Humans of Reno: Teaching How to Bridge the Visual Gap

David Delfin interviews Amber Walsh, a lecturer of visual communication for the Reynolds School of Journalism.

Design can play a major role in journalism and storytelling. Amber Walsh comes from an art background to also bring that element into her teaching.

Q: You started as a graphic designer, so how did teaching at a journalism school happen for you?

A: I, of course, I knew what journalism was but when I was interviewing for this position here, I think the word which became clear to me was storytelling. I tend to tell stories visually, to whereas some of my colleagues are uncovering and telling stories through writing, other colleagues are framing it more from a public relations standpoint or from strategic communications, so that’s where I found out we have common ground in the fact that it’s how can we best tell the story and it all starts with the target audience always.

Q: How did journalism affect or change how you viewed design?

A: I don’t think it affected how I view design. Something that I say a lot in Journalism 108 (an introductory and mandatory design class in the RSJ journalism program) is the fact that art can just exist for art’s sake. If someone in your audience doesn’t get it, it’s okay. If someone doesn’t get your design, it’s not okay because you’re missing that target audience so if anything it has helped me remember ‘how can I reduce this down to its simplest form and still tell the story,’ so whether we’re talking about data visualization, whether it’s a color palette, it doesn’t become aesthetic. I go straight to the questions; who is my audience? Where are they coming from? So there’s this process of learning first about your audience before you even start designing.

Q: Why do you think design is important to journalism?

A: As journalists, we will go and read the story from several different platforms and see what’s being said on all sides in the field of journalism because that’s what we do. We love news. I think that we have to remember the context of our audiences and that they don’t always do that. If they’ve always listened to Fox News, they’re always going to listen to Fox News unless they’re told otherwise. From that aspect, we have to go out and find the audience. We have to get down on their level and, and scaffold what’s going on so that they can get the new knowledge and then start changing or shifting their behavior so that they respond and are aware of what’s actually going on in the world around them.

Q: Why did you become a designer?

A: Design was always with me. I’m going to say probably in the fourth or fifth grade, I was already designing birthday cards for my friends. Design has always been with me; it’s something that I guess is as natural as breathing to me. I took my first graphic design class as a senior in high school and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It’s just one of those things I didn’t have to think about. I knew that’s what I was going to do. We had a screen printing press in high school, so I was able to actually run the ink through and make my own stuff.

Q: So many journalists understand the ethics and how they play into reporting and writing, but how do ethics play into design?

It starts with one; are we really conveying the voice of whoever we’re representing? So remember how I talked about how we have to understand our target audience. In communication it’s up to the ones communicating to communicate to whoever’s listening but in design, ethics also comes into how we represent that voice.

Coronavirus is a great example; how is Coronavirus affecting those on the reservations? If I were to just guess, then I am not appropriately representing them. I need to go talk to the group that I’m actually representing in order to understand their voice and then I have to go and not be biased. It doesn’t matter what I think I have formulated as truth based on what I’ve read and research I’ve done, I need to understand what they’re saying. So ethics from that design standpoint starts a lot like a journalist and how they would go out and try to understand that story.

Now the other side of it is, how are we representing that to our target audience? We have to understand both what the expert is saying, but then we also have to understand who this target audience is and it’s our job to be in the middle to form the bridge that goes between that communication gap visually.

That’s where it comes down to. It doesn’t matter if I think that what I’ve designed is aesthetically pleasing, if I chose the right colors according to me, I have to then go back to my expert, make sure it’s conveying what they wanted to convey. Then I have to go to my target audience and do a little bit of user research and make sure that they’re understanding it too. That’s our role as the designer; we kind of become this catalyst of connecting things together visually but then we have to be able to step out of the way as it must stand on its own for what it was intended to be.

Q: What would you say is the most challenging part of a visual communicator for you?

A: I think a lot of times when we’re talking to that expert and we’re trying to represent something visually for them, they come with their own biases of what they want to convey and sometimes our target audience doesn’t always have that knowledge base. For example, I have professors over in the science department that are trying to communicate some very important things, however, if they’re not saying it in a language that an everyday person understands, then it doesn’t matter. I mean, someone could have a cure for coronavirus, but if they’re not conveying it in a way that someone else would understand, then it’s not going to go anywhere. So I think that’s the most challenging part.

Media Tips Q and A by David Delfin for the Reynolds Sandbox



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