Navigating Information — Communication Design Project 1

The first day of the Communication Design studio gave us an introduction the communication design, as it is pertains to us in this studio, and what to expect in the coming semester. To kick off the class we sat in circle and played with toys. Unorthodox as it may sound, this turned into a valuable introduction to communication design. We talked about what is being communicated through the form of these toys. “Which ones did we want to play with?”, “How did we think they would behave?”, and “What era did we think they came from?” were all questions discussed. This exercise helped us question some initial assumptions we have about visual communication and how to think about the way people draw connections to past experience in their perception. How were we able to guess how many of the toys would act? Pulling from past knowledge allowed us to read the form of the objects make some good guesses. This conversation also had many overlaps with my reading of Don Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things,” in which he discusses affordances and how objects communicate the way they are intended to be used.

After this we did an exercise to help us get to know everyone in the class. Post-its notes with questions about us were posted around the room and people posted their answers beneath on post-it. Once all of the answers were up, we split into groups and looked at the questions. We were tasked with figuring out how to sort through the information. Groups found different ways to group the answers to their question. An example of a simple grouping was to the question “What was your undergrad major?” They simply grouped by putting similar majors together. A more complicated question, which my group had, was “What are you nervous about?” There were diverse answers which didn’t always exist on the same plane. We grouped at a more abstract level of similarity and grouped with overlap in some. This exercise forced us to think about thinks like grouping, size, proximity, and hierarchy as tools for communication of the content.

Both of these exercises were interesting when viewed through the lens of communication design, and gave a good idea of how we might be looking at things for the rest of the semester.

August 31 — Readings

The Davis excerpt dove into the socio-cultural aspects of communication design. As designers, it is vital to be cognizant of the social context in which we are creating. Davis first touches upon the illustrative and formative roles that design can play in our culture — illustrative meaning that design reflects the culture and formative meaning it helps form it. I think in classical graphic design, there are many examples of illustrative design where a piece of visual communication makes a comment of statement about something. But as new forms of technology and interaction become prominent in our society, design is becoming much more formative. It is shaping the way that we live our lives and perceive the world around us. News is changing precisely for this reason. People are getting news in different and evolving ways. Different groups in society hold immensely different views of the current state of society, and this may be in part because of the increasingly formative role of the methods by which we get our news.

Davis then talks about the role of schemas in the social context. Schemas are mental structures we use to help organize and understand the world around us. These schemas give us expectations about people, social roles, events, and places (a stereotype is a type of schema, along with role schemas and place schemas). Though schemas are extremely useful in helping us understand the world, they require us to make assumptions. This can have negative effects for obvious reasons. Schemas are particularly interesting when looking at our news sites. Different publications with different spins on the news help their readers creates the schemas they use to understand the world. So by creating certain types of schemas for their readers, they’re forming the way in which they understand the world even outside the context of the specific publication.

August 31 — News Website Analysis

Our group(Denise, Melody, and I) has been tasking with analyzing 3 left-leaning news sources: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Huffington Post. Based on first impressions, there is immediately a clear distinction between the Huffington Post and the other two sites — both in the content layout and in visual language. The Huffington Post seems conveys more modernity, where the New York Times and Washington Post call back to a time of physical print newspapers. With that first impression in mind, I’ll now dive deeper into the structure, form, and content of the three sites.

Homepages, left to right: New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post.

Visual Structure

Though there are many differences between these sites, the first similarity is clear — the most important headline is the biggest and the first on the page. On the New York Times and the Washington Post, this is a headline (with no accompanying image) set above the grid of other stories. These two sites also have the title of the publication at the very top of the page, followed by the various sections (world, U.S., politics, etc…). The Washington Post goes directly into that first headline, whereas the New York Times places an add between the sections and the first headline. The Huffington Post places their top headline over an image which takes up the full width of the screen and a good amount of vertical space; much more space than on the other two sites. The Huffington Post also does not make the sections visible to the user, but rather hides them in a menu.

Continuing from there, the New York Times and the Washington Post continue in a similar style. There are headlines with short text blurbs densely packed into columns of different widths. There are ~2 headline sizes to show importance of stories. The New York Times continues this further down the page, eventually getting into a grid of their different sections with a few headlines listed in each. The Washington Post goes into a list of top stories and then into cards for the various sections also with just headlines, like the New York Times.

