Navigating Information

Communications Design Studio Fall 2017

Communication Design Studio. Windup Toys

08.29 Introduction to Communication Design

The first day of Professor Stacy Rohrbach’s Communication Design studio was broken down into three parts. The first of which consisted of a discussion surrounding a collection of toys. Drawing upon visual cues like that of build, material, and form, we as a group were able to unpack a great deal about how the toys would perform, their age, etc. The discussion prompted us to consider that much of our understanding of the world around us is informed by our past experiences a notion which prompted many of us to question our current assumptions about design as it relates to communications.

The second activity focused on familiarizing and (re)introducing ourselves to the rest of the MDes / MPS cohort. Guided by a series of prompts placed throughout the room, we went on to answer questions ranging from what are we looking to get out of this course to why are we studying interaction design. We were then divided into groups and tasked with organizing the information, and then presented our findings. Although at first glance the activity served merely as an “ice breaker,” working through this exercise opened up conversations about how and why organize information the way we do.

Organizing information. Whiteboard Sketches

After a brief overview of the course syllabus and schedule, we were introduced to our first project “ Navigating Information.” My team comprised of Devika S., Suzanne C., and myself will be studying The Wall Street Journal, BBC, and NPR, paying particular attention to how we perceive the visual structure, visual form, and written and visual content of each site. Given that each news outlet selected is defined largely in part by their primary medium (Print, Television, Radio) it will be interesting to see how they navigate the complex political and environmental landscape that defines the present day.

08.30 Reading Reflections // Davis + Manson

The piece by Meredith Davis, “Social / Cultural Context for Design” provided useful insights which were in line with many of the issues brought forth in in the first classes’ discussion. Framing design within the larger historical context, Davis traced the emergence of “culture” as we know it today. But perhaps of greater importance to our current studies, was Davis’ discussion of the formative and illustrative roles for design, as well as an introduction to the notion of schemas. Davis goes on to describe the formative role being that design is a product of the culture that it is produced in, while the illustrative role suggests that design is part of the very process that creates culture. While I tend to equate the role of design in the present day to the latter, it is clear that arguments for both can be supported.

“Design has considerable responsibility for the transmission and production of culture”

Schemas, which are the very mental models which govern our expectations about people, social roles, places, etc., play a critical role in how we all perceive the world around us. When discussing schemas, Davis makes note that these understandings are not only defined by our prior experiences but also heavily influenced, and amplified, by media. Although the media outlets that our group is tasked with analyzing hold a more or less “centered” view, their content undoubtedly contributes to schemas held by their readership.

08.30 Navigating Information // Initial Findings

01.The Wall Street Journal 02.BBC 03.NPR [Sketches by Suzzane Choi]

As a team, we each investigated a different aspect of our assigned news outlets. Focused on unpacking our perceptions regarding visual structure, visual form and written / visual content we each took on a different topic to analyze in a consistent way across each subject.

Visual Structure

It is clear that each of the media outlets we have been studying take on a different approach to visual structure. We can infer that in many cases this had to do with the legacy media that still defines their brand, whether it be print, video, or radio.

The clearest example of this is the Wall Street Journal, which has adopted a visual structure that is a direct reference to the print newspapers that once defined the brand. Much like in print form, the WSJ relies heavily on categorization. Using thin black lines as a tool to separate categories, each section has a clear hierarchy of primary and secondary content and supporting imagery.

The visual structure of the BBC is defined by a series of “cards” which hold the image based content of the news stories within. This approach to structuring the site lends itself well to the high volume of videos associated with the BBC’s broadcasting network. Much like the Wall Street Journal, the BBC uses categories as an organization tool, but there are far more of them. Each of these sections is color coded and can be formally and structurally very different depending on the selected topic. [i.e., News and weather are treated differently.]

NPR, however, is structured differently than the other media outlets. Defined by the now playing feature on the upper right of the screen, and the local NPR station embedded within the header, there is a clear connection to the site’s radio lineage. They employ a feed-like stack of articles, with minimal use of categories and visual hierarchy, aside from establishing a headlining article.

Written + Visual Content

My role for this first round of analysis centered around the written and visual content of each news outlet. Rather than looking at the sites in a general sense, I focused on how each outlet covered the Hurricane Harvey making landfall in Houston.

