Blog Post

How to How to

With the vast demand for and supply of tutorials, how-to guides, and other digital learning tools on the internet, it seems inevitable that a how-to guide for using how-to guides would be written at some point. While the large number of tutorials available for our favorite digital tools is helpful, it is also important for digital humanists and others who want to expand their skills using tutorials to understand the best ways to use tutorials and to be able to discern which ones are the most conducive to productive and meaningful learning.

Foster Stilp, a friend of mine and motion design graduate student, recently shared with me his ideas about what makes an effective tutorial through a written manifesto for using tutorials. It’s targeted toward digital designers since the design field is particularly overflowing with tutorials of varying degrees of usefulness, but the principles he lays out are applicable to digital learning tools outside of design as well. They can also serve as a guide for your own effective and meaningful use of digital learning resources, as well as a guide for those of you who create your own tutorials, how-to guides, or other types of online learning resources. Here is part of it, shared with permission from the author:

How we use, and importantly how to use the programs (digital interfaces) of our technologies has spawned a lucrative business of new writers and teachers, some more genuinely knowledgeable than others. Each is willing to offer their interpretation of the tools and how to use them, but few touch on the overarching idea of individuality.

To the digital designers, serious or casual ̶

A tutorial is a journey to expand the mind, not a means to an end.

A 30-minute course on Photoshop does not make an expert out of anyone; it should, however, inspire you to become one.

Learn techniques, not templates.

Knowing what each function in the program is used for should not be your only focus; learn why and how.

Don’t imitate how-to’s; apply the concepts to your own art instead.

Good artists borrow and great artists steal, but the best artists innovate.

As a practical example to explain these principles, if you’re learning how to use a saw, the most important thing is to focus on the basics of using the saw correctly. You don’t focus on what’s actually being cut because your main concern is how to use the saw and why you should use it in a certain way. Once you’ve learned how to use a saw (perhaps in unusual ways... as a cheese board, as a book end, as a diving board), then you can use it to accomplish a great variety of things.

The point seems obvious when when you’re using a saw as an example, but when considering tutorials for more complicated tools, such as Photoshop, the learning process often becomes a means to an end in which re-creation of a specific outcome is the only goal.  The real goal is to learn the universal hows, whys, and techniques of a program and then apply them to your own application of the program rather than only imitating the single outcome of the tutorial. This focus makes learning much more effective and meaningful, and allows the possibility of innovation rather than imitation.

Here’s a more realistic example. I had a class assignment to design a cover and booklet for a CD case. I found a great tutorial on that went through the entire process of designing a CD, so I was excited to learn directly from an expert in the video about the gritty specifics of designing an album package while making my own project. I did learn useful techniques, shortcuts, and guidelines for Adobe InDesign by doing this, but I also fell in to the trap of allowing the specific CD cover being made in the tutorial influence my final design in subtle ways that became an extra challenge to work around in the design process. I would have gotten more out of it if I had watched the tutorial and practiced the techniques completely first and then gone to apply them to my own project free from the distraction of the tutorial.

My HASTAC mentor, Dr. Ryan Cordell, recently explained to me that the first question in digital humanities is often “How can we learn that?” I think in some cases, the answer to that question requires another one: “We have a hundred ways to learn this. How do we know what the best way is?” In looking at the guidelines of How to How to, we can begin to evaluate which avenues of learning through digital mediums are the most effective and worthwhile for our skill-developing efforts as well as how to best use them once we’ve chosen one. The tutorials that increase our proficiency while encouraging creative application of techniques take priority over ones that only encourage imitation, and we should remember to be aware of the temptation to let the tutorial drive our projects away from our own ideas and keep tutorial time and our own work time separate.

Further questions:

  • How have you used online/digital tutorials for learning skills to use in your digital humanities projects?
  • What would your ideal tutorial look like?
  • What has been your experience making tutorials?
  • Do you use them in any formal classes? How effective are they?

Quick post introduction: My name is Kevin McGillivray, and I’m a senior undergraduate at St. Norbert College studying graphic design. This semester I am focusing my HASTAC blog on art/design, entrepreneurship, and writing pedagogy. You should follow me on twitter here.


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