Making the Abstract Concrete

Communication Design — 2

Learnings and reflections from the communication design studio taught by Stacie Rohrbach at Carnegie Mellon University.

The aim of the project is to address the challenge of making something abstract concrete using communication design, in my case, the Human Memory — how it works, where it exists and why is it important?

Photo by Fakurian Design on Unsplash
  1. Research
  2. Narrative Sequence
  3. Narrative Structure
  4. Moodboard
  5. Storyboard Iteration I
  6. Storyboard Iteration II
  7. Goals of the Project
  8. Building & Refinements I
  9. Building & Refinements II
  10. Refinements
  11. Learnings

1. Research

September 28, 2021 | Tuesday W1

What have you identified as important pieces of information relative to your topic?

How are Memories Formed?

Memory allows living beings to encode, store and retrieve information. Encoding is the process of receiving, analysing and altering information to prepare it for storage. Storage is how, where, how much, and for how long the information is retained in the memory. Retrieving is the way of getting the stored information back to use in the real world.

Connecting memory to design, and specifically communication design, there is a strong correlation between what information in a system can be implicit and what part of the information has to be explicit.

It is interesting to note that we often forget our car keys but almost never forget directions to our house. There are different types of memories depending on how long the information is retained in the brain. Sensory memory is the earliest and shortest span of memory that is captured by our 5 senses — visual (<0.5 sec), taste, touch, sound (3–4 sec) and smell via the immediate environment. Short-term memory or active memory is the information that one is thinking about in real-time like listening to a phone number and jotting it down. It lasts up to 30 seconds. But, say over time you come across this phone number every day to call your Mom, it may eventually make space in the long-term memory and you would be able to recall it when needed.

What are the different types of Memories?

The process of encoding and storing memories require changes in the synapse in terms of its shape and number. Some changes lead to an increase in synaptic strength or long-term potentiation (LTP) which results in stronger long-term memory. At the same time, there are changes that lead to decrease in a synapse’s effectiveness or long-term depression (LTD) which results in the weakening of certain memories to make space for new memories.

2. Narrative Sequence

September 30, 2021 | Thursday W1

What narrative sequences are you exploring in communicating important information about your topic clearly and effectively? Explain their structure and merit through text and images.

To explain the concept of memory, I took the approach where different pieces of information within a memory are stored as blocks. The idea is to use blocks as chunks of information that are stored in different parts of the brain, and while some fade-out, others are re-arranged. The initial storyboard goes as follows —

#1 All of us have billions of memory, some fresh while some faded. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that new memories are fresh. We sometimes forget the things we just saw or heard but can remember an instance from last year.

#2 The concept of memory is so abstract, that people often wonder how it works? Memory feels like an intangible concept that one can’t touch or see, but they still exist.

#3 When we receive any new information, we start building new memories as different pieces of information come together. This process is known as encoding.

#4 Building connections with different parts of the brain to store a memory

#5 The retrieval of information identifies these patterns and rebuilds the memory. But the pieces that are put together might not always be exactly the same as they were stored, which accounts for why we do not remember the specifics or get some specifics wrong.

#6 The retrieval of past memories and the building of new memories are closely linked. Also, when people think about the past vs when they think about the future, the same regions of the brain are put to work, which relates to how our memories play a significant role in thinking about how we want our future to be.

#7 The retrieval process itself can happen in three different ways — recall, recognition and re-learn. The recall is about remembering the information from scratch whereas recognition is seeing familiar things or alternatives and remembering using these as aid. Relearn on the other hand is about reducing the time we spend learning things that we have come across in the past vs new information.

#8 At a time our brain can store only 4–7 bits of information in the short-term memory. Comparing this to our long term memory, in theory, there is no bound to the size of information that the human brain can store.

3. Narrative Structure

October 5, 2021 | Tuesday W2

Which narrative structure do you plan to employ and why? (What did you learn from teaching others about your topic?) How might you leverage channels of information to aid understanding in a compelling and meaningful manner?

After the basic draft of the storyboard, we did a speed-dating exercise to get quick feedback from the classmates. In the activity, thrice we partnered with different classmates to present our storyboard and understand the friction points. Some of my learnings from the speed-dating was as follows —

  • The flow is simple and effective but lacks a story. There is a disconnect between #5 and #6, how memories are formed/ retrieved to why past and future spark the same parts of the brain. There can be some interesting pointers at the start of the story linking past and future, so that when it is talked about later, it is interesting to note in relation to memories. → To make the story more relatable and understandable I added the character Sarah and explained the concept of forming a new memory through her experience.
  • Dive into how exactly it happens, the functioning of the neurons and the chemical exchange at the synapsis. → To give further depth to the story, I tried to include details of the functioning of neurons and synapses that leads to the encoding of memory in the brain.
  • The blocks metaphor is great to explain how memory is stored in pieces. It would be further nice to have some representations in the blocks talking about the information block they represent — location, emotions, clothes, people etc. → Instead of empty blocks, I included pieces of information inside them.
  • While explaining the concept of memory, I felt the examples helped connect the story, so having more examples and using the time of the video to give different examples of types of memories. → Within the scope of the video, I push viewers to remember the details of a scene to trigger their memories and make the experience more engaging.

Based on the improvements from the discussion, the new storyboard with some understanding of ambient sound and motion was created as follows —

Part 1
Part 2

4. Moodboard

October 7, 2021 | Thursday W2

What visual styles might you leverage to communicate important information about your topic to others? What approaches are feasible and appropriate, given the length of this project?

For the visual style of the story, I explored multiple styles ranging in the number of details to more abstract and a range of colours to monotones.

