Investigating and Intervening

Communication Design Studio — Project 1

Design Brief
Our goal is to investigate ways of using communication design to intervene in existing forms of news consumption to help people become better informed citizens by (1) aiding their critical review of information and (2) teaching them how to carefully read content (not just the words but the forms of content).

As a designer, it’s important for you to be able to quickly analyze complex information and visualize relationships among content that others often miss. Translating your research discoveries into a compelling visual argument, persuasion piece, or speculative concept is also a valuable skill that designers leverage often.

Session 1 — An Assortment of Toys and Teamwork

As I stepped into day 2 of Grad School, the Communication Design studio was an insightful session that involved playing around with different types of toys, working in teams to get to know our classmates better and deciphering and organising data to form meaningful groups.

The first half of the studio session was all about toys. Why do we find playing with toys so fun-filled and satisfying? Is it a nostalgic memory of our childhood or is it just an object to fidget around with as a stressbuster? An interesting aspect of these toys was that they were all movement-based playful objects depicting dolphins, animals, worms, aliens, classic vehicles and abstract things that could be wound with a key and released to a cathartic motion.

The Toy Story — Deducing the Nature and Behaviour of Toys

Some of these were crafted in styles ranging from rustic, unfinished and metallic to forms that were in vogue in the early 90s. While the generic look of some of the toys coupled with specific characteristics such as broad, padded feet or a rubber sock resting at the end of the leg helped in deciphering the kind of gait or movement they would exhibit, it also explained the direction of their activity. Some toys in the insect range had an uncanny semblance to all things mechanical with rollers that indicated a circular movement. These toys, in particular, filled us with delight as they included an unexpected jump in their endeavour to entertain. This element of surprise was a welcoming change from the regular forms with a predictable gait. A particularly amusing toy with short legs ran around hither and thither, resembling a pug running about in search of open space.

The key learning from this exercise was to observe these toys, their style and appearance and establish how previous interactions with different objects over the years plays a vital role in deducing the behaviour of these toys. The design attributes further provide food for thought in terms of establishing the typical user for these toys, although as adults it fills us with the same satisfaction and pleasure as that of a five-year-old.

The decoding — encoding theme of the session was further marked by a group activity aided by the use of a Miro board that helped record various things that made us happy, achievements we were proud about and interesting facets about each other. As a team, we went about gathering similar data types that could be grouped together on the basis of emotions, activities, passion, anecdotes, aspirations and skills. Colour-coded stickers with a well-drafted index and bunching similar posts under specific categories helped us catalogue raw data into a worthwhile set of labelled facts.

Some of the learnings that I take away from this session involve the importance of observing various aspects of objects/information, decoding and grouping similar information that helps form the basis of research for designing fruitful experiences. The finer details and intricacies that we overlook are often pivotal in putting together and designing a larger and external design solution.

Session 2 — Investigating News Sources

As a part of the initial steps of investigating news sources, I selected two varied sources — The New York Times and the Times of India (World News).

The New York Times

The Grid Structure of the New York Times

Hierarchy
The sections consist of a featured post with imagery which is the focal point and this occurs in a repetitive manner alongside stories consisting only of the headline assorted in the order of priority. Other columns of importance are the Opinions and the Editor’s Pick.

Visual Treatment and Typography
The visual treatment brings out a neutral and balanced look and feel. The articles are incorporated in a grid-based format and are predominantly text-based. Articles that are featured consist of visuals and infographics.

Typography plays an important role in setting the context of the stories and posts. A strong hierarchy of fonts is seen in a post that is trending and is of considerable importance. The serif typeface with a soft rounded character brings out the objective and neutral tone of the news. The play of the black and grey hues to depict typography also distinguishes one article from another. A post of secondary importance is represented with the headline in a bold font. Pull quotes and bylines use a foreplay of fonts in different size and thickness, set in a combination of typefaces to grab the attention of the user to a specific piece of information.

Tone
The articles are set in a detailed and descriptive format, narrating the trail of events that account for a certain happening. The style of journalism leans towards an unbiased and liberal reporting of events.

