Communication Studio: Project 1
What did you learn from today’s class activities and how do they impact your thinking of communication design?
Our first Communication Design studio class began on the floor. Grouped in a circle on the carpet, we inspected a dozen or so plastic and metal objects. The objects varied in size, color, shape, imagery, material, and condition. Many of the objects were representational, and they represented a tremendous variety of persons and things, including nuns, dinosaurs, robots, and small vehicles. Despite this variety, we all immediately identified the objects as toys. On any other day, this would have seemed perfectly ordinary. You see a small, inviting object with a wind-up key behind it and immediately, you recognize it as a toy. I would have taken that for granted if not for Stacie, who pointed out this subconscious association we had all made. More than that, we were asked to probe why we had made this association, and what other ones we were making, consciously and subconsciously, as we sat there.
As Stacie picked up each of the toys in turn, she asked about the associations, expectations, and mental models going on in our minds. Each time, we came to realize that we were making far more connections about each object than we consciously realized. Furthermore, most of these connections were correct or at least, close to correct. Without any outside information, we were able to decipher the user actions, object affordances, and object reactions. Again, all the connections we made seemed perfectly intuitive and natural, but are remarkable when you consider them. They underscore the amount of information that can be conveyed through the smallest amount of visual stimuli. As designers, considering these intuitive connections is a crucial part of effective communication. Going forward, I need to make room in the design process to consider what associations each visual component conveys to the viewer/user, and how these associations may differ between users from different backgrounds and experiences.
What examples of Truth Decay did you find and what roles is design playing in exacerbating or combatting problems? What design approaches are taken?
Opening my internet browser to begin this assignment, I realized what I wanted to write about before I even entered a search term. Opening Google Chrome, users are immediately presented with the text box for Google queries. Just below this text box is a Discover section, which lists suggested articles for, in my case, the Google account linked to my CMU email. This discover section functions similar to Instagram’s Explore feature, or Facebook’s Newsfeed, in that users are served an infinite scroll of content based the platform’s suggestions algorithm, which utilizes user history to suggest content that’s most likely to be clicked on by the user.
In my case, the headline that caught my eye as I opened Chrome was one related to The Office TV show being cancelled (cancelled here meaning the practice of ostracizing a person or thing for past misbehavior). Immediately, I clicked on it, without even thinking. I had come to Chrome with the intention of analyzing hard news sources like Al Jazeera and the Wall Street Journal, but I was immediately intrigued by the headline about The Office and absentmindedly clicked on the link and began reading.
As I skimmed the article, it seemed fairly conventional, if slightly sensationalized. It covered how Comedy Central had stopped re-running one Office episode because it included racist tropes, even though they were being used in parody to mock the ignorance of a white character.
After reading Truth Decay, however, I took note of the language being used in the article, which was universally dismissive attitude toward the decision by Comedy Central. This language included phrases like “Comedy Central caved to the forces of cancel culture,” or “[the] latest example of content censored in an increasingly woke era with corporations and big tech companies now deciding what audiences can and cannot see.”
This article presents itself as traditional news, but its language is nakedly dismissive toward Comedy Central’s decision, implicitly calling the decision an illiberal overreach by a progressive or woke forces. This is precisely the sort of eroded distinction between fact and commentary that Truth Decay points out. Although the Newsweek article purported to be from the news and not opinion division, it clearly contained an opinionated bent. This is an example of the blurred distinction between fact and opinion from journalists, not designers. After finishing the article, I wondered what responsibility designer’s held for this blurring of the line between opinion and fact.
I came to the belief that designers seem largely responsible for the circumstances that led me to click on the article in the first place, and somewhat responsible for the lack of demarcation between fact and opinion in the Discover feature.