In the Huffington Post Site, after the main headline at the top, there are large images with headlines and blurb below in one column, and small headlines of top stories in a smaller column on the left side. Then a long list of news stories with smaller images, a headline and a blurb, followed by a grid with the sections and stories with an image and a headline.

Below the main sections of each site.

In general, the New York Times and the Washington post much more closely mimic a physical newspaper, with the densely packed headlines and text, whereas the Huffington Post puts much more emphasis on imagery, and gives the stories more space.

Visual Form

In regards to visual form, the distinction between the Huffington Post and the two other sites continues to be clear. By looking at the typeface in the logos, we can determine an immediate difference. The blackletter typefaces of the New York Times and the Washington Post evoke the lineage of physical newspaper. The Huffington Post’s bold, sans-serif font and shortened name makes a statement of modernity while conceding some seriousness.

The New York times continues this evocation of the past with their use of serifs fonts down the page, in headline and in text. The Washington Post continues using serif fonts for headlines, while switching to a sans-serif body typeface, making it look a little more modern and of the internet. The Huffington Post uses sans-serifs throughout, with bold, black headlines making decisive statements.

Both the New York Times and Washington Post use almost exclusively black, white and grey all the way down the page, with the exception of image. This creates a serious tone throughout. The Huffington Post, while also mostly black and white, adds green and pink accent colors throughout. This paired with the large imagery makes a much more colorful palette. The palette is perhaps meant to communicate to a younger audience.

Looking at the contrast of the page overall, the use of imagery and bold headline type in the Huffington Post create much more contrast than in the densely packed text of the New York Times and Washington Post (to a lesser extent, as more images and card blocks are used down the page). As a product, the content being displayed comes across as bolder and more declarative.

Written and Visual Content

The choice of image across the three sites is slightly different when comparing the headline stories, all about hurricane Harvey. The Huffington Post and Washington Post images both contain one subject with their bodies partially turned away from the camera. Both images convey a sense of isolation. The New York Times image is of multiple people shot from the front and from below. This communicates a much more hopeful message than the other two. And if there are any patterns of image selection down the page, it seems as though the Huffington post has selected images of single people or objects, whereas the Washington Post(and New York Times to some extent) pick images of scenes of many people or wider landscapes, giving more context for the images.

Headlines are written in short, sometime incomplete, sentences conveying action (like “Houston get first look at damage”), though some have more editorial flair (like “Houston sees the sun, but the storm marches on”). Captions are complete sentences expanding on the information. This usage is similar across the three sites. In some cases the Huffington post will use a “:” to indicate a though is coming from an individual (like “COHEN: RUSSIA DEALINGS WERE GROSS BUT NOT ILLEGAL”), where the New York Times follows the pattern of “{subject} says {thing}” and the Washington Post uses “{thing}, says {subject}.”

September 5 — Mental Models

In class, we have been working on creating sketches of mental models that represent the relevant actors in the analysis of our news sources. As an introduction to this sketching, we reviewed Moyer’s idea of “Napkin Sketching.” These sketches are quick and dirty ways to represent some information visually. The main point of these drawing is to focus only on the most important parts of the sketch — those which convey the information you are trying to convey (he points out that these sketches are best for conveying ideas that are complex and important).

When applied to our news analysis, these sketches become useful in helping communicate the important parts of a site that make them distinct from others. Ideas like boldness, modernity, age of readership, political leaning, etc can all be communicated through these sketches. These things may be hard to convey through words, but there are visual representation that make more sense and help build a story.

My first pass at creating mental models for each of the sites including visual representations of revenue, boldness, density, political leaning, readership, loudness, and publication medium.