Referenced Articles : WSJ // BBC // NPR

Written and Visual Content Analysis. Notes

When looking at how each of the news organizations handled the coverage of Hurricane Harvey, some trends emerged in regards to content. For instance, The Wall Street Journal and NPR took an approach that was heavily story oriented; this manifested itself not only in the writing itself but in the imagery and supporting media presented alongside the article. Conversely, the BBC approached their coverage in a far more matter of fact way, providing only small two sentence fragments of information. These differences in how these organizations view content most definitely affects how I perceive their trustworthiness and journalistic integrity.

09.05 Navigating Information // Napkin Sketches

Informed by Don Moyer’s style of using “Napkin sketching” as a tool for organizing ideas, we continued our analysis of our selected media outlets. After a brief moment “wallowing,” I went on to sketch out a series of actors, which serve as an abstracted summary of the most basic elements of our websites.

Actors. Napkin Sketch

The actors, pictured above, served as tools for comparing the media outlets on several different levels. Ranging from media focus to motivators, to writing style and font selections. These sketches served as tools for evaluating and comparing the media outlets at several scales and ultimately allowed for larger relationships to be uncovered.

Comparisons. Napkin Sketch

I went on to explore these larger relationships through a series of sketches which looked to discuss what the given media outlets focused on and motivated by, whether that be money, clicks, story, image or otherwise.

Relationships. Napkin Sketch

09.05 Navigating Information // Coming to a Consensus

Today’s class focused outlining the key components of our selected media outlets, as they relate to content, structure, and form. Unlike previous exercises, today’s workshop pushed our team to arrive a consensus regarding these actors to tease out a larger underlying story.

In particular, how do these new sources achieve this percieved “centeredness,” and further more what are the more subtle differences that we have uncovered as we continue this analysis?

Consensus. Whiteboard Sketches

09.07 Navigating Information // Written and Visual Content Revisited

In preperation of our draft zene, I have begun collecting our teams observations / conclusions of the written and visual content analysis:

DRAFT — The BBC, NPR and the WSJ all have vastly different approaches to written and visual content, yet despite this, we believe that they successfully maintain a sense of neutrality and centeredness.

The BBC, for instance, has adopted a condensed matter of fact writing style throughout their articles, providing their readers with an easily digestible general overview of the stories at hand. Resulting in stories that read more like a bulleted list than a traditionally printed news article. To supplement this, they rely heavily on BBC produced videos and links to other stories within the BBC network to keep viewers engaged with a broad spectrum of relevant content.

In contrast, the written and visual content of a typical NPR article are working in concert to push the narrative of a given story. The writing style, in particular, mimics the cadence and calmness of an NPR radio story. By integrating posts from the Facebook and Twitter accounts of listeners with varied political leanings, NPR further reinforces a more centered approach towards journalism.

Much like the print newspapers that are synonymous with the Wall Street Journal’s brand, the written and visual content of conveys a sense of thoroughness and attention to detail. They achieve this through a combination of long form journalistic works and supporting imagery which focus on in-depth storytelling told through the lens of business and finance. By approaching news from a non-partisan business oriented perspective, they are able to maintain a sense of neutrality in their written and visual content.

09.12 Reflection // Sketch Presentations

Today’s class was centered around each team presenting their work as a narrated live whiteboard sketch. As a team we were tasked with conveying our research thus far in a suscint verbal presentation that was supported by “napkin” style sketches of the various actors and relationships that defined our research.

The feedback we recieved after our presentation was two fold. The first being that in terms of presentation style, our group was at times out of sync and as such the verbal and graphic presentations appeared to be uncoordinated. What is important to note here is that there minor mistakes can be distracting, and ultimately impedes the audiences ability to fully comprehend our teams message. The remainder of the comments focused on the content itself. Perticulary some of the graphics not being legible without accompanying explanation. All in all, the exercise served as a effective tool to formulate an argument and then convey these ideas to a larger audience through verbal and graphic explanations.

09.14 Reflection // Design Jam + Intervention

Following the sketch presentation session, we used the beginning of today’s studio to try and map out larger relationships that exist between all of the news sites be researched throughout the class. This proved to be more difficult than originally anticipated as each team approached the assignment from a different point of view. As such, the graphic styles/points of analysis were often not inline making it difficult to tease out these larger trends.

