Case Study: “Planet Money Makes a T-shirt”

What happens when you follow the manufacturing of an ordinary T-shirt from cotton crops to storefronts? Planet Money made it their mission to find out and tell the story. From beginning to end, “Planet Money Makes a T-shirt” taps into a wide range of multimedia principles, fascinating storylines and social support that enable viewers to not only be interested and engaged, but become emotionally invested. An entire world exists within this process, and Planet Money wants to make it clear: “there is nothing ordinary about a simple T-shirt.”

Intro Video

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The first experience the viewer is greeted with is a video. This introductory video, featuring the narrator Alex Bloomberg, sets the stage for five additional chapters that all feature a video as the main focal point. The videos tell real stories of real people and the lives they live. The connections made to the people within the videos make the story come alive. Even the introduction of the story’s narrator creates a more intimate feeling. The viewer knows who is talking to them and feels acquainted with the person guiding the story.

“In every story ever told, a powerful character has fueled the narrative. These figures embody an array of personas that have remained more or less the same for thousands of years. Archetypes are written in our DNA, and are just as powerful today as they were at the dawn of humanity.” (The Power of Visual Storytelling)

Cotton

This is where it all starts. The featured video takes the viewer on a tour of hundreds of acres of cotton and tells its story, from seed generation to harvest. Despite this video being about the process of creating and harvesting cotton, there is still a personal connection made with the owner of the cotton farm. The viewer is introduced to Bowen Flowers, a cotton farmer who explains, along with our narrator friend Alex Bloomberg, how the process works and the technology behind it.

The format of the video, educational, yet personal, along with the video’s overall length contribute to the success of the experience. Once the video is complete, the screen automatically jumps to the text underneath the video.

The Cotton chapter uses the listicle format that Andy Bechtel speaks of in The Problem With Listless Listicles. Bechtel makes the argument that while online list articles can be a lazy way to communicate, they do have their place. Listicles “can be an easy introduction into longer stories,” said Bechtel. “If applicable, a long-form piece can be broken down into this format to make the information less daunting to the reader.” The text within the Cotton chapter threatens to become a little too dense for the casual reader. The detail needed to explain the technology, USDA testing requirements and government subsidy programs could easily scare a casual reader off, but Planet Money incorporates the listicle to make the heavy information more palatable.

Additionally, within the listicle is imagery, graphs and charts that help make the explanation more digestible.

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The text experience also follows the recommendations of Kivi Leroux Miller in The Art of Chunking. “You need to find the sweet spot between too little and too much text. If you put too little information on a page, you force your reader to click around for the details, which is annoying. But if your chunks are too big, you make it difficult for your readers to immediately find the key points they are seeking.”

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Overall the Cotton chapter uses many of the recommendations prescribed by Jasmine Henry in 10 Killer Tips: How to Format a Perfect Blog Post. Henry suggests using lists, short paragraphs (chunking), appropriate imagery and graphs, captions and subheaders, all of which are used within this chapter.

Machines

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The shortest of all the videos, Machines follows a different format than the others, which makes a nice change for the viewer. The video, still narrated by Alex Bloomberg, is set to music and takes the shape of an educational music video of sorts. It even has a “Meet the Machines” section at the end of the video, which is fun way to educate the viewer.

Once again, as the video ends, the viewer is jumped to the text of the Machines chapter. Still using many of the recommendations of Henry, this article uses imagery, along with captions to educate the viewer on the cotton yarn that shirts are made from.

yarn

“Your image caption should fit the theme of the picture, but it should also be descriptive of your article and engaging. Ask questions, include power stats, and strive to be intriguing. Image captions are nearly as important as blog headlines, so they shouldn’t be neglected,” said Henry in 10 Killer Tips: How to Format a Perfect Blog Post.

yarn-to-thread

People

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At 6 minutes, 21 seconds, the People chapter video is by far the longest, and for good reason. This is the video in which the viewer is drawn in the most emotionally. The viewer is introduced to two factory workers – Jasmine in Bangladesh and Doris in Colombia. The viewer learns about the lives of these two women, and how they differ from one another. One of the most obvious ways they differ, which in turn affects the rest of their daily lives, is their income. Jasmine makes approximately $80 per month, while Doris makes almost four times as much in Colombia. The video details the impacts that their respective wages have on their daily lives in regard to the basics – shelter, food, clothing and the occasional non-essential if their budgets allow.

The text, photos and graphs below the video continue the story. Comparing how far factories have come since the early 1900s, while still acknowledging how far they still have to go. The imagery solidifying a connection with the people in the story is what keeps the reader engaged.

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“There is a growing clarion call to return from where we came – we want the feel of handmade, we want the details of the precious moments of our everyday lives. We want what’s real – or at least, what feels real,” said Pam Grossman, in The Power of Visual Storytelling.

