Communication Design Studio

Lulin Shan
16 min readSep 3, 2020


Week 1 —Overview


Activity 1 — wind-up toys

In the first online session of this course, we spent the first hour playing with wind-up toys. Our instructor, Stacie Rohrbach, associate professor and director of Graduate Studies at Carnegie Mellon School of Design, showed us a collection of 15 wind-up toys. We were asked to guess how each one might work before they were wound up.

Each piece is unique in its design and form. Some of them look older than they actually are. Some exhibit unexpected movements as compared to what we thought their reactions would look like. As Stacie pointed out, abstraction is valued in design. Adding a little unexpectedness and surprise to things makes them exciting to play with. As designers, how can we design something which would make users feel rewarding when they find out how it works?

Reflecting on this activity, the most engaging part was that we were asked to pick the toys we would like to play with. The toys picked out first were those that we weren’t successfully in predicting their possible actions, in some way. While those whose reactions are easily predictable were left. I started to think that good communication design is not just about the appearance or functionality, it is the way through which we build elements surprising and engaging that helps create an overall pleasant interactive experience.

Activity 2— mapping the information

In the second half of the class, we were grouped into small teams to organize virtual post-it notes on the Miro board, where the cohort shared personal facts during a previous activity. We were given 15 minutes to organize the information based on possible patterns.

The team I was assigned to were given the following 3 sets of information:

Most of these 3 sets of information are regarding locations. We were given 15 minutes, so we had to move forward fast. After skimming through the stick-notes, we decided that each of us to take a set of information, then sort them within the respective set.

The set I selected includes answers to the question “From where and in what form will you be joining classes this fall”. I ended up dividing the set into 2 sub-categories:

Looking back at how I approached this activity, I realize that I had the first feeling about I could group the sticky notes base on if people are in the US or not. It was probably because I am joining the classes remotely out of the US. There are other ways to group these notes or create more sub-categories, for example, based on the colors.

Assignment — investigate new sources and design approach

Prior to join CMU, I had been living in Los Angeles for almost 6 years. I read Los Angeles Times for local news, and listened to NPR news during my commutes. In the initial exploration, I investigated these two news sources that I am most familiar with.

The Los Angeles Times, NPR

The Los Angeles Times has a compacted layout. Content is organized in a grid system, and gutters between chunks increase the overall readability. Images and charts are used to support featured news, and headers are shown in bold fonts. The overall layout allows readers to quickly browse the information before deciding which topic to learn more about.

Compared to the L.A. Times, NPR has a less compacted layout. It makes CORONAVIRUS LIVE UPDATES as a top story with a larger image, as it is the current issue people are most concerned. The top bar is highlighted in dark gray. Readers can only see headers of 4 stories on the landing page when accessing the website through a laptop.

Week 1– Mental Models


Reflecting on the mapping activity

Our class today started by discussing how each group categorized the information to the orientation questions, a mapping activity we did collaboratively in last class. Our team discussed how and why we organized the information we were given. The information we organized was about locations, and we displayed it in a layered approach. It was interesting to see how other teams organized information. Some teams were assigned to the answers with rich meanings, so they organized the information in a way showing overlapping between different categories(see two figures below). I learned that using an appropriate structure to organize information effectively is important in communicating ideas.

Left: Team 4, Right:Team 5


We then moved to a discussion of the readings.


Davis talks about the roles of design to play within culture. The illustrative approach suggests that context is shaped by society. For example, the design of Zoom, the platform we currently a lot to interact with instructor and classmates, has been largely shaped by the needs of society. While the formative approach puts forward the idea of how design contribute to construct the society. Thinking about how the application of new technologies greatly changes our behaviors and lifestyles.

Schemas are mental structures that represent our expectations and knowledge about people, social roles, and behaviors based on past experiences. Stereotype defines perceptions based on limited information, and prototype serves as a best example that others try to mimic.