2.The Times of India

The Grid Structure of the Times of India

Hierarchy
Stories and posts of news are depicted in a list format. The live or featured news is depicted with the help of a visual aid. Sections are grouped on the basis of different regions and countries. A video section set to a carousel sums up the important happenings in the world. There is a section dedicated to the pandemic and live reports from various parts of the world. The page is filled with ads on either side with the main content taking the centre stage.

Visual Treatment and Typography
The visual treatment incorporates an ordinary and bland style in stark contrast to the nature and tone of journalism. There is a minimal hierarchy of fonts and the typographic style rendered is that of a simple san serif typeface. While the site consists of a series of videos and images, the style of imagery is inconsistent across the posts. The overall layout is designed in a 4 column grid with the use of a card-based layout to document stories and articles.

Tone
The stories bring out a sense of drama and exaggerated sensation as a part of the style of reporting. The articles are a brief description of the activity/theme and generously use facts and figures. A certain hype factor is also involved in the delivery of these stories.

3. Mother Jones

The Grid Structure of Mother Jones

Hierarchy
Top highlights or the latest news is represented in the first fold of the site in a three-column grid-based format and it transitions to a two-column list-based format from the second fold. Hierarchy is established through the comparison of the size of the visual imagery set in a certain ratio with the headline in the three columns of the first fold. The primary point of focus is located at the centre dedicated to news that is the latest and is trending. The column on the left-hand side enjoys secondary importance with headlines that mostly revolves around social issues. Political news is listed on the right-hand side with the held of tiny visual aids.

Visual Treatment and Typography
The visual language of Mother Jones brings out the strong and fearless intent of investigative journalism. Visual aspects of spacing rendered and highlighted by the varying line strokes (bold that represents an important category while finer lines for individual/secondary stories) in sync with the custom san serif typeface set complete with visuals styled in a warm tone with the presence of the orange hue sets the context of the brand’s purpose. The typeface is strong, starkly bold, confident and stands tall in a staccato manner.

Tone
The stories focus on social issues, political news and posts that probe users to think beyond other news reports. It is set in an investigatory style, raising pertinent questions to understand the depth of the consequence or the factors involved in the origin of an event.

Design Shapes the World or Does the World Shape Design?

Session two of the Communication Design Studio delved into concepts understanding how behaviours, social systems and contexts play a vital role in shaping design. The illustrative approach suggests that design or the context for a certain design solution is shaped by society while the formative approach puts forward the idea of how design shapes the society. The illustrative method cites examples of how design is born off a necessity and it is the society that highlights the need for the solution. The school of thought that aligns itself with the formative aspect portrays design as a means of improving and enhancing one’s lifestyle.

Schemas are certain mental structures or models that represent our expectations of social roles, people, events, behaviours based on past experiences/portrayal by the media. Stereotypes define perceptions based on limited knowledge and prototypes facilitate the perception of different things based on the best possible information that we associate these things with.

These factors help in our comprehension of the idea of design subconsciously. Typography plays a vital role in setting the tone, context and the voice of an endeavour. The role signifies the denotation while the expression is synonymous with the connotation aspect to give birth to the voice which is defined by the attitude of the type. Thus the role of typography is to marry connotation with denotation and display an attitude. This great responsibility that typography carries must be aligned with its key objective of conveying the intended message and live up to people’s perception of the idea.

Layouts at a Glance

The take away from the study of the news sources is the importance of the visual language of the sources (news sites) and the message/ideals they portray and the values they stand for. Typography in these news sites plays a vital role in setting the stage for various motives, messages and ideas to be displayed sometimes subtly or otherwise in a dramatic manner ultimately playing a pivotal role in shaping up peoples understanding and interpretation of the news.

Factors and Actors Controlling the News

The New York times very judiciously and cautiously balances the use of san serif with serif typefaces to depict a neutral visual language. This identifies with its primary motive of bringing fair and well-researched news to people. Mother Jones, on the other hand, establishes its objective of investigative journalism with an appeal that resembles a personified detective probing and questioning various aspects of an event to get to the bottom of things. The Times of India dedicates its news to sensationalize activities and events and grab the user’s attention. A monopoly of advertisements further acts as a lucrative yet attractive medium to influence the user in his/her idea of news thus, monetizing the platform.

