Navigating Information

Project 1 and Reflections
MDES Communication Design Studio, Stacie Rohrbach
Carnegie Mellon, Fall 2017

Tuesday, August 29 | Project Introduction

Our very first class started off by looking at Stacie’s collection of wind-up toys. We analyzed the form (material, size, noise, etc.) of the toys to see what they communicated to us. Before playing with the toys, we made very accurate guesses about how most of the toys will move and behave based on their form and our mental models. Overall, the class had similar guesses for these toys.

Two of the moments I found more intriguing was with Polly the Pig and the wind-up nun. Because she was made of dull paint color metal, everyone thought Polly was German and made about 40 years ago. However, Polly was actually made in the mid-2000s in India! This is an important lesson that sometimes our mental models and perceptions are wrong.

Another interesting moment was with a nun that seems to do nothing but move slowly (and look angry). However, we learned that she used to spit out sparks from her mouth. Everyone was impressed by this fact - taking her popularity from 0.1 to 100.

Next, instead of an icebreaker, Stacie posted 15 questions on the whiteboards ranging from “where are you from?” to “what makes you happy?” We each wrote our answers to these questions and broke into teams to make affinity diagrams of the information. These questions were much more fun to answer because they were reflective and insightful to others to read.

Then, we received our first project on navigating information. The news (and media) often provides a very bias perspective of the subjects that they are reporting on. Sometimes, the reader isn’t aware of this and, thus, shape ill-informed opinions about important issues.

In this project, our class will use communication design to create a zine that will help readers become more critical readers of content (words and form). The ultimate goal is to help people become more informed citizens.

My team (Melody, Zach, and I) were assigned to analyze left learning new venues, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Huffington Post. We are going to analyze all three news venues separately for initial perceptions, visual structure, visual tone, and written/visual content.

Thursday, during class, I might suggest to my group to each analyze the new sources daily for a week to see if our perceptions changes daily. We might also hone in on a current big topic (e.g. Hurricane Harvey, North Korea, etc.)

Wednesday, August 30 | Reading and News Source Analysis, Part 1

In our first reading, Is it Just Me, or is the World Going Crazy?, Mark Mason highlights that news that is more extreme tends to be blown up and, thus, skew our perceptions, especially of our safety. Sometimes, people will utilize the fear we formed from ill-informed opinions as a way to gain favor.

We demonize each other. We judge groups of people by their weakest and most depraved members. And to protect ourselves from the overreaching judgments of others, we consolidate into our own clans and tribes, we take refuge in our own precious identity politics and we buy more and more into a worldview that is disconnected from cold data and hard facts.

Thus, we should combat this by recognizing that actions performed by a few individuals does not represent an entire group of people. Once we begin to do this, we can become more critical readers and, ultimately, informed citizens.

The New York Times, Washington Post, and Huffington Post web home pages on August 31, 2017

Initial Perceptions

My initial perceptions was that the New York Times and Washington Post were more serious than the Huffington Post. However, the Huffington seemed more opinionated because of the color choices, hoover states on text, and typography.

Visual Structure
What is the layout/composition of the site? What appears to be the focus? What is the hierarchy of components? What groups of information exist? How are grids used to structure content? How is information sequenced?

The logo and the main issue is the focus. The image for the main issue seems to be the biggest thing on the page. For the New York Times and Washington Post, the main story is in the center and the sub-stories are scattered to the right and left. However, for the Huffington Post, the main story dominates the entire screen, with the sub-stories below the fold. The subscribe and login in buttons are on the top header for all the new sources. The Huffington Post doesn’t show all the new topic categories (you need to navigate to it via a hamburger menu), opting to show the social media icons instead.

Visual Form
How does color function? What roles do typefaces play? What is the type treatment? How is contrast used?

The New York Times and Washington Post are mainly black and white (and mimics a printed newspaper). Colors mainly only show up in the images. In the Huffington Post, color is spread throughout. The Huffington Post is more experimental with color and shapes (e.g. the main image isn’t a rectangle).

HuffPost also experiments with typography and unique hover states (placing the hover state color change on the underline instead of the actual text). HuffPost also has high contrast between colors and type sizes.

Hover states for The New York Times
Hover state for The Washington Post
Hover state for The Huffington Post

Written and Visual Content
How do you characterize images? How do text/images work together? How are titles, captions, etc. phrased? How are sentences structured? How is punctuation used?

Of the three, the Washington Post has the most subdued images and the Huffington Post has the most vibrant images.

The New York Time currently has a dynamic map of rescue requests. The main header reads: Chemical Blasts at Flooded Plant; More Evacuees in Houston

The Washington Post has a main image that is a still of a clickable video. The main title reads: Chemicals ignite at flooded Texas plant

The Huffington Post’s main title is very big and has a color teal underlined hover state. The title is broke into 4 lines with the words ‘indefinitely’ in quotes.

