literary sets they belonged to, and the social relations they had with each other: who was related to whom, who married whom, who was taught by whom and who hated whom! In total this added up to a staggering 3,500 connections between just 60 authors.

With so much data and so many links, presenting this to the end user was always going to be a challenge.

“It’s difficult to make things simple,” said Stardotstar co-founder Gareth Langley. “It’s an extremely complicated web of connections – that’s the whole fascination, but the complexity’s overwhelming in the raw. The key to making this project a success was taking the thousands of connections and combing out the tangles – organising the material to provoke curiosity and invite a deeper delve.

“A huge part of the story of the British novel in the 20th century is, of course, the Penguin paperback, so it’s no coincidence that we nod towards Jan Tschichold’s iconic designs in the type and colour choices. In many ways the web in this century follows on from the paperback in the 20th century: it’s fast, popular and accessible to most of us. Unlike a well-loved novel, though, in electronic media the text is too often the bit you end up skipping over to get to the glossy visuals. We knew that we wanted to create an experience sympathetic to reading, and with this in mind, we commissioned illustration to work like manuscript illumination, decorating the text rather than distracting attention.

“The end result is a playful interactive, turning complex relationships into beautiful non-linear story of your own making.”

To see the interactive and discover more about the BBC series, visit 20th century authors.

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