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Picture This:

Jessica Schafer Fall 2010 School of Design Carnegie Mellon

What is it?

Our assignment was to visualize the information space of a given artifact with the goal of clearly explaining the content, structure and navigation of the artifact in an engaging manner. The final product was to be a large printed poster; we were not limited to size, color or method. My assigned artifact was the Sunday, October 3, 2010 issue of The New York Times. This issue of the Times had ten sections: the front news section, Sports Sunday, Arts & Leisure, Week in Review, Sunday Business, Sunday Styles, Travel, the Book Review, the regular Sunday Magazine and an issue of the Style Magazine devoted to design. I grew up reading the Sunday Times and worked for many years in media relations, so I was particularly thrilled (and daunted!) by this assignment.

The October 3, 2010 issue of The New York Times.

I started by asking what is the Sunday Times? The newspaper bears the motto “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” but which news does the Times choose? Where in the newspaper do particular stories appear? For that matter, where in the world do stories come from? Are they written by staff reporters or wire reporters? How many photos are used? Black and white or color? How much avowed opinion is included in the paper? How do advertisements influence the reader’s experience? Which sections are the most editorial-content heavy and which ones are the most advertising-heavy? These are all questions I considered as I moved forward with taking a thorough inventory of the paper.


I started my inventory of the Times by focusing on the front page of each section. On a large piece of paper I sketched and listed as many pieces of data as I could think of: article placement, column number and size, headline types, article subjects, paid content, graphics used, reporters and photographers associated with the content and ratio of text to image. After going through this for each section, I started to think about which pieces of information told the strongest story about the newspaper. Deciding to focus on information that would allow me to make comparisons and see trends in content between sections and across the paper, I set out to create a database of information that I would be able to manipulate. I surveyed all content on each page of the newspaper and noted down the following information: • Section and page • Content type (editorial image, advertising image etc.) • Page space taken up by the content (inches squared) • Subject matter

Clockwise from upper left: Sketch of Arts & Leisure section front page, brainstorming doodles and ideas, sample of Excel spreadsheet containing collected data, and tracings of various headline types.

• For articles: location, whether it was breaking news, whether it came from a wire service and whether a graphic was associated with it. • For graphics: black and white versus color, whether it was a photograph or a graphic (illustration or information chart), and whether it came from a wire service.

What’s the idea?

Once I finished compiling data, I stepped back and considered the big picture of my poster. What kind of impression did I want to make on a viewer several feet away versus up close? I played around with drafts that presented the newspaper as two large circles, representing editorial content and advertising content, and used smaller circles within these shapes to comparing subject matter. But I didn’t like the lack of information about the individual sections in these drafts. So I played with smaller units, dividing the pages in each section up by editorial versus paid content. This resulted in some interesting shapes, but I struggled with how to represent a variety of information.

Rough drafts from top to bottom: Using large circles as basis for comparison, abstract form created by comparing pages of editorial content to pages of paid content, and working with bars to represent sections and subjects.

Going through these drafts, I decided that from afar, I wanted viewers to get a sense of the structure of the paper and the relative size of each section. Up close, I wanted to convey information about the content in each section and where in the world the news stories in this issue covered. I tried several variations that might convey all of this information in one form. One idea included conveying each section as a large vertical bar that upon closer inspection would be broken down into content types horizontally. However, these attempts either felt too busy or too abstract. Instead, I returned to the basic unit of the newspaper, the page, and built up a diagram of the entire paper on which I could impose a variety of data in repeating forms.

Putting Together the Final

My final composition uses three repeating forms and a map indicating where news in this issue of the Times originated. The repeating form is a diagram of every page in the paper, divided by section. The first form shows editorial versus paid content, the next shows subject matter across sections and within editorial and paid content, and the final form compares text-only space to graphics. I used the section titles, nameplate and issue date as they appear in the newspaper in order to evoke a strong sense of the Times brand. I paid close attention to color throughout the poster. The diagram focused on subject matter was particularly difficult on this front; I ended up with 15 subject tags which each needed a color. I tried to make trends more evident by grouping subjects by color—lifestyle and human interest items are represented by blues, while politics, law and foreign affairs are represented by greens. I couldn’t resist calling out New York Times Company advertising space with a specific color since I found a relatively large amount of it!

Excerpts from final composition, clockwise from upper left: Nameplate and date as seen in the newspaper, caption and first section of diagram showing patterns of subject matter, portion of map indicating location where editorial content originated, and portion of diagram showing use of section titles and dots to represent each page.

I struggled with whether or not to title each form in large text or provide smaller captions. I even printed black and white versions of each so that I could view them outside of my computer screen. In the end I am very happy that I went with smaller captions as I think large titles would have disrupted the gestalt of the poster. My hope is that the repeating forms are an engaging representation of the newspaper sections and viewers are drawn in to find out more about the color variations.

Lessons learned

• Focus, focus, focus: Don’t try to convey too much information in one blow. I spent a lot of time trying to draw out the essence of my artifact and honing my presentation of that information. I decided that erring on the side of simplicity is better than confusing my audience. • Size matters: This project brought home to me the significant difference between a large format poster and a graphic seen on a computer screen; my visualization would look very different if it was restricted to a screen. • Not just Saturday’s news: The Sunday New York Times is big, but it’s not a breaking news newspaper. Instead, it is focused on trends of the moment and analysis across subject areas. I was peripherally aware of this difference previously, but it was driven home by this project.

Final composition.

• Who pays to read the physical Sunday New York Times: People with money to spend on luxury personal accessories and household goods, if the advertisements are anything to go by. This project caused me to think a lot about the difference between the physical and web-based newspaper. In particular, it would be interesting to see if the advertisers in the free web version skew toward a lower target income bracket than the advertisers in the physical version.

Visualizing Information: A Design Studio Process Book  
Visualizing Information: A Design Studio Process Book  

Process book to accompany a graduate design studio project about the New York Times.