When working on a new product or a new feature, designers need to consider the users’ mental models or what they have been familiar with. This helps to lower users’ learning curve. We also need to be mindful of our own stereotypes. Conducting thorough user research could help designers to understand the expectations and pain points of potential users, instead of creating something that mainly based on their own perceptions.


Crisp pointed out that the two main functions of typographic content are roles (such as the body of folio or layout) and expressions (people’s responses to the content). The role refers to the denotation(what something is), while the expression means the connotation(representation). Together they establish the voice which is defined by the attitude and position of the type. The objective of typography is to convey the intended messages to people. Designers have control over the roles. Therefore, they should make sure their design creates and expresses a unique identity.

Role and expression together to form attitude and position. Note by Stacie.

Lorraine Wild talks about how style inevitably cycles in a “great wheel”. It starts with good design, in time devolves to mass-market style, then cliché, embarrassment, and “it’s over” stage. Then it will be resurrected as a fetish, turned into a revival, making it back to be “interesting” and good design again. The cycle answers my question that why some fashion styles considered outdated could be popular again. The cycle of evolvement makes sense to me, but I doubt whether this cycle applies to every style. And who defines what “good design” is? What are the similarities among the socially accepted good design?

Lorraine Wild proposes how style inevitably cycles in a “great wheel”. Note by Stacie.

Investigating News Sources

  1. The Los Angeles Times
Visual structure of the Los Angeles Times

Visual Structure

The landing page of the Los Angeles Times consists of compacted content organized into four columns. The featured post is supported with a larger image and a summary, compared to other top stories. The bar chart reflecting daily Coronavirus cases is also the focal point. Articles are shown as one-line headlines. The tabs under masthead can direct readers to different featured topics.

The visual structure brings out a balanced look and feel. The articles are organized in a grid-based format and are largely text-based.

Visual Form

Feathered post in the Los Angeles Times

A strong hierarchy of fonts is seen in the daily featured post. Both san serif and serif fonts are used to help readers visually distinguish between sections. The san serif font used for the Los Angeles Times’ name indicates its association with its printed newspaper.

The Los Angeles Times uses a black and white color palette. It alternates black and grey between some lines to reinforce content hierarchy. The post with secondary importance is represented with headline in a bold font. Overall, the combination of different typefaces helps readers to quickly browse the information before deciding which topic to learn more about.


The articles are set in a descriptive style. In reporting certain events, the tone leans towards subjective and liberal. Take the featured post above as the example, the author’s attitude and position toward the event can be reflected through using words like “struggle”, “aggressive”, and “dubiously”.

2. BBC News

Visual structure of the BBC Times

Visual Structure

Compared to the Los Angeles Times, the overall layout of BBC News is more orderly and balanced. The top post is paired with a large image, making it as the focal point. Other featured stories are equally spaced, each one paired with an image. Because BBC News broadcasts worldwide news, the tab content of top navigation bar ranges from pressing topics, to areas and news categories.

BBC News gives a lot of weight to visuals, in terms of size and quality. There is no vertical lines between articles. Each piece of news is organized in a single card, making it easy to grab the information quickly.

Visual Form

BBC uses san serif fonts throughout, making the content easy to read on digital devices. It also uses bold fonts to distinct primary and secondary headlines. The San Serif headlines convey the feeling of neutral and informational.

The color palette includes black, dark grey, and red. The body text is in dark gray throughout the page, giving emphasis on news headlines. Light grey cards are used as a background to frame some content.

3. NPR News

Visual structure of the NPR New(website & mobile)

Visual Structure

NPR’s website layout is clean and less compacted compared with the L.A. Times and BBC News. The top story is paired with a large image, and the featured stories are organized in cards with white backgrounds, equally spaced out. After scrolling down the page, there is only one card per row.

Some story is coupled with a “Listen” button in blue color. NPR News puts emphasis on audio content on its website since it provides a network of radio stations in the US.