Thus, in conclusion, our idea of the news is greatly influenced not just by the content but also the medium of representation, the visual language, typography, design aspects incorporated to display various players, the creator’s intent, the ulterior motives, hidden agendas and the brand’s (news source) objectives in direct or indirect ways.

Session 3 and 4 — Digging Deeper

Having analyzed the three news sources based on their tone, brand positioning, visual language and the content, I decided to explore more audience-oriented aspects such as the history — how the news brands came into being, people’s perception of the sources, the investors, the specific regions they cater to and to draw a correlation between all these factors.

1. The New York Times

History
- Owned by the New York Times Company
- Founded by the Ochs — Sulzberger family

Languages
English, Spanish and Chinese

Funding and Investors
- As a part of the New York Stock Exchange shares, a huge part of the class B shares is owned by the Ochs-Sulzberger family. An interesting stakeholder holding majority (16.8%) is the Billionaire Philanthropist Carlos Slim.

Audience Study
-
Liberal audience
- Caters to the educated high earning population
- 44% of the readers are Democrat supporters
- 36% of its readers are of a liberal outlook
- The major audience base is the youth — middle-aged

2. The Times of India

History
- Owned and managed by the Times Group
- Also owned and published by the BCCL (Bennett, Coleman Co & Ltd) which is owned by the Jain family

Languages
English

Funding/Revenue Sources
- The Times Group
- Ads are an integral part of the newspaper’s source of revenue
- Paid News

Audience Study
-
Targets the educated middle - class households who are fluent in English
- An audience that is interested in getting news from the country, city and the world along with features on education, technology, social campaigns and other infotainment related stories

3. Mother Jones

History
- Conceived as a magazine in 1976
- Named after the Mary Haris Jones, an Irish-American trade union activist, socialist advocate and child labour activist
- Initially appointed an editorial board and the board members took turns to serve as the Managing Editor for a one year term period
- Current CEO — Monika Bauerlein, Clara Jeffery is the Editor in Chief
- Mother Jones is published by the Foundation for National Progress

Funding and Investors
- Receives funding from advertisements, donations, subscriptions and paid exclusive stories (reader-supported journalism)
- Foundation for National Progress — Corporate funding/grant sources include contributions from the OSF (Open Society Foundation) and the MacArthur Foundation
- Tech entrepreneur Rob Glaser
- Contributions from Quixote Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Marisla Foundation, and Ford Foundation

Stakeholders
Foundation for National Progress (a centre-left non-profit ) —
Chairman of the Foundation’s Board of Directors- Phil Straus
Mother Jones —
Steven Katz — publisher
Current CEO — Monika Bauerlein
Editor in Chief — Clara Jeffery

Perception of the Brand
-
Liberal or Progressive
- Investigative news that throws light on events, details in a descriptive manner with an unconventional approach
- Revolves around social issues, politics, cultural preservation,
- Effective in bringing out empathy in people, especially with respect to content pertaining to social issues

The study of these news sources in depth made me wonder about the connection between the origin of these brands and the type of news they portray. Do newspapers curate certain news and stories for a specific audience? Would my perception of the brand and the trust factor change if I had access to the investor information, controversies, history and other stakeholders involved? Is this information even relevant to some readers and news enthusiasts? Would they like or dislike the information placed before them?

The concept of using Moyers sketches as a tool of visual aid helps in depicting information in a concise, descriptive and illustrative manner. The various techniques listed are using timelines, maps, comparison structures, Venn diagrams and blob methods, hierarchy charts, gradients, decision trees, swim lanes, quantity comparisons, stocks and flows and vignettes.

The diagram below describes these sketch noting techniques. It is a powerful medium of displaying information such that the onlooker not only strikes a comparison and gauges the intent of the diagram but also grasps the concept and theme at a glance.

Moyer’s Sketch Techniques

The idea of perception measure mapping or a grid structure that measures a reader’s journey is inspired by the swimlane technique of Moyer’s representation. It is a judiciously curated path where an ardent brand loyal (of a particular news source) is taken through the various aspects of the brand such as the history, the actors involved (stakeholders and investors), the sources of revenue, specific highlights the brand brandishes of, the tone of voice and if they can make a connection between some of the aspects they have covered and the style of journalism, the controversies and the content. The perception score or the measure of whether their idea of brand loyalty has diminished significantly or not determines the fairness of the brand in portraying news.