Style 1: Detailed and Colourful Illustrations — Sources: Dribbble, Movie (Inside Out)
Style 2: Neon or Dark Color Palette with Gradients— Sources: Dribbble
Style 3: Texture, Grains and Mono- Duotones— Sources: Netflix and Dribbble

To keep the style simple yet effective and given the scope of the project, I am inclined towards style 3 that uses gradients and grains in monotone or duotone to go forward along with color palette inspired by style 2.

5. Storyboard Iteration I

October 12, 2021 | Tuesday W3

In another quick feedback session, I shared my story script verbally, at first, and then with visuals with two of my classmates. The aim was to see if others understand the meaning without visuals and the critical points where it might be important to use visuals carefully to explain the concept and context better. The two major feedbacks that I received were —

  1. Instead of using a separate scenario of amusement park and theme park in the end to connect the past and future, the scenario can build upon the anniversary event. To resolve that I plan to update the future event — Sarah planning her birthday party next month and imagining the details of how she wants it to be. Without the past memories and the role of the hippocampus, she would lack the ability to imagine future events.
  2. The other realisation was that the explanation of how human memory works and how information is stored through the changes at the synapse is the most critical point and thus needs visual support. The introduction of new terms like channels, receptors and potentiation might be confusing to grasp and thus making the script as progressive as possible and explaining some technical words.

6. Storyboard Iteration II

October 14, 2021 | Thursday W3

What steps do you plan to take to refine/improve your design approach based on the feedback you received from the review session?

Based on further feedback from Jonah and Eva, there were further changes made to the script and the visuals.

One thing that seemed abrupt was the introduction of the link between the past and the future at the beginning of the story, so to make the story more continuous and linear, this bit was talked about after the discussion of how Sarah forms a new memory and then how her past memories affect her future. Other textual suggestions helped me shorten the content at multiple places.

Representing the senses through either the body parts or inside the pieces of information is something I am debating with, and would want to explore with the animations more. For the visual style, I started exploring the grain and gradient effect.

7. Goals of the Project

October 19, 2021 | Tuesday W4

What are you learning from the making of the video that is informing the actions you’re taking?

Things I want to take away from the project —

  1. Learn Storytelling skill which is not only informative but also engaging
  2. Make an effective Narration that communicates the idea clearly
  3. Use a style that is minimal yet communicative
  4. Create focus on certain elements and not everything, and relay information progressively
  5. Improve after effects skills to create smooth motions
  • Pay attention to Hierarchy
  • Play with opacity and motion to shift focus between different elements
  • Use of colors effectively to create a distinction between normal scenes and inside the brain scenes and use of groups with similar color schemes.
  • Different channels of communication coherently — motion, sound and transition

8. Building & Refinements I

October 21, 2021 | Thursday W4

What steps do you plan to take to refine/improve your video based on the feedback you received from the review session? What areas require attention/improvement to communicate effectively?

  • I received the suggestion to record the audio narration first to understand the length of the video and then animate the frames to match the audio. Otherwise, the timing of each animation might be needed to change again. After the first draft of the audio, I realised that it extended to 5:30 mins and therefore I reworked the audio to make it 3:20 mins.
  • Another feedback I received was that the brain frame looked very geometric compared to the other frames and scenes. I am working around making it more organic and consistent with the other frames.
  • When I animated the zoom-in neuron, one self-realisation was that to make the transition smooth, I will have to add similar details and shapes to neurons across frames.
  • Overall transitions require attention to make the video connected and communicate well with the audio.

9. Building & Refinements II

October 26, 2021 | Tuesday W5

What are you learning from refining your video that is informing your fine-tuning?

  • Having a texture is making it difficult to map transitions while zooming, so instead of adding texture now, I will be animating the elements first and trying out the texture and gradient after.
  • One technical problem that I am facing is that zooming in elements in after effects, even vector forms, is making them blurry. So, I am creating a different zoom-in version on illustrator and then importing it.
  • Animating between individual frames is making me realise the gap that is needed to be filled and helping me make better decisions about color transitions and zoom levels.
  • In some places the narration is longer than the time needed for animation or transition, here, I have to think of ways to keep the user engaged in the video through subtle changes and movements so that the frame does not look still.

10. Refinements

October 28, 2021 | Thursday W5

At some places, there was a mismatch of colors, so I put down a color palette to make it consistent throughout.

Final Color Palette

I further fine-tuned the illustration style with grain and offset to add depth and a dynamic look to the video.

Lastly, to give a final touch to the story, I added subtle background music and some sound effects to complement the motions.

11. Learning

November 2, 2021 | Tuesday W6

What are your key takeaways from the second project?

  • Firstly, I learned about the use of different channels of communication — motion, sound and transition together to complement each other and build a cohesive narrative. Thinking of seamless and meaningful transitions was one of the most critical things I learned.
  • This was the first time, I added narration to a video, and it was a completely different and new learning experience from visual and text-heavy videos. I learned the importance of pacing the content along with visuals in sync.
  • The project helped me to understand the concept of hierarchy in videos, where before I had only understood it in static visuals. I learned how to use motion or lack of motion, different opacities and colors to change focus and highlight certain elements and reveal details progressively.
  • Lastly, the use of colors effectively to create a distinction between different groups of information and making schemes — was something I knew before but had never implemented, and this exercise helped me to think about it in depth.

How might you apply what you learned in the future?

  • I explored an interactive narration style to create the story more engaging. While I was able to include only one instance of it in my final video, it exposed me to a new structure of storytelling that I can further explore and apply in the future.
  • The storytelling skills and the skill to represent abstract information in concrete form is something that would be useful for me in not only building any future videos but also presentations and documentation in terms of the flow and structure.
  • Further, as a designer, there is always a challenge to explain abstract and preliminary ideas effectively to different stakeholders in a simple way, and this exercise would help me communicate my ideas better.

Watch the final result here.

Thank you for reading through! Hope it was fun 😄✨