Boxes

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Mood shifts are well choreographed throughout this entire piece. While the People chapter drew viewers in emotionally, it also weighed them down a bit, since the story wasn’t exactly cheerful. Boxes, a brief and lighthearted video, shows the viewer how shipping containers changed the manufacturing world forever.

The text below the video in the Boxes chapter once again features Miller’s chunking format, but only one gif image of worker’s hauling cotton and one photo of a shipping container breaks up a lot of text. However, the article does close out on an interesting chart on the overall cost of making the shirt. The imagery in this section is lacking a bit, but the mood of the video makes up for that and gets the viewer to the final video, even if they don’t read the text.

loading-cotton

 

You

you

The final chapter closes out the piece perfectly. It ties the people back into the story, and includes the viewer, as well. The final video introduces all the people that the viewer has met throughout the entire experience, and tells one interesting fact about them that is not related to their work. It’s a beautiful reminder that we are all human beings, with feelings and families and lives that are important.

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Once the video concludes, the screen jumps to a massive photo essay. This is where the viewer learns that “Planet Money Makes a T-shirt” was completely crowdfunded through Kickstarter. 

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Those who funded the project, the people within the photo essay, all received one of the shirts (featuring a “spirit animal” – a squirrel with a martini) that were manufactured during the making of this multimedia experience.

squirrel

According to Mathew Ingram, “Journalism must shift from seeing itself primarily as a producer of content for masses to become more explicitly a service to individuals and communities. Content fills things; service accomplishes things. To provide a service with relevance and value requires knowing those you serve, and to do that requires building relationships with those people.” Planet Money definitely seems to know who they serve. More than 20,000 people funded the reporting of “Planet Money Makes a T-shirt,” so it seems safe to say that they are successfully building relationships with their audiences.

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From cotton seeds to the hands of the consumer, “Planet Money Makes a T-shirt” takes the viewer on a multimedia tour of the entire process of making a T-shirt. Through video, text, graphing, photo and crowdfunding techniques, the viewer is immersed in the world behind making a simple T-shirt and the people involved in that process. The careful blending of all of these communication artistries provides the viewer an overall engaging experience that is not easily forgotten.

Evaluating ‘High Rise’


If there ever was a digital pop-up book, “High Rise” is it. From the tiniest tenement to a glass cathedral in the sky, the New York Times’ Op-Doc “High Rise” takes viewers on an immersive journey through the history of the various places that human beings have called home over the past 2,500 years, all while using beautiful animation that imitates the traditional pop-up books of our youth. This stunningly interactive experience is designed beautifully and features four films that address different aspects of urban living arrangements over the years. The first three films are creatively narrated, in a rhyming cadence that keeps the viewer captivated, while the fourth film features a song that taps into the viewer’s emotions.

 

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Three subsequent screen captures demonstrate the animation that was incorporated into still imagery to create a pop-up book effect.

 

Various Media Elements

“High Rise” incorporates a variety of media elements that charm the viewer with their animation and design. The most used media element is the animated photograph. The three-paneled photo above shows the sequence of a high rise building popping up within the photo. Occasionally the photographs are intertwined with videos and animation, but it’s done in a subtle way so that they experience isn’t overwhelming for the viewer. The story also incorporates engaging audio recordings, which draw the viewer in thanks to enchanting rhymes and emotive music. While the words within the narration often tell a somber story, the incorporation of the rhyme scheme, delicate music and elegant graphics keep the viewer from becoming glum.

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Example above of animation – as the horse runs across the scene, the elevator rises.

 

Timeline

After a brief introduction, “High Rise” follows a fairly linear timeline, beginning at the Tower of Babel and moving through time to the present. Navigating the timeline is a breeze with the progression bar at the bottom, which enables the viewer to rewind or fast forward to the beginning of each labeled chapter.

timeline
High Rise follows a linear timeline beginning with the Tower of Babel and continuing to present day.
progression-bar
The progression bar at the bottom of the screen allows the viewer to fast forward or rewind to the beginning of each chapter.

 

Navigation

The navigation of “High Rise” is nicely laid out in a way that does not, in any way, confuse the viewer. The timeline is linear in most respects, but with occasional dead-end off-shoots, that allow the reader to go further in depth, without becoming lost in a maze of choices. The lines below the chapter title indicate that by clicking the option at the bottom of the screen, additional information is available.progression-bar2

When Hashima is selected, for example, the viewer is taken down to additional photos and text that further explain that individual chapter, delving deeper into each particular world.

hashima

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Once the viewer has explored the further details of that chapter, though, the only option (at the top and bottom of the photo) is to return to the film, which picks up exactly where you left off, even if it is in mid-word.

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This regulated interactivity enables the viewer to feel in control of the situation, without sacrificing the storytelling impacts with confusing navigation.

Overall, I was very impressed with the seamless and creative ways that “High Rise” used interactive multimedia, while still controlling the story line in such a way that the user’s experience is indeed what the creator intended.