Crisis: Texas
City Loses 
Water Supply 

Another sub-header reads: This is What Happens When Your House Floods.

Thursday, August 30 | Review Initial Perceptions + Visual Note-taking

We started class by reviewing our initial perceptions of our news venues. We wanted to bring more awareness to the dramatization in visual form. What is the news source’s motive? Probably funding.

Sometimes people don’t keep up to date with the news because it’s depressing and draining. An interesting note is that sometimes we look to entertainment (like late night comedy talk shows) to get relief from the news. Also, perhaps the prevalence of the news (increase in frequency and access 24/7) makes us all more reactive.

We learn that there are two modes of design:

  • Illustrative: society behaviors shapes design
  • Formative: design shapes behaviors

There are also two types of form:

  • Denotation: meaning from actual words
  • Connotation: read meaning from form

Next, we wanted to practice moving from mental models to physical form by visually note-taking while someone is speaking.

Don Moyer, The Napkin Sketch Workbook

We reviewed concepts by Don Moyer in the Napkin Sketch Workbook. A good visual representation depicts the most important part of the story and makes the relationships between those parts more apparent. The sketches we saw were all easy to draw but conveyed so much (something to aim for!). Next, we learned the concepts of visual representations followed a process roadmap which includes actors and relationships.

Don Moyer, The Napkin Sketch Workbook

I took a stab at drawing actors and relationships for topics that I found most prevalent while discussing the left learning new sources:

Tuesday, September 5 | Actors and Relationships

I continued reading and organizing the news sources daily. I took at stab at organizing and adding to the actor sketches.

As I was sketching the actors, I started to notice other things that I hadn’t noticed before. The Huffington Post articles seem to be shorter that the New York Times and Washington Post.

Something interesting I noticed about the comment section was that it was all different. The New York Times has a sticky comment section on the right that is prevalent at all times. For the Washington Post, you have to scroll all the way to the bottom to click on the a Comments button. The Huffington Post just has a little comment icon to the left side.

I started noticing more of the biased snippets and adjectives that are used. For example, in a New York Times article about DACA, a quote reads:

But more conservative members of Mr. Ryan’s caucus are certain to oppose such moves, supported by loud, anti-immigrant hawks who dominate talk radio and conservative news programs.

The words ‘loud’, ‘hawk’, and ‘dominate’ are very strong and makes the reader feels a certain way about the conservatives.

During class, my team came together and agree on our visual representation for the main points of our analysis.

Thursday, September 7 | Digging Deeper

Yes, we had the key points, but Stacie really wanted us to dive into what the bigger picture is and how does our analysis of form, structure, and content support that.

So we started off by analyzing what the motives of the three new sources are.

I noticed something interesting about images. The New York Times and Huffington Post both use the same image, but the composition is different.

We talked to Vikas, our TA, and Stacie about our analysis and visual representations. Vikas suggested that we have clearer visual representations that are common across all the news sources. He wanted use to think more about our mental modes of different ideas like ‘density’ and ‘diversity’. So we moved passed using the scales and drew individual sketches for each idea.

Observing Home Pages for a Week (August 31 — September 6)

Web Home Pages on September 1, 2017
Web Home Pages on September 2, 2017
Web Home Pages on September 3, 2017
Web Home Pages on September 4, 2017
Web Home Pages on September 5, 2017
Web Home Pages for September 6, 2017

Tuesday September 12 | Presentations

Today, we had group presentations on the key ideas from our analysis of our news venues. It was practice for presenting ideas both verbally and visually. The main things that I learned are:

  • Context: Many teams were drawing things to set up the while someone else on the team was speaking. It’s okay for the speaker to say, “Focus only on me because my team mate is setting something up for later.”
  • Pacing: Slowing down and pacing is generally better. It seems like drawing while you are speaking (versus having someone else do the speaking) really helped with pacing.
  • Syncing: There’s no need to draw the whole time, it’s okay to pause and allow the speaker to talk. Only draw when it aids with the verbal form.

Overall, I think my team was good with setting context, pacing, and syncing. How, we need to work on our conclusion a bit more and also don’t compromise the granular details while moving quickly. While we did a good job pausing the drawing while someone is speaking, we didn’t necessarily practice the opposite.

Thursday September 14 | Combining Actors

Every group in the class wrote down their visual representations on post its. Stacie created four main category groups: Form, Structure, Content and Miscellaneous.

I was in the miscellaneous group, where our visual representations ranged from: year of creation, new source personality, revenue models, ‘trustmeter’, etc. Stacie told us to think more about the overall title of our affinity diagram to see if any overall theme emerges.