Perception Measure Map

Here are some significant insights I gained from this process of perception measure mapping:

The New York Times
Having gained a significant stake in NYT, Mexican Billionaire Philanthropist Carlos Slim has become a major stakeholder with a stake of 16.8%. The NYT has also found its presence in Spanish, a language widely spoken in Latin America. The intent was to cover events and activities extensively in Latin America and Spain and increase its revenue and audience base. Slim established a foundation Fundación Telmex along with Bill Clinton to aid the people of Latin America. Would the initiative of having the newspaper in Spanish have anything to do with its prominent stakeholder? Interestingly, the New York Times endorses every presidential candidate of the Democrat party and not in a long time endorsed any Republican nominee for Presidentship. A liberal brand in its approach but leans towards a democrat-centric stand, does the role of these stakeholders, the actors and factors influence the quality and nature of news they create? Should people know of these actors and factors?

Times of India
Similarly, the Times of India patronises the concept of paid news where any actor, politician, business giant or a commoner can publish unverified news for a large sum of money. While the USP of the brand is in its curation of informative columns of technology, education, science, leisure, culture and arts to name a few, are these stories in their intent to promote information and entertainment being endorsed by organisations, tech hubs and other political groups? Do marketing agencies in their constant endeavour to promote brands and advertisements work with these news sources? Should people know of these actors and factors? Can I trust the news I read every day?

Mother Jones
Mother Jones, similarly receives grants from George Soros of the Open Society Foundation. Soros incidentally has invested heavily in Democrat Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaigns. Would this impact the kind of news and stories that the investigatory news source publishes? Should people know of these actors and factors?

How does this change a viewer’s perspective? Would people want to know of these ‘factors and actor’? How may we bring this to the front?

Session 5–Design Jam

The session began with our teams being formed to work towards an intervention idea. I was bunched in a group with Chris and Minkyoung so that we could brainstorm further and deduce the role of perception between the various forms of news and the audience.

We kickstarted the session with a design jam exercise which included assortment cards of random objects, entities, scenarios and people stacked together on Figma boards. The intent of this fun task was to come up with associations between these characters with respect to our theme of identifying perceptional patterns. The ice breaker exercise helped us collect our thoughts and put them in unusual representation patterns. These series of quirky combinations enabled us to study the reaction of our classmates when the boards were being presented. This was our first step towards the big goal.

The assortment of objects on Figma
The Expectation and Reality Cycle

How may an Intervention idea help people perceive news?

An intervention intends to inform, mediate and help people understand the news and its relevance and its source in today's world. Our Intervention idea revolves around breaking conventions that empower readers and news viewers break their judgement and refrain from stereotyping based on the visual tonality of a piece of news and the medium through which it is put forward. The solution is to be based on the motto ‘don't judge a book by its cover’.

The design jam technique aligned the team towards a common goal through its intent of understanding stereotypes and the role it plays in the news and media space.

Scenario descriptions

  • Image 1 depicts an expectation and reality scenario where one would expect the couple to pay attention to their newborn. The pram indicates the presence of a baby, while in reality, it turns out to be the family’s pet dog. The green-hued background is synonymous of the family spending quality time outdoors.
  • Image 2- A woman making a business presentation is taken seriously because of the nature of her work. The data she collates in an analytical form, the professional outfit she dons and her accessories add to her persona. A symbolic star is portrayed as mnemonic to represent the energy and balance she brings in. The corporate blue sets the mood and context and renders the composition complete.
  • Image 3 - A young woman is seen chilling and catching up with social media updates at the end of a tiring day at college. While one may assume so based on her lazing posture and her lack lustred demeanour, this is our first attempt at drawing an onlooker’s attention to the fact that she could actually be researching important information. The circle is symbolic of people’s perception of a void or lack of productivity. The casual pink marks her state of mind as perceived by a passer-by.
  • Image 4 - Similarly, a bunch of students chatting away could be mistaken for a bunch of students using their mobile to look up a research document. The crowding of the teenagers and their interaction with the phone could be mistaken for a casual, frivolous talk after class. The colour grey aids in depicting the oblivious yet complacent mood of the composition. The idea is central to the judgement a viewer might pass on, looking at the scene.
  • Image 5 - A middle-aged man is taken aback by the representation of news in a card-based format in the newspaper. Something seems amiss as the man tries decoding the analytical data portrayed in a strange format. Does he believe that the news is not accurate owing to its changed visual structure? Or has he absentmindedly stumbled upon a post that he can just browse through on social media? Surely this is an amalgamation. The dull yellow adds to the man’s sense of confusion.
  • Image 6 is the culmination point where the two contrasting scenarios are reckoned worthwhile and that there's more than meets the eye.

