Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Multimedia Tools: A Case Study

Image courtesy of CURSORCH

New media are still primarily driven by text-based content. McEachern (2013) notes that “Social media are, in many ways, inherently written media […] even those that do not rely primarily on text do have important textual elements” (p. 280). Nevertheless, audiovisual and interactive materials are increasingly being used to supplement and enhance web and mobile content; photographs, charts, infographics, music and audio, movies, widgets, and even font selection can enhance a reader’s experience and focus his or her attention on key elements of a message. “The real trick,” Sniderman (2010) explains, “is adding multimedia that enriches your site, product, or brand without taking away from your company’s core message and aesthetic.” (para. 2). Done effectively, multimedia techniques can complement the written material in a digital document.

The mere presence of these elements is no guarantee of improved reader response or clarity of information delivery, however. As an NPR report (2013) on the use of multimedia elements in a White House web page released for a State of the Union speech observes, "sometimes, even accuracy can be misleading, especially when it comes to graphics and charts" (para. 2). While numeric data on various charts was accurate, the absence of a zeroed axis on some charts (para. 6, 22) and tapered images in bar graphs (para. 38) could create a visual impression that misleads readers or distorts the underlying data. Sniderman (2010) further points out that, "As silly as it seems, font choice can hurt the impact of your message" (para. 16), linking to an article that noting the attention generated when Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert posted an online tirade in Comic Sans after the departure of superstar basketball player LeBron James.

The brilliant New York Times multimedia feature "Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek" illustrates how the thoughtful union of text and multimedia can produce a digital form that is more powerful, compelling, engaging, and informative than then elements would be individually. Concerning a massive avalanche that claimed the lives of several skiers in a 16-person party in Washington, the article is written with black serif typeface on a stark white background, conveying both the formality and sophistication of a New York Times piece and the foreboding whiteness of the avalanche the story is about.

The feature begins with a full-screen animated image of a wind-swept ski slope, dry flakes of snow blowing across the landscape in the foreground while a foreboding grey sky looms in the distance. As the reader scrolls down, the image remains in place but is covered, from the bottom up, by the advancing wall of white text, much as the snowpack is depicted in an animated graphic on the second page as growing over the course of the days leading up to the disastrous snowslide. This effect, with different images, reoccurs on all but the third section of the six-page feature.

Some of the multimedia elements are understated, providing additional information while keeping the focus on the developing tale itself: small, square headshot images of the individuals mentioned in the story, for instance, appear in the margin immediately to the right of their first appearance in the article, along with a brief descriptor including their names. Other elements are indispensable tools that aid in the reader's comprehension of the event; the animated 3D depictions of the mountains near the bottom of the first and second pages provide the reader with a complex spatial awareness of the landscape and a better understanding of the region's topography than even the well-written text description of the area (para. 18-20) is capable of.

Even though some audiovisual media may have more of an impact on the reader than others in terms of usefulness or aesthetic appeal, the overall effect of various multimedia elements working in tandem can greatly enhance the reader's experience and the effectiveness of the writer's message.

Post adapted from an article at my former Knowledge and New Media blog


Branch, J. (2012). Snow fall: The avalanche at Tunnel Creek. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/#/?part=tunnel-creek

McEachern, R.W. (2013). Social media challenges for professional writers. Journal of Current Issues in Media and Telecommunications, 5(3), 279-287.

NPR staff. (2013, February 14). Chart check: Did Obama's graphics 'enhance' his big speech? NPR.org. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2013/02/13/171935151/chart-check-did-obama-s-graphics-enhance-his-big-speech

Sniderman, Z. (2010, July 28). How to: Add multimedia to your blog. Mashable.com. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2010/07/28/add-multimedia-to-blog/ 


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