I suspect that designers are responsible for the addictiveness and magnetic draw of Chrome’s Discover feature. Each of the articles in my Discover feed includes the kind of trashy, click-bait content that draws my attention, but isn’t the majority of news I consume. For example, the majority of news I consumed over the past two weeks related to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan from the New York Times and Politico. However, none of the suggested content in Chrome’s discover feature included this kind of hard news from reliable sources. Instead, it was almost entirely gossip and entertainment journalism. Although I may be likely to click on these links, they don’t represent the majority of the news I consume, and they certainly don’t represent the news that I want to consume or are proud to consume. To what extent should designer’s optimize these kind of explore/discover features for the kind of content that users spend the most time with, as opposed to the content that they are most likely to click on and consume rapidly? Put more simply, should designers optimize for addictiveness or time on site? Should they optimize for number of clicks, or how many times they direct a user to a reliable news source. Furthermore, should discover features put a premium on content that comes from reliable news sources, or would that be too paternalistic?
Finally, in cases like the Newsweek article were the article clearly bleeds into news opinion but doesn’t identify itself as an opinion article, should Chrome identify the article as an opinionated news source. The news source undoubtedly bears the most responsibility for identifying opinionated content as such, but in cases were the news source fails to do this, do third party content delivery mechanisms like Chrome’s discover feature bear some responsibility? Personally, I would feel uncomfortable with tech giants like Google making the determination what falls under news versus opinion, especially when news organizations are creating increasingly blurred distinctions between the two. Although, this decision to not label opinion versus news on tech platforms will only contributed to the blurred boundary that Truth Decay identifies.
What did you learn from today’s class discussions, activities, and readings and how do they impact your thinking of communication design?
There were two main exercises we conducted in the class. The first was related to the expressive power of typography, the second about techniques for communicated complex ideas through drawing. I had already read about the typography exercise in Crisp’s Typography, so that felt less impactful. Nonetheless, it was still interesting to see the general commonality in people’s reactions to typography. When the differences between typographic styles are great, such as the difference between and Roman serif and cursive script typefaces, people’s reaction are similar, the first is generally businesslike and slightly refined, the latter is stylized and elegant. I would be curious to see this exercise done with more similar typefaces. How similar or dissimilar might people’s reactions be between a more contemporary hybrid serif typeface, such as Mrs. Eaves, and a traditional old-style typeface, such as Caslon.
The second exercise was completely new material for me. While I’ve always wanted to able to sketch confidentially, its such a lengthy and difficult process for me to sketch well that I usually resort to writing instead. The Napkin sketching exercises from Dan Boyer were remarkably tactical in their communication. In most cases, the drawings sacrificed any attempt at representational quality or formal skill. They were, put simply, kinda ugly. Nonetheless, they got the point across. While I believe strongly that beauty and technical skill has a role to play in design, it was slightly liberating to realize that, in my low-fi sketching, I could focus exclusively on communicative power at the expensive of technical skill or visual beauty.
Based on the class discussion and your deeper investigation into truth decay, how is your perception of communication design and the roles it can/should play in addressing societal challenges evolving? Upload mental model sketches to medium post (feel free to reference Moyer worksheet)
This sketch illustrates a point made in Truth Decay about the difficulty of deciphering sponsored content from unsponsored news. In our small group discussion, the point was made that sponsored content on Instagram is almost indecipherable from unsponsored postings. The UI enables and encourages this indecipherability by hiding key indicators of sponsored content.
This sketch uses the quantities drawing technique to convey a point about the rise of non-policy related news in traditional news sources. Truth Decay pointed to a 35% rise in non-policy related news, such as entertainment, celebrity, and lifestyle pieces over a decade. This point relies upon a quantitative comparison, so I thought a simple bar chart with explicit labels would be the best communication device.
This sketch illustrates how television news sources often fail to demarcate between opinion and news. Popular evening news shows like those hosted by Rachael Maddow, Jake Tapper, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson oscillate between news coverage and opinionated news analysis without drawing any boundary between the two.
