Maps have always aroused curiosity and interest in people, and are the undisputed protagonists of human stories. Technological development has followed ever more complex and involved representations, offering new choices and ways to apply them.
At Radiotelevisione svizzera (RSI), the company I work for as head of design projects, it has been a year of major infrastructural changes: the realization of new TV studios and the integration of new technologies required a restyling for news programmes: Telegiornale (international news), Quotidiano (regional news) and Meteo (forecast).
This forced us to reflect also on the use of maps and their realization. What kind of experience can we guarantee to the end user and on the basis of what needs and principles?
Maps for TV
Producing maps for broadcast is significantly different to making them for print or for the web. In fact, in print it is possible to enrich maps with captions, extra content, extremely varied formats and styles. On the web, interactivity wins, which offers users the opportunity to interact with data, dimensions and spaces.
But broadcasting is a completely different story and underestimating some aspects can lead to ineffective results, if not failures. Here are some constraints that TV requires:
- short and tight television times imposed by the director and not controllable by the viewer;
- narrative voice that dictates the rhythms of history and describes its protagonists and context;
- scenography and camera movements, which can limit the visibility of maps shown on studio screens;
- alteration of the colours between the graphic file and the TV recorded by the cameras;
- primary colours, style and brand of the TV programme to be combined with the styles and semantic colours on the map;
- size of texts and icons that may vary according to the distance of the cameras.
Shown above: RSI’s new studios with their big screens and automated cameras
Image source: © RSI — Radiotelevisione Svizzera Italiana
How much can these constraints influence the experience offered to the end user? What are their needs, taking into account the context in which we operate? My job in the company is to find this out, gathering information through interviews and panels with the end users and ensuring that the design processes take this into account.
The results of the user research could be summarized in one sentence: end-user use is not to read. They interpret and learn, in fractions of a second, using common knowledge and patterns.
“Producing maps for broadcast is significantly different from making them for print or for the web.”
Adapting to change
It is a difficult principle to digest because it makes it clear that the way in which television is consumed has changed: the viewer who continuously sits in front of the TV to watch their programme in full is ideal, but not real.
In order to guarantee to the end user speed of reading and interpretation, it is necessary to take in account some design principles:
- tell one story at a time;
- be essential, eliminate the superfluous;
- do not describe the story, but show its effect;
- reduce the number of icons, avoid the pictograms;
- reduce the number of colours and guarantee contrasts;
- make background and figures distinguishable;
- reduce the text to the necessary: the narrating voice will do the rest;
- reduce the number of objects on the map to a maximum of 5-7 elements;
- avoid satellite photos if not strictly necessary;
- blue is always water: don’t forget that colours have a precise meaning.
It’s important to show where the cited places are in relation to where the user is. Which route a hijacked plane had to fly and which one it really followed. Rain radar animation showing intensity and development throughout the day.
“It’s important to show where the cited places are in relation to where the user is.”
Viewing the future
In concrete terms, the map establishes a relationship between the television viewer and the events narrated: this makes it personally useful and memorable.
But are all these constraints making the design too flat and predictable?
As designers we easily understand the archetypes, but we don’t like being part of them and so many constraints seemingly appear to impoverish our creativity. But what we learned through the interviews with users is that differentiating the product with aestheticism is a business need. But basing solutions on originality, if not driven on functional principles, ends up only by impressing and not by being useful. Who would like to be driven by a nice but unclear map to find the treasure?
We can’t predict how the maps on TV will be designed in the future. Listening to the end users and keeping them on board will allow us to learn much more, and be rightly inspired. Creation and innovation require constant and objective research, made of daily comparisons, sharing and measurements: the acquisition of greater awareness will take new solutions and will always trace new paths on maps still to be explored.