Mental Models Presentation Prep

After initial sketches, our group worked joined forces to find similarities in our findings, with then end goal of creating a short presentation where we draw and explain our mental models. This required finding a larger theme across the sites, and how the structure, form, and content supported that theme. We all were interested in the clear differences in approach between the Huffington post and the New York Times/Washington Post. The Huffington Post seemed much more focused on creating evocative content made for sharing, while the New York Time and Washington Post created a broader overview of the news, trying to create an authoritative view. We did research about the revenue models of the different publications. The New York Times, like many legacy print publications, is focused on transitioning print subscriptions to digital subscriptions, and print ad revenue to digital ad revenue. The Huffington Post, which was founded as an internet publications, makes money through digital ads. They are focused on getting a high volume of traffic through sharing across multiple platforms. They do not have a subscription model. The Washington Post, which was purchased by Jeff Bezos in 2013, is also trying to gain digital subscriptions, but are focused on gaining a higher number of users, with a smaller revenue per user. To do this they need to gain more traffic. These models are very much inline with what we found in the structure, form, and content. The Huffington Post largely features one article with evocative imagery because they are trying to make content that evokes emotion and gets people to click and share. The New York Times has an overview of all their categories densely packed onto the homepage because they are trying to gain repeat users and encourage subscriptions by being their one stop destination for all news. The Washington Post shares aspects of the Huffington Post’s and New York Time’s structure, form, and content, which reflects the transitionary state of their revenue model.

Preparation for presentation

The Presentation

During the actual presentation of our mental model sketches, everyone in the class documented feedback as other teams were presenting. This method gave us the chance to think critically about how other team’s presentation were executed, and get concrete feedback about our own. On of the most common themes I found across our presentation and other’s was the importance of pacing. It was vital that the speaking and the visuals made sense together as the presentation went on. Some teams drew things earlier and it was confusing seeing a drawing and wondering how it would relate. Some teams were not able to draw everything quick enough and this made the presentation feel disjointed because of the pauses. There were also some really interesting ways that teams visualized larger ideas across their sites, i.e. being able to show something larger about the 3 sites together as opposed to just the individual ideas about form, content and structure. I think our team did a good job of organizing the hierarchy of our presentation and visualizing the individual components, but need to work on how to visualize the larger themes.

News Intervention Design Jam

On Thursday (September 14), we spent time in class conducting a design jam to begin ideating potential interventions that would help readers be better consumers of news. This exercise was meant to be quite speculative, not constrained by technology or logistics. To aid our brainstorming, we used two big boxes of physical objects. With our groups we began brainstorming, picking out object as we needed. There were dolls, toy cars, pipe cleaners, building blocks, and a slew of other things. These objects were intended to help us create a narrative around our intervention and create a quick presentation for our idea. We took 20 minutes to do this and then quickly presented to the class. Our group came up with something we called News Gate. This intervention would happen when you click on a link to a news article. News Gate would force you to look at headlines, images, and descriptions of articles from other news sources (of different political leanings) before going to your article.

Being forced to use physical objects to brainstorm a potentially non-physical interaction was an interesting constraint — one that is certainly not common. It forced us to use physical objects as a starting point as opposed to something else, like existing digital paradigms. For us, this created an interesting narrative. We used dolls to help tell our story. We decided that News Gate was acting like a human gatekeeper to the news you are clicking on. Anthropomorphizing our intervention in that way gave way to some interesting ideas that may be useful if we decided to further flesh out that idea. This framing would not have happened without this type of design jam.


Our intervention turned into BrandlessNews — a news aggregate that strips news articles of their form and brand in order to get the reader to consume the news more critically, then questioning the impact that the brand had on their perception by revealing the publisher. From our zine:

BrandlessNews 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. BrandlessNews 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 BrandlessNews 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 BrandlessNews site, completely stripped of visual form. The tagline will read “Change The Way You See News.” The campaign is what drives people to the BrandlessNews 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.
Brandless News homepage
Reveal of publication source
Brandless News campaign

Project Reflection

Final Class Zine

This project was beneficial in a couple different ways. We dove into the ways that people perceive and understand news, but more importantly we learned how to communicate that understanding to others and created interventions based on that understanding. And though we conceived of these interventions relatively quickly, they made sense as the logical conclusion of this project. All of the understanding that we gained in the beginning phases allowed us to form the points of view that informed our interventions. Specifically, BrandlessNews was an obvious intervention for us because in our earlier phases we discussed how news publications create a certain personality that their readers associate with their content. We wanted to turn that bias on its head.