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Vox: Visually Explaining the News

There is a lot of news out there. It is coming at us from so many directions, with so many views, and usually with a lot of intensity. Therefore, it is easy to kind of start dismissing all of it. But as conscientious citizens of society, we really should be trying to understand a good chunk of it. But then let’s say you do start paying attention. But then maybe you don’t actually understand what you’re hearing. Don’t be embarrassed. If you were an expert in everything, well you would be annoying for starters…haha What is happening in our world, country, state, city…well it can get a little tangled.

As a visual designer, I often find my job is to untangle complicated messages or situations and communicate it in a way that is less arduous on the audience. Making sure that I anticipate some of the communication pitfalls and build bridges for my audience that they can leap across to a better understanding. In the end, hopefully enriching their lives. Seems like that could be helpful in a couple of areas (news, insurance, banking, etc) of our lives, right?

So what if there was a news outlet that took that understanding of news and combined it with design and storytelling? That is where you will find Vox.com. They have popped up on my radar a couple times over the last year, each time to a resounding feeling of delight. But when I watched a video on gun violence that trotted out the data in a way that was so easy to understand, my little design heart knew I had found something special.

Stance on gun control in the United States aside for the moment…the best thing about this video? It’s so simple. There are literally black and white printouts, a red sharpie, and a voice over. So why does this work? Well, there are a couple reasons.

The first is that it is indeed simple. Good and clear design does not require it have a ton of bells, whistles, and shiny bits. It’s actually usually the exact opposite. When I was recently guest lecturing on visual design principles (specifically around presentations) to a group of Ph.D students in the sciences, I dropped the truth bomb that always gets everyone talking: Design starts in black and white. If you can’t explain it through these simple terms, adding colors, display type faces, or even motion is not going to help you reach your audience.  This video is already talking about a possibly confusing topic. Why add to the confusion by ill-placed design decisions?

The second reason is that the visuals are there to support the narration. Visuals can certainly stand on their own, but usually there is some well-written accompanying text so that the visuals make sense. When you hear someone speak, you’re there to hear new and interesting information through their particular lens view of the world. I rarely show up to a presentation to see someone’s awesome slides. I just need the visuals to support that narration and not distract from it.

The last reason why this video rocks is because of a very small detail that you might not detect the first watch through. She actually makes a mistake and misspells something. But she quickly scratches it out and keeps going. Pure gold. We are human. Talking about human things. It’s okay to be human. That show of human error that could have easily been edited out made me all the more ready to listen to what she had to say.

Vox is a news outlet that offers standard written news stories, video stories showcasing data, maps + data, and even card stacks for those of us that need to ingest news quickly and keep running through their day. We learned awhile ago that there is more than one way to interact with the news. Just look at The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Humor can go a long way in engaging an audience on topics that aren’t always easy to understand or pleasant, but still very important. The same can be said about data and human-to-human discussions.

Vox.com Offerings

With all news outlets, the information presented should always be taken with a grain of salt. No matter how enlightened you are, there is bias within each of us. News outlets are no different. But at least this is another version to review and try out. It beats being talked at in 30-second sound bites. Check Vox.com today!

 

Want to see more? This video discusses designing figures for communication and an age-old argument that I still end up discussing on a regular basis.

Spotify: Quietly Introducing Listening Data for Our Pleasure.

I always knew that data was important, but had I ever really stopped to consider its use more deeply? No, not really. To be completely honest, I think my closest interaction with data was when I was a child and received my monthly subscription of National Geographic (example below). They made these beautiful figures and graphics trying to explain a data set, a supporting process, mapping, etc. I was always amazed at how they packed all that data in there, but then usually immediately turned the page to see the baby seals. (Who doesn’t love baby seals? I was 9 years old.)

National Geographic: Superstorm of 2100

When I went back to school for the second time, that is when I finally realized how interesting data can be when it is corralled to tell a compelling story. Between taking an information design class with Professor Karen Cheng (truly the Information Design Queen), and co-founding Science by Design with Gregory Quetin that brought together scientists and designers to discuss communication methods, I quickly learned how kick-ass data can be.

Therefore, you can imagine my surprise when I accidentally ran across Spotify using their listener’s data on which artists they listen to, how often, and what cities listen to an artist the most. Spotify is a Swedish music-streaming company that started in 2008. As of 2015 they had over 75 million active listeners. 75 MILLION PEOPLE. Now privacy issues aside for a moment (I signed the agreement. I knew what I was getting into for $4.99), that is an amazing amount of potential data collection! Especially about a topic that is brought up on every dating website, is a go-to for small talk at parties, and the cause for many a breakup after a road trip.

If you saunter over to your Spotify application, you can follow along at home. Type in your favorite artist (Yes, I like John Mayer. Moving it right along…) Then click on “About.” Instead of the usual glib drivel that sounds like it came from Perez Hilton’s celebrity blog, I saw stats and was instantly drawn in.

Spotify

Yes, I could still read about John Mayer and view pictures of his bizarre outfits (I seriously remember him being cooler back in the day), but more importantly I could see how many people were listening to him today, monthly, and how he ranked in the world compared to other artists. Apparently his listening stock was up that day. When I had checked the day before only 7, 624 people had listened to him and his little triangle was down.

Spotify

Then Spotify took it a step further and let you know which cities in the world listened to him the most. In other words, if Seattle didn’t work out for me, I have 5 other cities that would accept me with open, John Mayer-loving arms.

Now in my head, I am certainly asking a few questions about how this could be presented better. I wanted to be able to click on the stats and cities or perhaps have hover states that would garner me additional information. But no such luck. From a more data accuracy standpoint, I’m sure I could show this to any one of my data savvy friends and they would have questions about how Spotify arrived at their findings.

But what Spotify did do, is as a user, I instantly felt like I was part of a community; A 12,490 person community and each of them knew just how much John Mayer spoke to my soul that day. Seems perhaps small and insignificant at first, but stop and think about it: I believe that a lot of people think that data is cold and unfeeling, perhaps incomprehensible, doesn’t apply to them, and the myths continue. But in a very simple way, Spotify took their data relating to something almost every person in the world loves, and used it to make a tighter community of their users. Simple, and very effective.

I have a feeling this feature is relatively new and that Spotify is just coming around to the idea of displaying their fascinating data and will continue to bring that to their users in diverse and interesting ways. Their enhanced UX definitely had this designer spending more time checking out her favorite artists to see how they ranked, rather than just clicking on a playlist and getting on with her day. Well played Spotify. Well played.