Next, we returned our original teams to quickly prototype an intervention that would help readers to be more informed.

Our group came up with a modal that popped up when you are trying to open up an article. The modal will suggest articles of similar topics from different news venues. You can close out of it to continue your reading. We are going to use the weekend to brainstorm more interventions.

Tuesday September 19 | Recap + Brainstorm

We’ve reflected on what we’ve learn so far in the last three weeks:

  • Organize Info
  • Visualize to Understand
  • Visualize to Communicate
  • Analyze/deconstruct communication
  • Layer forms of communication (written/verbal, verbal/visual)
  • Identify Patterns, Tell Stories
  • Collobratively Map (Negotiate)
  • Collobratively Present
  • Assess Concepts/Ideas
  • Ideate Quickly
  • Document Thinking; Reflect

My team started ideating and brainstorming ideas for our news intervention. During our first stab at it, we just quickly ideated some ideas.

Quick Ideation

Then we organized our ideas better by starting framing what we want.

More organized ideation
How might we better inform people by method when they are doing touchpoint.

We listed out the methods:

  1. Widening the range of exposure to news sources
  2. Providing different views

We listed out the touchpoints for when people consume news:

  1. In-person conversation
  2. Not in-person conversations
  3. Downtime/news by convenience (Passive)
  4. Social Media
  5. Mobile Push Notifications
  6. Desktop Homepage (Active)
  7. Bundling with other activity with daily activities
  8. Podcasts
  9. TV
  10. Print (Cards, Tangible Devices, etc.)

Stacie came and offered us some feedback:

Stacie’s Suggestions

We realized that we wanted to do a campaign around widening the exposure of news sources and neutralizing brand and form to get people to critical about what they are reading.

Thursday September 19 | Group Work

My team finalized our ideas a bit more. We talked more about the user workflow of out intervention. This helped use this more about the interactions and implications.

Stacie came by and gave us some critique on making sure the we don’t lose site of the main point.

Tuesday September 26 | Group Presentations

I was really proud of my team. We made an intervention that focused more on helping people check their biases versus trying to tell them what’s left leaning or right leaning.

This is our intervention:

Brandless News is an intervention designed to help news readers be aware of the bias they experience when reading news. When readers consume news, the context in which they read it privileges certain assumptions about the quality of the news. The name of the publication, the form, and the structure all affect the how the readers perceives what they are reading. Brandless News aims to strip the content of this context to force readers to more critically analyze what they are consuming. This intervention takes the form of a website and a campaign.
The website functions as a news aggregator that pulls in news articles from sources of different political leanings and hides the source of the articles. Editorial action will be necessary to ensure there is a good cross-section of news. The website also tries to be completely neutral in form. It consists of a black and white palette and one sans-serif typeface. Once users read an article, hopefully more critically questioning the content, they can click to reveal the source of the article. The page will morph into the original source page, showing the original publication and the style of the website. We will show the users a dialog asking them “How did your perception change?” A toggles allows them to turn the styling on and off, comparing their reaction to the article with and without the context. On the site is also a newsletter signup. This newsletter will deliver a digest of Brandless News to the user’s email on a regular basis.
The campaign consists of print ads placed in public spaces and digital ads placed on news websites. These ads show a news article from a well known publication next to the same article on the Brandless News site, completely stripped of visual form. The tagline will read “Change The Way You See News.” The campaign is what drives people to the Brandless News website. By getting them to think about the effect that the context has on the way they perceive news, their interest will be piqued and they will want to visit the Brandless website. And these ads will be placed strategically to gain a broad set of users. By placing them in public spaces, like on subway platforms and public bathrooms, a diverse group will see them. And by placing the digital ads on news websites of different political leanings, a group with diverse political beliefs will be captured.
Hopefully, by stripping away the form and brand of the news articles, the reader will confront some of their biases and, ultimately, read news more critically.

Some of the feedback we received after our presentations were:

“Love the name! Also the concept. I wonder how are the news articles curated? The instance of morphing is interesting as it pushes the reader to speculate their own biases regarding the venue.”
“You have done an excellent job isolating the visual communication aspects of each site, which is unique and thoughtful. It’s interesting that by not focusing on political agenda, you have actually revealed insights about agenda through visual form and structure.”

As we were wrapping up the project, I realized that I learned so much about how I could facilitate things in the future. Yes, we learned a lot of skills around communicating information, communication design, and collaborating, but I think watching Stacie walk us through different steps with some much thought and intention really helped make learn all these things. I assume that I will be in some sort of teaching or mentoring role in the future, so I’m taking notes on how she walked us through all these steps.

As an ending note, looking back up at all of my reflections and my journey as a whole, I now realize how vital that is to my learning and synthesis of the key points from each class.

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