Communication Design — Part 1

MDes Yr 1 / MPS Studio, 2017

08.29.17 || Class — Introduction

In our first Communication Design studio, we began to explore the ways in which objects can communicate with their users. By studying a group of mechanical toys, we explored the notion that materiality, color, shape, and a multitude of other qualities convey information to us about an object’s use.

The dragonfly toy, for example, is an exercise in intuition. The body is meant to be pressed downward until the suction cup can adhere to a flat surface and when released, the toy springs up into the air. Once we recognize the toy’s mechanism for movement, we can estimate the necessary user input and the intended outcome. This speaks to the larger concept of intuitive interaction between user and object: specific components of the toys tell the user what to do, whether by sheer intutiton or by drawing on an established language (e.g. the small white dials on some of the toys are common on wind-up objects, and because we have experienced them before, we know what to do when we encounter them again.) I think this is incredibly important for designers to keep in mind when producing a design — how our objects speak to their audience, what clues they give, and what associations they may evoke are all critical considerations in the design of a successful interaction.

We then moved on to an exercise in organizing information — on a sticky note, each person answered a series of questions posted around the room, and then groups were assigned to organize each particular set of responses. This was a brief look at some of the many ways data can be categorized for deeper understanding, another crucial concept in designing a meaningful tool for communication. In each case, the sticky notes could have been arranged in a multitude of ways, but it was our job to think critically about what groupings would be most meaningful in understanding the information. For example, ordering the responses alphabetically would, of course, be a valid system of classification, but it wouldn’t provide the user with a deeper understanding in this context.

08.29.17 || News Analysis

For this exercise, my group was tasked with examining the web versions of three international news outlets: Der Spiegel International, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Al Jazeera.

Visual Form
At first glance there are some immediately apparent similarities in the visual form: all three pages feature content displayed within a white container set against a neutral light gray background, and each highlights one particular headline/image combination more prominently by increasing its size relative to the rest. All three outlets also maintain a relatively narrow color palette, utilizing primarily black text on a white background, but supplementing with an accent color to differentiate certain pieces of information.

Der Spiegel utilizes a mixture of fonts — both serif and sans serif — to create a hierarchy of text. The “Spiegel” logo font has a certain forceful visual tone, giving the impression that the entire page is somehow military-issue.

In this snapshot of Le Monde’s homepage, there is a particularly limited overall color palette as the largest image is in black and white, and the second largest image is predominantly blue in tone, matching the sole accent color. The overall effect is the impression of a calm, refined sensibility — even the more charged content (e.g. “Trump and the geopolitics of crazy”) appears somewhat restrained when written in sentence case using a serif font and tucked neatly between photographs.

Al Jazeera’s page conveys an overall sense of contemporary styling through its use of bold sans serif fonts and dynamic, modular composition. The orange accents provide a bright pop that highlights select elements without being visually overwhelming.

As the viewer advances beyond the homepage, the formal differences become even more pronounced. Der Spiegel’s articles are presented very homogenously — each features a headline in red text, a bright photo or graphic of equal size, and a brief preview of the text in smaller black font. Le Monde and Al Jazeera, however, present content in a wide range of sizes and proportions, creating an implied hierarchy of information.

Visual Structure
Der Spiegel’s visual structure is very straightforward; pieces stack vertically, providing the reader with a consistent catalogue of material, forming a structure akin to a simple index. In contrast, Le Monde’s content can be read both left to right and top to bottom. Articles are aligned so that blocks of content are formed and fit together like puzzle pieces.

Al Jazeera’s content structure is a bit more diverse. Content is arranged in tiers, starting with the homepage and descending in levels, but each level contains a different breakdown in terms of the number of modules and their proportions. However, these modules follow a strict grid system that prevents the composition from becoming chaotic.

Written + Visual Content
Der Spiegel’s graphic content is high contrast and attention-grabbing (see “Why There Won’t Be a German Trump”), which supports its blunt, high-impact headline phrasing. As mentioned above, text is written in a variety of font color, size, and stroke to create a hierarchy; the headlines jump out as the highest priority information, followed by an overall category, and lastly a sample of the full text.

Conversely, Le Monde’s content supports its restrained aesthetic — photographs have muted palettes and simple, yet poignant composition. Headlines are written in sentence case rather than title case, and the remaining text is light and compact.

Al Jazeera’s imagery tends to be bright and busy, compounding the dense visual style. The bold, high-contrast headlines stand out against a white background and are visually offset from the graphic field.

