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According to Edward Segel and Jeffrey Herr’s paper on “Narrative Visualization: Telling Stories with Data,” I found that information can be supplied to the consumer in two different ways. Either the audience is force-fed, led upon a pre-conceived path of learning or understanding. Or the consumer is allowed to manage their own enlightenment by taking control of the narrative and adjusting it to fit their own curiosities.

There are definitely pros and cons to each, and some instances naturally call for one approach over the other, but Segel and Herr challenge the designer to bridge the gap between the two. It is not necessarily about compromise, but instead, the issue exists in finding a middle-ground alternative.  There must be a way to merge the qualities of static and interactive information design and also allow both the author and the reader a voice and feeling of control within the narrative.

And unfortunately, Segel and Herr didn’t necessarily spell out the solution, but left it open for future research and debate. How does one combine these two extremely different outliers?

“Messaging might clarify visual elements but produce clutter. Interactivity might engage the user but detract from the author’s intended message.” With this sort of trade-off in mind, there are obvious methods of transporting information that lend toward one extreme over the other, whether static or interactive.

A newspaper or magazine, even littered with visual aids, is often meant to teach and inform in a static manner. The information is conveyed in a straightforward way, allowing the reader to absorb the content following a set narrative or path. While the consumer may form their own opinion regarding the information, their thoughts cannot influence the author nor the nature of the narrative.

However, take for instance a more interactive setting. Perhaps information is conveyed over an online blogging platform, much like this one. You can follow attached links, and get caught up in completely irrelevant content (per the nature of the web). You, the reader, also have the opportunity to submit a comment, an opinion, and join the the narrative discussion. And, not only do your thoughts affect the author, but every reader to follow will also be affected by your discussion. It gives the consumer a sense of control, which is, in some ways, frightening because it can deter from the author’s initial intent. Like a game of telephone, interactive narratives can become corrupted with time and the purpose of a message lost from future readers.

But ostracizing a consumer can be an unwise decision. We all, in truth, want our thoughts, opinions, and feelings to be heard. But how do you teach and convey information if the student has so much power and control?

A classroom can never last for long in this manner. The teacher must rejoin the discussion, guide the students along, right them on the proper path, and sometimes take back control so they don’t get too lost in their own thoughs.

Likewise, an information designer must do the same, constructing a visual narrative that points in a single direction, yet in an elusive manner. Perhaps a sort of trickery is involved. Give the consumer the feeling that they are in control, but orchestrate the events that follow.

One of the ways that I have witnessed this in an effective manner is via the Girl Effect. A year ago, I researched the power of instructive web design and found that their site offered the information in a most constructive manner, dividing it up into purposively driven sections, “Home,” “Learn,” “Give,” “Mobilize.” It follows many of the ideals of data visualization outlined by Segel and Herr. One of the main elements wielded is the use of color and consistent graphic illustrations. Each section of the site is color-coded appropriately, with bold vectorial references of arrows and typographic titles used consistently throughout the entire narrative.

However, design aspects set aside, one of the most brilliant aspects of this site is the leading statement, “The world could use a good kick in the pants.” Agree or disagree.

Talk about merging interactive and static design. This statement immediately places the control of the experience within the hands of the consumer. They are drawn into the site, physically and emotionally. Their experience is dependent upon their reaction to the content. If they don’t disagree, then they are prompted to think “Why not?” And if they do agree, then they are led to learn more and discover ways in which they can make that “kick” happen with the aid of a short, yet powerful video leading them to the raw content of the site.

In viewing this statement-driven video and site, I realized that the crux of the issue in merging interactive and static, and author-driven and reader-driven information design is in creating a relationship with the viewer. You must pluck at the heartstrings of the viewer, allowing them to connect with the information in a deeper, more passionate way. You must draw them in, so they find themselves absorbed by the visual narrative, caught up within the story and the cause. I think the Girl Effect does this most effectively by first initiating contact with the viewer, pressing them to think first before drowning them in content. In this way, the visual narrative has invited the consumer for greater discussion and relationship between the author and reader has merged peacefully, with a sense of understanding on both sides.

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