This “just show it” sketch illustrates how Americans do a poor job of distinguishing between accurate news and misinformation. Truth Decay references a study wherein students were presented with an accurate and inaccurate news articles and were consistently unable to identify the accurate one.
Explain how your thinking has deepened and/or changed; What did you take-away from the napkin sketching session?
The Napkin sketching in-class exercise emphasized the power, difficulty, and limits of sketching as a communication tool. Each of my group members came to class with well developed ideas and examples of how the line between opinion and fact has become blurred. My team members, Juwon and Youngryun, each came with evidence of how online news sources fail to clearly demarcate between sponsored and non-sponsored content. They also brought examples of how this is undesirable outcome is enabled by UI of major tech platforms like YouTube and Instagram. These two “dark patterns” are illustrated in the napkin sketches below.
Once they had sketched this idea, I saw an opportunity to illustrate a connection between the two napkin sketches.
The visual metaphor in this sketch is a funnel. Into the top of the funnel are poured various kinds of content — fact-based news, opinion-based news, misinformation, entertainment content, ect. At the bottom of the funnel is the homogenous feed of digital content that users encounter when they open most popular digital news sources. The funnel metaphor is meant to illustrate how designers tend to create digital platforms that treat all information in the same visual fashion. This decision creates a pleasant user experience and imposes a low cognitive load on the user, but it also encourages the dark patterns that Juwon and Youngryun identified.
All these sketches came with relative ease. The final part of our sketching session was a much greater challenge and made me consider the limits of communication through sketching. Coming to class, I knew wanted to communicate a point related to the rise of non-policy news in news sources (a point included in Truth Decay and mentioned in my previous post). The argument I wanted to make was about a mutation in news sources, where news has become entertainment and entertainment has become news. Late night television programs, such as those hosted by Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah, increasingly focus on partisan news analysis. These are ostensibly comedy programs, but they function for many as sources of news. Conversely, cable news programs like those hosted by Rachael Maddow or Tucker Carlson, focus on cultural issues, lifestyle news, and providing entertainment value to their viewers. In my drawing, I wanted to convey this strange convergence of news and entertainment. Despite spending nearly 20 minutes writing and discussing ideas, I couldn’t settle on a visual form that accurately conveyed this idea. The sketch I ultimately settled illustrated instead how daily news tends to get sensationalized and news consumers become numb and cynical toward news sources. This wasn’t the idea I intended to convey, but it was the one that I could illustrate with the time allotted. That’s was worries me most about sketching as a communication tool. Given my lack of sketching expertise, I worry that I will inevitably simplify and distort complicated ideas that I could convey more accurately in writing.
I’m going to use this Medium post to respond to four criticisms made in response our Napkin sketch presentation last week. These four comments are not exhaustive of the feedback we received, but I think they represent major themes. The criticisms are (1) We spent a lot of time discussing the blurred line between sponsored and non-sponsored content, but didn’t make clear how that relates to the blurring of the line between fact and opinion; (2) There could have been a stronger link between the thoughts we expressed verbally and our accompanying sketches; (3) The part of our thesis about the dismantling of visual cues didn’t have a clear visual representation; (4) Our team read too much from prepared notes to the neglect of making eye contact with the audience.
- We spent a lot of time discussing the blurred line between sponsored and non-sponsored content, but didn’t make clear how that relates to the blurring of the line between fact and opinion.
Two of our three examples of the blurring line between opinion and fact concerned sponsored versus non-sponsored news content. The failure to clearly demarcate between sponsored and non-sponsored content was referenced in Truth Decay as one of the primary reasons for a blurring of the line between opinion and fact. The authors pointed out how sponsored content becoming indistinguishable from news content can mislead news consumers about the veracity and economic interests behind their news. Our presentation should have drawn out this point more.