08.31.17 || Readings

This week’s readings, Graphic Design Theory by Meredith Davis and Is it Just Me or is the World Going Crazy? by Mark Manson encouraged us to consider the role of schemas in design thinking. Social patterns have a deep effect on our perceptions; our past experiences, education, and belief systems are only a few of the factors influencing our expectations for and responses to stimuli. These natural cognitive mechanisms should be taken into consideration in the process of design. The Manson piece demonstrated specifically the role of media in society’s outlook, citing the influence of largely negative reporting on the viewers’ mindset.

08.31.17 || Class

After reviewing the assigned readings and touching upon the meanings of connotation vs. denotation, we began to discuss our findings from the news outlet analysis. Within our groups, we were tasked with summarizing our analyses for each of the three sites with group members taking turns verbally recounting their notes while the other two members sketched what they heard. The exercise pushed us to visualize our observations, working to go beyond the natural tendency to simply represent the site’s structure via wireframe.

09.05.17 || News Analysis, Part II

In class on 8/31, we were encouraged to think more in depth about our assigned news outlets including their target audiences. After discussing the idea in our group, I chose to compare the English versions of each outlet’s page to the original site written in its native language in order to examine the effect a viewer’s nationality might have on the design and content presented to them.

Original German edition (left) and English edition (right)

First, I took a look at Der Spiegel. The original German site appears to be more thoroughly designed than the English edition — while the list of articles on the English page feel as though they’re automatically populated, the pieces on the German page are more carefully arranged and offset with light gray containers that give the layout an element of cohesion. Somewhat surprisingly, the German edition appears to feature stories more of the human-interest category, whereas the English site is heavily focused on German politics. Perhaps this choice is indicative of what the outlet has found that German citizens want to read, or maybe the simple difference between an inward-looking and outward-facing approach could account for the divide.

Original French edition (left) and English edition (right)

The French and English versions of Le Monde are very similar in appearance — where the English site utilizes a single accent color (blue) to highlight several headlines, the original site sticks strictly to black text — but the content seems to be entirely different. The image of the print publication on the English page features a decidedly American image of Uncle Sam leading the US on its “return to the warpath” and the inclusion of the phrase “Real journalism — making sense of the world around us” on the English page also feels like a pointed statement in response to the “fake news” controversy that’s taken hold in the US.

Original Arabic edition (left) and English edition (right)

The original site is right justified to accomodate the fact that Arabic is read from right to left. The English site includes “Al Jazeera” written out underneath the logo, whereas the Arabic site does not, perhaps because the logo alone is iconic enough to render added text unnecessary. Some of the supporting content for the two pages also appears more regionally assigned — the original page features stories from Qatar, Palestine, and Sudan whereas the English edition includes articles centered on Colombia and Mexico. There is, however, a large range of locales represented on both pages.

09.05.17 || Readings

This week’s readings, Typography: Graphic Design in Context by Denise Gonzales Crisp and Napkin Sketch Workbook by Don Moyer, examined the ways in which context can affect a text or artifact’s interpretation and presented a variety of potential methods for visualizing ideas. Crisp’s text delved into the importance of context as it pertains to perception and the many factors that contribute to its formation. In it she posed a number of helpful questions to consider: 
 Who initiates the work and who is the audience? 
 What form does the work take?
 How is the work delivered?
Moyer’s text then introduced a range of potential strategies for visually communication, including simple sketches, Venn diagrams, hierarchies, timelines, vignettes, and maps. This reading was particularly relevant to this phase of Project 1 as we’re in the midst of translating our observations about the three news outlets into mental (sketch) maps. It’s been challenging to determine the best methods for communicating the various points of comparison, and seeing this list of examples was helpful in that regard. For the time being, my sketches represent comparisons of a single attribute across all three sites (though one graphic involves two attributes) but will likely expand to encompass more simultaneously.

09.12.17 || Class

In today’s class each group presented their analysis of three news outlets, broadly covering content, structure, and form. In watching other presentations, I found it interesting to compare the sheer volume of graphic information each group chose to display and consider the implications. Our group, for example, was probably the most minimalist in terms of the number of graphics presented. Other groups had large quantities of visual content, and in our feedback discussions discerned it would have been best to meet somewhere in the middle. It was easy for icons and charts to become visually overwhelming when every point was illustrated, but in paring down to the extent that we did, we may have lost some of the finer points of comparison. This of course speaks to the higher question of how and what we choose to communicate; there’s a delicate balance between informative and overwrought. Another interesting question that arose specifically in our case was how to communicate a lack of similarity. Our columnar set up worked well to compare specific aspects, but because our outlets were so different, we struggled to illustrate an overarching point.

09.12.17 || News Analysis Essay — DRAFT

INTRODUCTION (Katie) (145 words)
Our investigation was focused on the English editions of three international news outlets: Der Spiegel (based in Germany,) Le Monde (based in France,) and Al Jazeera (based in Qatar.) The three sources, while drawing from the same global pool of information, each have a very different approach to filtering and presenting content.

