Adventures in Digital Storytelling with Hardbound

by Debra Scherer

One of our favorite things to do at the Culture Crush is to co-opt formats. Yes, we are storytellers and the array of media we have available to us just keeps growing. From experimenting with a messaging bot to doing our print edition as a broadsheet nested newspaper, we are fluent in both digital and analog experiences and have the most fun thinking about the relationships between the two. They are all technologies, all trying to solve problems on how to serve up content. For us, they are incredibly fun puzzles to solve for, and we especially love the way our stories flow from one to the other.

So recently, I had a meet up with Nathan Bashaw, who along with his co-founder Joe Nguyen, has created something called Hardbound. When he showed me the demo, it was a very funny, simple and delightful storytelling experience designed specifically for your phone. This was particularly funny, as what I had brought to show Nathan was a 100+ page newspaper; big, heavy, messy, but simple and delightful in its own analog storytelling way. The Hardbound stories were all created by them with the purpose of learning something about the world. Their stories were about history, technology, business, and culture, all just asking questions about how things worked and how they all came to be. 

Though these stories, design wise, were born digital, I sensed a certain sensibility, something we two had in common. I thought about it and realized that while we have been supporting the analog DIY community, what Nathan and Joe have developed has a kind of digital DIY intent. Something about the "let’s just do this and learn something along the way" attitude compelled us to want to have a go at making a Hardbound story ourselves. So, of course, we did the whole thing handmade, hand drawn, and hand painted, to combine both sensibilities and to co-opt this format for the Culture Crush. It’s been an incredible experience and has allowed us to tell our story, coincidentally about communication between generations, and have the opportunity to get it in front of a new community.

I spoke with Nathan about how Hardbound came to be and what he hopes it might become. While we talked about these kinds of stories as learning experiences, its funny how we see the trick as being how to get them in front of people in the world of too much content we all face today.

Debra: So tell me a little bit about who you are, what you did before this and where you came from. How did you end up at Hardbound? Give me the origin story. 

Nathan: I was interested in start-ups and for a long time, I have been really interested in different ways to tell stories. I really wanted to do it in a way where you are really designing the experience from scratch for either a computer or smart phone or any digital device. I just had this feeling that a lot of the content we consume is basically a digital version of an analog thing. There are just so many possibilities due to the capabilities of computers and how they are just so different from paper, television or other pre-digital devices we still use to consume content. I have just had this conviction that there has got to be a way to tell stories in a more compelling way specifically for phones.  So it’s something that I’ve been experimenting with in various ways and Hardbound is the latest creation of that. 

Debra: What were some of the previous creations?

Nathan: Back in 2013 I helped create a site called Product Hunt. It was more of a community, and more of an interesting site where people can post new things that they make. That was a lot of fun! 

But what really led to Hardbound, in the space of digital storytelling and digital media storytelling, is an interactive book project I made called, Dash, when I was at General Assembly, which is an online learning and community organization. So with Dash, you’re learning to code your own website with the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, but with a lot of visuals, and interactive pieces. So that is basically what led to the birth of Hardbound.

Debra: So where do you think your “want" to tell stories came from? 

Nathan: You know, I’ve always really liked books! Reading things, learning things, and I feel like there’s not enough really great stuff that’s easy to get into. I think books demand a lot of your attention, so people don’t do it very much. And, I feel like the kind of content you find in books is a little bit more zoomed out and is also teaching you something about the world that might not be well represented on the internet. So I’ve been really interested in telling stories that are like that and it’s also what I personally love. 

Debra: So what do you mean by zoomed out? That was a very interesting way you put that. I feel like your stories ask the question, “why are things like they are?” 

Nathan: Yeah! I feel like that’s definitely what our stories are about. We are just trying to understand how the world got to be this way, essentially. 

Debra: Which is a valid undertaking for sure! 

Nathan: I mean, I think traditionally in the past 5-10 years the internet has gotten to be this amazing tool at telling you what’s happening "right now” and people can share their opinions; people can make funny stuff, it’s great! But sometimes it feels like that’s all there is. And the kind of stories that I’ve been interested in have been most well represented in books because you know if you’re going to bother to write a book about something, it will probably still be relevant a couple years from now, maybe even decades. 

So I see our stories as being the same way! And I think people are just so hooked on their phones, I believe this provides an opportunity to create a very different kind of content that’s normally not on the phone. It’s the kind of thing that people might be missing, because they are used to access this kind of “knowledge" when they read books! I think a lot of people still read books, but phones have definitely become a strong competitor! 

Debra: You know, when I think a lot about what you guys are doing at Hardbound and the kinds of questions that are being asked in order to understand things about the world, I see it from my generational standpoint. We had something like that too, called School House Rock. So to me, your stories are sort of a native to your phone, really simplified, gesture of the same kind of idea.

Even to this day, if you ask any one from my generation, “How does The Constitution work?” or “How does a bill become a law?” or “What’s an adverb?” we all can answer those questions in great detail, not because we studied it in books at school, but because they made little funny musical cartoon things that were wedged in between our Saturday morning cartoons. As kids, we were all glued to the tv watching those cartoons, they had a captive audience, maybe a little like what kids are doing today with their phones. So for your generation, whether your’e on Twitter or Snapchat, it’s like a kind of perpetual "Saturday morning cartoons" of your lives now. So maybe, you are just hoping that the Hardbound stories can get stuck in there for a few minutes here and a few minutes there. 

Nathan: That's a funny analogy, but you are right! We want people to read the stories and learn and have fun, and also hope they remember what they’ve learned years from now.

Debra: It’s very funny to me that you want to do things that are not very analog, but born digital. Because from our standpoint, what you’re saying about zooming out, and just wanting to understand how things are in the world, is exactly what we are doing too, just in a very different way.  I mean, we don’t make daily newspapers either, but it’s about co-opting formats, and when I saw your format, I knew I wanted to co-opt it! And with that, I feel very lucky that we were able to do a guest appearance on Hardbound. It’s been a real fun challenge! Creating something that’s super digital and at the same time a station identification about us. But where did the name Hardbound come from? 

Nathan: I have a couple rules for naming things. One, it should be in the same emotional terrain as the value proposition. Two, the name needs to be easy enough to say to someone and for them to hear what you said, spell it, and type it into their phone. And three, when they do type it in, you should come up first because if they search on Google or anywhere else, your thing that they heard of needs to be the thing that they find. I think that’s what makes a functional name. So Hardbound checked the boxes the best out of the other options we thought of. 

Debra: Well, it was a really cool experience, even to work in that vertical aspect ratio which things seem to be headed towards. Thank you for letting us tell our story, from our generation to yours!

*read Under the Dome with the X Generation on