2. There could have been a stronger link between the thoughts we expressed verbally and our accompanying sketches.
After watching the recording of our presentation, this piece of feedback rings especially true. Watching the presentation, there was a noticeable gap between the level of detail in our verbal presentation, and the drawings that accompanied it. At many points in our presentation, the drawings lacked the level of detail and nuance that was communicated verbally. For example, we made a point to mention the rapid rise in non-policy related news over the past decade, but didn’t illustrate this rise on the board. Taken together, I think this drew viewers attention to our speech and deemphasized the written component.
3. The part of our thesis about the dismantling of visual cues didn’t have a clear visual representation
A few observers left feedback that one of our key arguments wasn’t communicated graphically. The argument that went was that contemporary digital news services tend to homogenize various kinds of content, and diminish our ability to discriminate between different information types, such as fact-based news, misinformation, sponsored content . This was captured to some degree by the funnel metaphor, but the funnel metaphor emphasized the collapsing of various information types into a homogenous digital interface, not how this effects users. This idea about how user’s ability to differentiate information is effected by design decisions is so central to our thesis than it should have been made explicit in our drawings.
4. Our team read too much from prepared notes to the neglect of making eye contact with the audience.
I would push back on this criticism and defend reading from notes during a presentation. In a perfect scenario, a presenter would certainly talk succinctly and effectively from a memorized script. I rarely see that. Given the tight timeline of this project, it’s much more likely that people are unable to memorize a script, and instead riff their verbal presentation off of some prepared notes. I often find that this leads to poorly phrased, repetitive, and slightly rambling verbal presentations. As an observer, I would absolutely prefer to hear a thoughtful and succinct presentation read from notes, than feel as though my time is being wasted by an under-prepared presentation where the presenter is making eye contact with the audience the entire time. I in no way mean to suggest that my peers gave under-prepared verbal presentations, just that I think we rely too much on our own ability to speak off the cuff.
The first half of class was spent revising our napkin sketch from last week (whether we should still be calling this diagram we’ve been revising for weeks a “napkin sketch” is an open question). We did our best to incorporate the relevant feedback from our presentation last week. At first, we made easy fixes — improving visual hierarchy, labeling, and color coding.
Stacie then stopped by and challenged our group to illustrate the why viewers should care about our topic. In other words, why should people care about the dark UI patterns that dismantle our ability to differentiate between information types.
We decided that being able to differentiate information types, or “digital literacy” was a key skill for the contemporary news consumer and citizen. Without it, consumers are vulnerable to a number of harms, not the least of which is an inability to differentiate between fact and opinion.
To illustrate this risk to the individual, we included two users, one digitally literate and one digitally illiterate. The digital illiterate user on the left side is inundated by bad actors, who are trying to promulgate misinformation, harvest personal data, or otherwise harm the user. Attacked by these harmful forces, the user becomes confused, jaded, and liable to be taken advantage of. On the right, in contrast, is the digitally literate user. Bad actors still try to harm the digitally literate user, but they are able notice and identify these bad actors, and separate them from trustworthy actors. We hope these additional sketches illustrate to users how the ability to differentiate information types is a critical skill — much like literacy, civics, and arithmetic — which should be actively developed in each of us. Implied here is also the idea that designers should play a role in promoting digital literacy skills.
The second half of class was spent discussing potential intervention strategies. We were particularly drawn to a participatory design approach, where we would provide rough instructions to users to complete the exercise on their own. Examples we found particularly inspiring were the idea of Conditional Design: “Conditional Design is a design method…in which conditions and rules of play are drawn up that invite cooperation within a ‘regulated’ process towards an unpredictable design or result.”
We were also inspired by Dear Data, a project by Georgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec. The project was a year long correspondence between the two designers. Each week, they would send each other a postcard that recorded and visualized some type of data metric from their week. This data metric might be doors they entered, animals they saw, annoyances they encountered. We were inspired by how this project humanized data collection and visualization, and how it involved an analogue creation process with simple materials. Might there be a similar design prompt that would allow people to visualize for themselves the importance of data literacy or, at least, the impact that their news consumption has on them?