Visual Form

NPR uses san serif fonts throughout, and uses capitalization to highlight headers. The headlines are greatly larger than its body text, helping to attract readers’ attention.

NPR uses black, dark blue, and gray throughout the page. The red color in its logo is used for call to action buttons.

Mental model sketches noting key observations about the three website layouts

Sketching the layout of each website with key observations helps me to identify similarities and differences among the three news venues. The Los Angeles Times has a compacted layout, similar to its printed newspaper version. It’s primarily text-based, and visuals are used to support and highlight featured news. BBC news’ website covers a wide range of categories for readers to explore based on their own interests. It also emphasizes video content. The layout of NPR news is the least dense among these three. Some story is paired with an audio content.

Week 2– Napkin Sketch


Over last weekend, I evaluated three chosen news sources from the angles of visual structure and form. This week, I would like to do a deeper dive on NPR News, as I am interested in how it functions as a non-profit media organization in delivering high-quality news.

According to a research conducted by National Public Media and NPR website, NPR has reached 52 million weekly audience across its different platforms. It ranks 1st among podcast publishers and radio programs in America.

Why people choose NPR?

The first time I’ve heard of NPR was when my former colleague shared a story with “I heard it on NPR”. I began listening to NPR news during my daily commutes for my first job. While having a 40-min single trip was not fun, the news kept me company when I was driving alone.

After reading Listeners’ Stories, I found out the reasons why people choose NPR:

  • 98% of listeners have shared stories with friends, family or colleagues
  • 60% of listeners trust radio for timely information
  • 53% of listeners feel informed about the things they need to know
  • 46% of listeners feel connected to the community during lockdown

In addition, 85% of NPR listeners think NPR is personally important to them. During the current COVID crisis, 77% of radio listeners say they trust NPR to provide answers and solutions, more than the same for the CDC, newspapers, TV, or government. In conclusion, people choose NPR because they can stay connected, feel informed and be part of a greater community.

How does NPR work?

NPR is an independent, nonprofit media organization. The audience experiences NPR across a wide range of platforms including radio, smart speaker,, social media, live events, NPR apps and podcasts.

NPR has a collaborative network with local radio stations. By close collaboration, NPR is able to bring local and regional stories by station reporters to NPR’s national programs with a national audience. I really like the narrative style of NPR news, with reporting that transports the audience to the places where news is happening, and connects the audience with the people at the heart of every story. I think the collaboration network helps NPR news digs deeper into the issues. Because local reporters and hosts are very familiar with the issues, events and people they cover, the reports from them can bring local voices and perspectives to NPR. In addition, member stations and NPR share technology and best practices for engaging and insightful reporting. In this way, the collaboration network benefits both parties.

In terms of NPR’s revenue, 35% comes from dues and fees paid by the member stations, 33% comes from corporate sponsorships, and 13% is from contributions. Stations will be charged more as the volume of listening increases, in turn, stations are able to raise more funds from their supporters and communities. With more investment in production, stations can deliver more high-quality news and entertainment to NPR.

From NPR

The red “DONATE NOW” button on the website is eye-catching, and a Donate Now option is located in the side bar in NPR One app. People are encouraged to support their local NPR station.

How to connect with NPR?

The listeners and readers can connect with NPR through email newsletters and social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. NPR also has its YouTube channel with 292K subscribers. However, YouTube is not listed in the website footer as a way to connect. The website has NPR Video section. People can just watch videos(from NPR music, it has a separate channel on YouTube) on the website. No way to “watch it on the YouTube”, a feature that those websites with YouTube channels might have.

NPR website footer
Newsletter subscription box
Newsletters page

In NPR’s website, the subscription box can be seen at the bottom of each story’s page. I once subscribed it. However, it is not until I clicking on Newsletters in the website footer that I realize there are so many newsletter options! I was shocked! Users can pick one or more from its 21 newsletters. All of them will be sent in 3 different frequencies: weekly, monthly or periodically. Periodically? Sounds a little funny. “Breaking New Alerts”, “NPR Shop” newsletters are in that category. Okay, that makes sense. The types of newsletters including daily news, education, health, music, and politics etc, providing the audience with various options based on personal interests.