At first glance, the three pages share several overarching features; content is displayed within a white container set against a neutral light gray background, and each highlights one particular headline/image combination more prominently by increasing its size relative to the rest. All three outlets also maintain a relatively narrow color palette, utilizing primarily black text on a white background, but differentiating particular pieces of information in an accent color.

Ultimately, the final products delivered to each outlet’s respective audience are as varied in content, structure, and form as their countries of origin.

STRUCTURE (Katie) (248 words)
The structure of the three sites are as varied as their content. Der Spiegel takes a very streamlined approach to content presentation, displaying articles in a single vertical line. Each piece is treated equally — all headline and graphic pairings are equal in size and proportion — with the exception of the very first article, which is shown approximately 25% larger. This encourages the reader to scan the page from top to bottom, evaluating each title as it’s presented. Der Spiegel’s simplified format simplifies navigation and reinforces its relatively narrow scope of content.

Le Monde’s structure, on the other hand, has a more collage-like quality. Articles range in size, presentation, and positioning throughout the page, creating a visual mosaic of information. Some articles are presented as text and photograph pairings, while others are limited only to text. The reader’s intended path through the content is not clear as the overall layout doesn’t obey an obvious grid, causing the eye to be drawn in all different directions. Ultimately, the hierarchy is defined more in form than in structure.

Al Jazeera, while presenting a volume and diversity of information similar to that of Le Monde, takes a more orderly approach to structure. Content is broken into modules, and while the modules vary in size and distribution, the overall layout obeys a strict grid system. Articles are perhaps most easily processed in tiers as content is aligned into vertical bands. The total composition feels dense but structured, preventing the reader from becoming disoriented.

09.14.17 || Class — ‘Design Jam’

In Thursday’s class we split into teams to focus on specific characteristics (content, form, structure, and miscellaneous) across all of the news outlets studied. I worked in the group examining structure. Our first instinct was to divide the post-its into two categories based on whether their structure obeyed a strict grid. However, we soon found that while largely doable, we didn’t feel this was the most useful classification. We then pivoted to a Venn Diagram system, dividing the post-its instead into “clear” and “unclear” navigation or user flow through the content. This allowed us to place some news outlets into an in-between area, if (like in the case of Al Jazeera) the content was structured cleanly in a grid, but the hierarchy was not overt enough to dictate a reader’s path. We were hoping to see if a pattern would emerge in terms of a correlation between outlet type and approach to structure, but none were immediately apparent.

After reviewing our findings with the class, we moved on to an exercise in which we brainstormed within our original groups potential interventions for encouraging a more informed news consumer. Dealing with international news, we discussed the value of identifying not only the location of a particular event, but also the location of the news outlet reporting it. We believe that if a reader were able to view a single story from multiple points of view (a range of different outlets from different countries) they could more adequately identify bias and gain a more holistic perspective. If we continue with this concept, our challenge will be to integrate this information most effectively into user’s daily lives.

09.19.17 || Class

Entering week 4, we started class with a brief recap of what we’ve covered thus far. We’ve learned to:
-organize information
-visualize in order to understand
-visualize in order to communicate
-analyze/deconstruct communication
-layer forms of communication (written/verbal, verbal/visual)
-collaboratively map 
-assess concepts 
-ideate quickly
-reflect upon and document process

We then spent time further developing our intervention concepts with our groups. My group began to brainstorm concepts for a browser plug-in that gave the user feedback about the types of news they were reading over time in order to identify potential bias. (E.g. you spend 80% of your time browsing left-wing sources and 90% of those are US-based.) However we weren’t entirely excited by the idea, as it didn’t feel engaging enough. We then moved in a new direction, thinking more of public art applications. Our most recent concept involves identification of bias through direct, graphic comparison of two headlines covering the same news event. We hope to develop this into a physical piece that can stand alone or work in conjunction with a web component to encourage viewers to think of the filtration that occurs before the news even reaches them.

09.26.17 || Project 1 Reflection

In the overall process of analyzing three news outlets and comparing them to a larger set, I found myself scrutinizing many aspects of a composition simultaneously. The exercises encouraged me to consider the subtleties of type and imagery, but also the intangible qualities and influences that produce a piece of media.

This investigation was also a valuable exercise in identifying the filters that are inherent in communication, both in what we consume and what we produce. It was fun to play with different ways to call attention to these filters and challenging to come up with effective ways to combat them while being careful to avoid imparting any of our own.

I feel I can take the frameworks and interrogations learned during this analysis forward as both consumer and designer, allowing me to be more sensitive to overt and covert messaging.

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