‘On Interactivity’ Category

Getting your audience to read – An experiment in information segmentation

Getting your audience to read – An experiment in information segmentation

In 2007 Liberty Science Center opened an exhibition called Skyscraper! Achievement and Impact. The show was about the science behind the design and construction of tall buildings. The content was very rich, very visual and very complicated since it was mostly related to how certain technologies worked.

When Liz Grotyohann and I teamed up to create the 216 graphic panels that accompanied this exhibition, we encountered two main challenges: the first one was a very extensive and complicated content, mostly related to unfamiliar technical processes. The second one was the short attention span of our main audience -children and young adults-, which reduced the permeability of the content. In other words, these youngsters didn’t read, and we had a lot of complicated stuff to explain.

The challenge is familiar to all museum editors, who often follow Beverly Serrell’s great advice on label writing from her book “Exhibit Labels”. However, as time passes and audiences evolve, the challenge of making visitors read gets harder to overcome. Visitors are changing. Their attention span and desire for a quick rush of information is accelerating the way they search for new content, while at the same time is reducing the time spent in front of each piece of it. We need to adapt our content to these attention tendencies, without loosing the meat of it.

So we decided to experiment with a few borrowed concepts, taken from similar -but faster evolving- fields: web and social media, magazines and advertising. We imported some of the guidelines and applied them to the printed graphics in the show. From the web we took the shortness of the information. Facebook and Twitter, which were just starting, allowed for under 200 characters to send a message.Also, the possibility to jump from one piece of information to the other, while keeping the relationship between the pieces. In other words, we divided the information in smaller bites, that together made a meal. From Magazines we took the usage of images as the main vehicle for content, supported second by captions and titles and last by text. From Advertising we took several lessons. We allowed visitors to understand what a panel was about in less than 3 seconds. We altered the order of the information, so images titles and subtitles sent the main message. No more questioning in the title. Go to the point. Paragraphs had to be short. More than five lines and the readers ignore them completely. We learned that people prefer photos than illustrations (at least when buying things) but we decided to ignore this one.

The Beginning: the Frankenstein panel

We started with something like the following graphic. We were still in transition, trying to convert our traditional model into something shorter and more direct. So it reflects a mix of design intents. We followed traditional models to present the information: Colors (oranges and yellows) identify the section, intro paragraph introduces visitor to subject, subsections explain content through text. A few images place visitor in context and provide visual aid to some of the secondary content.

I can point at several issues with this graphic. Too much single-bodied text for once. Some paragraphs are about eight lines long, meaning they are too long (and they keep going). While images support the content of the text, and they are associated by proximity to the paragraphs, both are not integrated. One area is text, the next one is image. The only part where there is a better association of visual content with text is in the last segment, where we explained the different trades of iron workers. This segments reads better because 1) photo comes before title and caption, and 2) captions support the images, are right under the images, they add information in a very direct way and they are short.

As many magazine publishers have discovered over the years, the captions of the photos are often read more than the articles. Further studies by Tufte explain how the closer the notations are to the images, the better the association between them is. In other words, captions must jump into the frame of the image. Advertisers discovered that when their audiences were exposed to graphic adds, their eye looked at the photos first, the title second and the text third. So in those cases in which the title went first, the text second and the image third, people were reading the adds backwards. If you consider that people in general spend a few bare seconds in front of an add before moving on, the travel time of the eye matters. So we made it here at the end of the panel, at last.

Getting better at it

The following is one of a series of translucent panels that explain the mechanical systems inside skyscrapers. The raw information about the subject was available in the form of college books for engineering students, so it was heavily technical and dry. Most of it was explained through text (they were four inches-thick books), diagrams of engineering data, tables filled with amperage consumption of HVAC systems (cooling and heating) and other very specialized materials.

We couldn’t have explained all of this content through text. We could have re-written those books, put them on the walls and made people stand while reading them -it would have been close to some exhibitions out there. So we went through the model of anatomy books, that present information in overlapped layers, separating each system in a different transparent sheet and distributed the content through captions all over the maps.

Mechanical Systems: Information is divided into small bites, allowing visitors to follow the natural rhythms created by online exploration.

This is how we addressed this challenge:

1) We converted information from narrative into visual. The illustrations carry most of the content. The idea was that visitors should be able to understand how these system work without reading one single word.

2) We eased the navigation through information by breaking the content into small “bites”. Visitors were going to be able to jump from one piece of information to another, following the natural rhythms created by online exploration.

3) We placed the most important information, the one crucial to understand each system, in the illustrations and the captions.

4) Captions were integrated with the illustrations by placing them next to highlighted details, not on the bottom or the side of the frame.

5) With a few exceptions, captions were very short. Not yet as short as a Facebook or Twitter updates, but close.

6) The main messages were expressed in the subtitles. The titles were only used to ID the systems.

7) The intro paragraphs were left to explain the general ideas in narrative form, but none of the indispensable content lived there. I strongly believe that paragraphed content is the least read in a graphic panel, so I do not rely on it. Still, I keep it to provide a narrative version for less-visual people.


The following are other examples of this attempt:

The effect of skyscrapers in the city: if you look at the illustrations only, you can see that 1) you have either, one skyscraper alone, or a skyscraper inserted into a city. We should have made a big red cross over the singleton. 2) You see that different building shapes cause more or less shadow in the sidewalk (there is a three there that dies without sun). And finally you learn how noise bounces between buildings. All of this without reading a word.

Wind Tunnel: The information that matters is carried by the info-graph. The written information is supportive.

How skyscrapers survive the wind's force: this graphic still has too much text in paragraphs, but the illustrations convey the message by themselves.

A summary of the principles applied in these graphics:

1) Captions are read more than paragraphs. Put your most important content there.

2) Our readers must be able to know what a graphic panel is about in three seconds or less.

3) The eye sees the image first, the title second, the text third. Put them in that order if possible.

4) Use your title and subtitle to express the main message of the entire graphic, not to draw readers into your content.

5) Images catch most of the attention. Use images that explain the content by themselves. Text comes second.

6) Integrate image and text. Make them one. Use text to caption/notate images. Ergo, create info-graphs.

7) Break the frame of the image. Integrate illustrations and text.

8 ) Captions/notations can’t be longer than 140 characters. Our Twitter generation is addicted to the constant jump from piece to piece of information.

9) Intro paragraphs are read the last. Use them to add a narrative description to the content, not to carry the most important information.