As stated on the website, NPR is working on reaching new audiences and digging deeper into the issues of the day, at the local, regional and national levels. Their focus on catering to various interests and needs of the audience can also be reflected through a wide range of shows and podcasts it offers.

NPR shows in Apple Podcast

Week 2– Present


In this class, each student was asked to do a 3 minutes presentation about individual research finding. My presentation was framed around the question “How does a non-profit deliver high-quality news”. Here is my in class sketch:

I found it was challenging for me to talk while sketching. I did several rounds of practice before the class, finally I structured my sketch in another layout because it works better with my oral presentation compared to the first version.

Looking back on classmates’ review feedback on my presentation, I was encouraged to think deeper about how might design play in a role in the system of connections I illustrated, and what informs me most for my intervention. Personally, I think NPR does a great job in two aspects on increasing & maintaining readership/listenership. On one hand, local reporters help highlight local voices and perspectives. On the other hand, NPR focuses on personalized newsletters and programs, delivering the specific type of information to those who have interests on.

Week 3-Brainstorm


I was teamed with Carol for the next stage of this project, because both of our individual research touched on issues around helping people find the news they are interested in. Our focus is on exploring ways of bolstering the recognition of relevance in news. For this session, we did a design jam — assigned into a breakout room and asked to create a visual representation for the issues we plan to tackle.

We shared our own thoughts, then using the digital assets provided to us to sketch out initial ideas.

Our Figma design jam board

We started by discussing the outcome we want to achieve after placing design intervention. We developed our sketches from the desired outcome we wish readers to achieve back to the current state, illustrated from the right to the left on our board. Our goal is to encourage people to explore news in new territory, so that they become more confident to stretch out their understanding in different topics. We talked about the frustration in the current state, which is when people try to explore news in other areas they are unfamiliar with, they tend to lose interest and patience easily because they think those news are ‘irrelevant’ to their preferred fields.

After sharing our sketches with the whole class, Alex raised a question “how can you get people to move into new territory without feeling like they’re missing something from the kind of news they are used to consuming.” It’s a really good question we should think about for next step.

I tried to find answers from personal experience by thinking about the situations where I am provided with opportunities to explore information outside my ‘comfort zones’. The experience in Amazon’s real bookstore came to my mind. When visiting Amazon’s real bookstore located at University Village in Seattle, I was impressed with the row of books labeled as “If you liked, you’ll love”. Based on data analysis, people who like the book on the left will probably also like the book on the right. The data-driven recommendation approach is also applied in the category ‘related to items you’ve viewed’ in Amazon’s online bookstore.

Another example is Spotify’s ‘Made For You’ feature. Spotify makes many personalized playlists for each user, based on individual’s listening habits and recently released songs.

Spotify’s ‘Made For You’ playlists

Week 4-Refine design intervention ides


We spent most of today’s session working on developing design intervention idea as a group. I collaborated with Carol to explore ideas that encourage people to explore news outside their comfort zones. Initially, our intervention idea is to create a personalized news recommendation section for news venues. We chose BBC News as a platform to visualize our idea.

After showing our work in progress to Stacie, we were inspired to place our design intervention in another direction — instead of trying to figure out a “solution” which might help people read more news from different fields, how can we highlight the “problem” and how can we increase people’s awareness of their habits in consuming news? Carol and I felt that it’s a pretty interesting direction to explore. During the following 2 hours in class, we gradually clarified our design intervention idea and form, which is a social media campaign that can be accessed through multiple news websites, aiming to provide users with infographic showing their news reading pattern(type of news) and give them suggestions. We were framing the campaign as a short-term reading news challenge that allows users to set their goals, revisit their habit through infographic on a regular basis, and working towards a reward.