That said I participated in the group focus on sorting out trends surrounding content. Within this overarching theme, we were able to break it down into four larger topics, scope, tone, style, and outliers. The photo above speaks to these larger trends but also that the boundaries and relationships that exist between these news organizations are not easily defined.

Design Jam. Props

The remainder of this class focused on the design jam. An exercise which prompted us to start working through our design intervention concepts through the use of seemingly random objects ranging from puppets to blocks. Our intervention centered around the idea of exposing people to a broad range of viewpoints through the use of a new randomizer. When a user is browsing through their preferred news source, they are offered the option to see another take on a given topic. Once initiated, the user is then brought to a random news venues coverage of the topic at hand. At the top of the page information such as popularity, funding sources, and the parent organization is conveyed to help the reader get a clearer understanding of the underlying motivations of the news provider.

How do we get users who are content with the current state of the news to use this tool?

09.19 Navigating Information // Design Intervention

Sketches. Initial Design Intervention

After our design jam, we continued to explore how to encourage readers of online news to expand their horizons and look at a wide range of topics from multiple news sources. Our initial sketches revolved around looking at how to visualize users reading habits within the chrome browser. By allowing users to see the article they are reading arranged along a political spectrum. However, as we continued to work through this scheme, it became apparent that we were working towards an intervention that was perhaps too large for the scope of the project.

With this in mind, we focused on the first two elements of our initial sketch, the Google doodle, and subsequent visualization. The intervention relied upon culling a given users browser history to reveal trends in the online news reading habits. This data would be visualized using circles of various sizes representative of both what a user has been reading, but perhaps what is of most importance, what they have not. To draw users in, we proposed a temporary google doodle campaign which reflects these same relationships in a more abstract form, to draw users into using the tool. The temporary nature of the doodle campaign prompted us to consider how to promote continued use of the tool in the futur

09.22 Navigating Information // Design Intervention

Prototype. Telescope

09.24 Telescope // Final Design Intervention

Telescope is a tool that seeks to make people aware of their news reading habits and nudge them towards being better-informed readers. In an effort to push people out of their filter bubble Telescope generates a customized visualization, or constellation, which allows users to see patterns in their news reading habits. Users can look at the larger landscape of news viewership from their community and the internet as a whole so that they can take a step back to reflect on their news consumption habits.

Prototype. Temporary Google Doodle Campaign

In parallel, Telescope will use a temporary Google Doodle campaign consisting of an abstracted version of a given user’s constellations, to lead users to the microsite. Once inside, they can browse through a comprehensive visual history of their news reading habits organized by sources and color-coded by topic. This information is overlayed upon a grid of stars, comprised of frequently visited news venues arranged along a political spectrum defined by Pew Research audience data. As the user reads more about any given topic the size of the stars “glow” grows accordingly. Telescope provides a time slider, so users can begin to further understand how their reading behaviors have evolved over time.

Prototype. Typical user’s Constellation
Prototype. User Constellation with an Overlay of World Reader Data
Prototype. User Constellation Various Overlays
Prototype. Share your Constellation on Social Media

Additionally, Telescope gives users an in-depth overview of their reading habits presented in real time, juxtaposed with those of other users throughout the world. By allowing users to overlay constellations from those within their social circle and community, users can begin to take stock of their reading behavior compared to those around them and be incentivized to explore other sources and issues. Furthermore, users can share their constellation on social media to get others engaged while further promoting conversation about their collective news reading patterns. This process of comparison looks to encourage users to continually engage with the tool and ultimately explore a broader range of news venues and topics. By doing so, Telescope confronts readers with a reflection of their own habits while serving as a reminder to critically consider varying perspective of the world around them.

09.24 Final Reflection

Zine. Final Research and Interventions were Compiled into a Class Zine

Generally speaking, this first project shed light on how to approach a problem and take it from research to intervention. Doing so challenged me to explore different ways to organize and visualize information both for my own understanding but also as a tool to communicate to others. Through both written and visual means, it was essential to develop methods of communicating the patterns that were uncovered throughout the research process to the group as a whole.

The navigating information project pushed me to critically observe how news venues rely on elements of form, structure, and content in the design of their websites as tools to convey their brand and underlying agendas. The result of which has the potential to change how we perceive both the news reported, and the organizations as a whole. In the context of journalism, many news outlets carefully craft these design elements and systems to convey the sense of trustworthiness and objectivity that their reporting strives to achieve.