My team aims to challenge the conventional representation styles of different media, build on this idea of perception and bring about a change in the way the news is viewed.

Session 6 and 7 — Heading to the Destination

Takeaways from Lynch — Image of the City
- An example of perception with respect to the physical environments
- Classification as path, edges, districts, nodes and landmark
- Translation of these physical entities in communication design

The study helped us look at design elements and characteristic attributes the way Lynch describes as touchpoints to larger systems

Intervention Concept
Inspired by the concepts of Lynch and the mental model study, our intervention revolves around deciphering a user’s take on reading news irrespective of a news brands value.

Unravelling news element by element
The intent is to help users overcome the biases and judgement they bring, even before reading a piece of news

Intervention uncovers news in a manner such that the user is exposed to news in a text-based format translating to design elements and the brand language of the source of news only to be informed of the news source once the viewer has read the entire article. The design solution also probes the user at every stage if they believe that the news based on the representation style and content (-source) is accurate or not. The aim is to coax users with pressing questions that help them understand the dynamics of the media world.

Research Summary
My investigation of the three main news sources — The New York Times, Mother Jones, and The Times of India consisted of initially browsing the digital newspapers for their visual style, grid structure, brand language, typography, and the style of journalism. I was also curious to understand the target audience and the relationship between the representation style and its impact on the reader.

These initial clues led me to the pursuit of larger systems that govern these news sources. I took a step back from evaluating the visual system and dug deep to understand the factors and actors curating news to people across the world. My research incorporated the history of these news sources, the languages the newspapers are published in, the stakeholders associated — the kind of audience the brands’ target, the investors and the general perception of the brand. Some interesting tidbits about each of these news sources and the actors and factors involved helped me draw certain conclusions. In order to understand the brands and their digital presence better, as an International reader, I also explored the other mediums these three news brands were active on, i.e push notifications, videos and social media handles to get a peek of the style of journalism. The intent was to understand if there was an alternate style of journalism the brands adopted, to cater to another specific set of audience on the respective platforms. Having understood the dynamics of how the media works, my objective was to draw a relationship between the readers/viewers and the manner in which they perceive the news.

Research Outcome:
All the three news sources have a distinct yet powerful brand language with respect to the typography, the layouts, the imagery style, the design elements and the tone of voice. Each of these news sources subtly or dramatically take a certain stand in their tone of voice, for example, the Times of India employs the use of dramatic headlines to grab a user’s attention, Mother Jones has the look and feel of a social investigative magazine and the New York Times judiciously incorporates a play of typefaces to draw one’s attention to a more prominent issue yet maintaining a balanced look and feel in general.

A detailed study of the stakeholders helped me understand the role of the investors and the founders in establishing a certain type of audience base and the general perception of the news brand and its political inclination.

Inspired by Moyer’s diagrams and the readings of Davis’ mental schemas, I created a perception mapping grid which was a step by step analysis of how the five factors — audience, investors, stakeholders, controversies, highlights or the USP of the brand and the style of journalism influence the content, the activity the news source patronizes and the role of visual elements in conveying the connotation through the denotation. The goal was to map the journey of the user as they learn of these factors and actors and understand their change of perception (or lack of it) with this new-found knowledge and the impact of the trust factor or brand loyalty associated with these news sources.

