As the U.S. presidential election quickly approaches, it’s critically important for people to have a strong understanding of the candidates’ policies and approaches before casting their votes. However, given the mass of news that inundates people and a tendency to gather information from a small set of familiar venues, it’s easy to get incomplete content and biased views. Nonetheless, designers can play a key role in helping people become better-informed citizens by teaching them how to read visual and verbal content carefully and be critical of information. Master of Design (MDes) and Master of Professional Studies (MPS) students from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design tackled this challenge by investigating the roles that communication plays in a range of news websites. They then used their discoveries to inform the making of design interventions that take a step-by-step approach to helping people navigate, analyze, and understand the news they read.
“Throughout the summer, I had numerous conversations with people about the pending election,” said Associate Professor Stacie Rohrbach, who teaches the Masters Communication Design Studio. “In talking with them, I learned that many of them were gathering information from a single news source as they often had acquired limited information on any one topic. I began wondering how people's narrow intake of information impacted their political views and questioned the role that communication design could play in helping them become better informed citizens.”
Working in groups of two, the teams were asked to analyze three different news sources for a few weeks identifying the subtle, and not so subtle, ways in which news sources direct viewers through the news and present their perspectives. Following this in-depth analysis, students were tasked with creating a how-to piece aimed at helping people critically navigate the news and ultimately, become better-informed citizens.
“This project is extremely pertinent in an election like this,” said Manya Krishnaswamy, a 1st year MDes student. “People seem to have strong feelings about the candidates in this election and, without them knowing, could have been influenced by the type of news media they access. This project has allowed us, as designers, to identify some of the biases present across multiple news sources.”
Krishnaswamy and had her partner Mackenzie Cherban (MDes) took a light-hearted approach with a Buzzfeed article designed to equip young voters with some tools to look at news more critically and help them formulate their own opinions without being clouded by the bias of news outlets.
“For our project, we used ourselves as guinea pigs in a five-day social experiment where one of us only looked at news from MSNBC, while the other looked at multiple news sources,” said Krishnaswamy. “We tracked how this impacted our emotions, level of optimism, and what we thought were the most important news pieces for the day.”
For MDes student Lisa Li and MPS student Jesse Wilson, social media was a possible solution. “Besides the massive amount of media coverage, this election is the most social media active in history,” said Li. “With more and more people consuming their news from social media outlets, our group wanted to use this same platform to inform and remind people to be more thoughtful of the news they consume.”
Li and Wilson opted to create a Twitter feed targeted specifically at college students. Twitter enables the team to send succinct messages to their user group with minimum risk of readers losing interest. “We wanted to show college students what different news sources are doing to them and to give them a suggestion as to how they might recognize it and could do to learn more,” said Li.
“This election has seen an unprecedented number of contested news reports, questions about fact checking, and over-the-top news stories,” said Hannah Rosenfeld (MPS) who, along with Vikas Yadav (MDes) and Leah Jiang (MDes) conceived a Chrome plugin for this project. “This can be discouraging to any citizen and can be particularly overwhelming to young voters looking to find some solid ground in a sea of information.”
The team’s plugin, De.code, is designed to make anyone, young voters in particular, fearless news explorers. They outlined six organizational features that will help young voters navigate any number of news sites and displays them in interactive form alongside news content.
“As designers, we learn to empathize with the people we’re designing for, understanding their motivations, attention spans, likes, dislikes, and so on,” said Krishnaswamy on why designers are equipped to handle problems like this. “Designers are also equipped with the skills to work at varying scales - from micro to macro. We’re able to observe and craft little details on a micro-level, such as character of different typefaces, whilst thinking about the bigger picture, such as target audience, motivations, etc. Both scales provide us with the lens to view design, and both are equally important when creating well-balanced pieces.”
“Designers are well equipped to handle challenges like this for several reasons,” added Rosenfeld. “First, our ability to both delve deeply into the details of content and interaction and zoom out to consider the larger systemic issues at play lead to robust and rigorous solutions. Designers are also accustomed to working with and for a multitude of stakeholders and considering a problem from diverse perspectives.
“Finally, as designers we are adept at synthesizing complex information and identifying patterns to inform well-considered and thoughtful solutions to complex problems like navigating information in the news.”
“I was impressed by the depth of students' investigations into the roles that design plays in guiding the perception of news consumers and by their innovating thinking in the use of media and messaging to teach people how to become better informed citizens,” said Rohrbach.