On Tuesday of last week, our team had determined that we wanted to use a participatory design approach. We would provide users with instructions to complete an exercise that would help them to investigate their own habits and norms around news consumption. The exercise would serve to help people pause and consider their news consumption with intention and thought.
Before class on Thursday, we met to discuss our progress and decided to create a workshop for middle and high school students, in the context of a classroom or a local community organization. The workshop would focus on developing an awareness of each students personal news consumption and their consumption as a group. This would mean creating a small zine or booklet that includes exercises for people to visualize their own news consumption. We’d like to have a series of exercises that people can complete as groups or individually, with each one targeting a different topic in the blurring between fact and opinion. At the end of the exercise, each user or user group would have a small keepsake visualization that will be both personalized and attractive.
Our class time was largely spent discussing the characteristics of design interventions. This discussion helped us to recognize the importance of tailoring our intervention to our target users and meeting them where they are. For our project, this means recognizing that our users are in the midst of developing their critical thinking skills. As we design the visualization and instructions for completing the exercise, we can’t assume that our users our bringing a critical lens to their news consumption. In fact, they’re probably just beginning to consume news from the sort of traditional news outlets that we’ve been considering.
Moving into class on Thursday, our team is aiming to each bring a few ideas for visualization exercises. From there, we’ll discuss our ideas and begin prototyping. We’ve all agreed that early prototyping will be key to make sure that the language and instructions in our intervention are well suited to a young adult audience.
Between the Tuesday and Thursday classes, our group met to discuss the progress on our design intervention. Before our meeting, Young had created the basic layout for our booklet, Juwon created a draft of the exercise sheet that would be given to each participant, and I began drafting the instructions for the facilitator and participants.
Coming together to review these materials, our group made two major adjustments to our intervention.
- Narrow our target audience. While we had initially planned to target middle and high schoolers, a little research revealed that most schools do not begin teaching how to navigate information systems until high school. With that in mind, we decided to narrow our target audience to just include high school students. This decision made writing the instructions a good deal easier. Knowing we were writing to a high school audience, I were able to look up example curriculum on news literacy.
- Include instructional lessons on basic media literacy topics. In our meeting with Stacie, she asked us how we intended participants to know how to gather the data we asked them to. In our instructions up to this point, we had assumed that participants would be able to identify characteristics of a news article such as publisher information and author. However, Stacie pushed us to consider how intervention would work for students who didn’t have a grasp of media literacy going into the exercise. Before class ended, we decided to include a set of optional classroom activities that would assist facilitators teach media literacy skills to participants who needed them.
Our group wrapped project one this week, presenting our final intervention to the class on Tuesday. I couldn’t be happier with the performance of my team and the final artifact we created.
The artifact is a short instructional booklet and accompanying worksheets. These can be easily deployed in a classroom setting to teach media literacy. It doesn’t require and special technology and can be adapted to the particular needs of the students. However, I’ll let our final documentation tell the full story of our project. For this post, I’d prefer to talk about the strength of the team behind this project.
Young and Juwon were remarkably supportive and talented teammates. Altogether, this was one of the highest functioning and most enjoyable teams I’ve been a part of as graduate student. The strength of our team was twofold: (1) each member brought a strong and complementary set of skills; and (2) we didn’t let the project impose undue stress on us. To the first point, Juwon and Young are each thoughtful designers who added great insights into our research phase. When we entered the intervention design phase, they stepped up to take the lead on the layout and visual design, and were transparent in asking if I would take the lead on the writing portion of our assignment. This division of responsible was quick, and set us up to tackle the final deliverables quickly. To the second point, I was consistently impressed by our team’s ability to not an atmosphere of stress interfere with our work. In my experience, open-ended Studio projects can easily spiral out of control or out of scope, especially when groups get caught up comparing themselves to others. I’m often guilty of comparing my group and myself to others, but this team was very effective as staying focused on our intervention. It’s a skill that I hope to bring to future projects.