The Design Intervention

The team consisting of Aashrita Indurti, Christopher Costes and Minkyoung Lee

We began by discussing the different ways in which we saw the features beyond the raw information influence what people may think of news presented to them. Compiled together we identified the deep resolve companies but into their identity, their format, and their use of colour. When we considered all these features of online news in conversation with each other, we saw a remarkable opportunity to probe at how the different presentation of the news changed their perspective of it. For example, we considered the context of some who just by looking at the colour or format used in a news story was already biased about the news outcomes. Assumptions made about how the information looked might keep people from even attempting to read the information, even though it might be something they agreed with and found engaging. To address this, we formulated the idea of a probe that could reveal how much the format of a message influenced the perspective people had on it.

Information Architecture

To construct this we set about building both an app and a website the would aggregate stories from many sources, but strip away the original hosts formatted, leaving nothing but the raw information. As a user read the information, slowly, more of the original formatting would be revealed. Initially, we would hide the brand, format, images, author, and sources from a reader, showing them each at different points in the reader’s experience. In addition, at the articles halfway point we could ask if the users trusted the source (right at the point we would reveal photos). Then as the last step, after all the hidden information was shown, we would ask the reader if they still trusted the source.

While being a new aggregator that slowly reveals context about the information shown, we also added features with tags, filters, sorting, and navigation sidebar that would show them what information what hidden, revealed, and eventually explore the shift in the article. Most importantly, we also included the user’s own reading analytics. It would be on the analytics page that a user could see in juxtapose the sources they read most often and the sources they doubted once they saw the reveal. This would show readers how they might enjoy news sources outside their normal readings if only the format was slightly removed.

Intervention Idea

The audiences we hoped to reach with this approach were those who believed themselves open-minded and no particularly biased against sources of news. By showing them which sources they enjoyed vs which they didn’t trust after seeing all the context, we might broaden their reading and diversity information acquisition. This particular group has its limits, but are also potentially the people who are truly looking to provide themselves with a full spectrum of information.

Right: Article stripped of its content Left: Article with partially revealed formatting as the reader moves down the page

Conclusion

From all our research, we spun together multiple analysis that might very well offer shifts to a more preferable society, one their is more accepting and open. While we are not attempting to truly solve the many wicked problems of news consumption, we are trying to understand the role format might play in this wicked problem. The potential outcome of our approach is that the user suddenly becomes aware of how different their news reading sources are without all the formatting. This could then allow them to see the bias and limitations they build around themselves when reading from only one source or not bother to explore sites they believe are outside their information gathering.

Introduction of the intervention — Advertisement on Digital Platform

This is especially in today’s world of information bubbles. Users may be unintentionally limiting themselves and prevention their own growth without even reliving they have a strong bias towards specific visual representations of the news. Our intervention might also show that the form/medium is not proportional to the trust factor we normally associate with information. If we can begin to provide readers with the opportunity to break away from their existing inertia there is a chance for great changes in a less biased world. Finally, our intervention also allows for a collection of data that might reveal the truths about how format biases users, revealing to both the person and companies looking to develop customer’s perspectives.

Returning to our original idea, that some people are unaware that they even have a bias about news’s format, our intervention has the chance to show just what their missing, exposing a new world and new ideas. Sometimes new ideas and new perspectives are all it takes to change behaviour and replace misunderstandings with empathy.

Learning Outcomes and Reflection

The previous project of investigating the news incorporated the two parts of going about the entire task. The first part comprised of individual research that helped me dive deep and understand the various visual components of the media supported by the readings that helped me draw specific conclusions and translate abstract ideas and analogies into more definite ones. Moyer’s diagrams introduced me to a whole new method of representing ideas that would help a user grasp concepts on the go. The study of visual elements, their connotation supported by the denotations and their significance based on the higher systems at play — stakeholders, factors and actors and political inclination formed the basis of my research.

Part two of the project was a team-based activity of designing an intervention idea based on each of our research outcomes. Working with Chris and Minkyoung has been an enriching experience and it really emphasised the importance of teamwork and how it can bring out the best ideas with various perspectives shaping up the final solution. Lessons in time management and people management apart from putting together an effective intervention idea was the key take away of this project.

Interaction and Service Designer | Graduate Student at the School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University