Case Study: NPR Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt

Two years ago NPR’s Planet Money created “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt,” a five chapter feature about “the world behind a simple t-shirt.” The project explores the economics of a t-shirt with a strong focus on the people involved in the process.

NPR’s Planet Money produces twice-weekly economy explainer podcasts and creates radio stories for the Morning Edition, All Things Considered and This American Life. “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” follows the process of making a simple cotton t-shirt worldwide—from the cotton fields in the U.S. through the textile development and garment factories in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Colombia, to the people that are going to wear it worldwide.

The series were broadcast over the air but were also put together as a multimedia digital project including video, photos, graphics and text. The web feature was designed with attention to detail to reach audience anywhere—on their computers, tablets or mobile devices. This article explores the elements and storytelling techniques of “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” in five parts:

1. Format

The feature begins with a full-width GIF of a t-shirt being made along with a brief text, leading to a short video introducing the project. “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” is presented in five chapters: Cotton, Machines, People, Boxes and You. In the desktop version, each part begins with a corresponding full-width GIF with a title and short description overlay. Below them, there is a “Begin” button to start the chapter’s video. The mobile version omits the GIFs and displays the title and the embedded video on top of the page.

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Every chapter video, except for the last chapter, is followed by a corresponding article with additional information. The articles follow common practices for writing for the web, such as: short formchunking, lists and linking. They also include complementary visuals in the form of data visualizations, graphics and photos. Every chapter adopts a format and elements appropriate for its content.

For example, chapter one makes use of lists to explain the three reasons why the U.S. exports cotton.

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Chapter two uses closeups of yarn and cotton to compare the different types of yarn and explain the phases of yarn-spinning.

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Chapter three presents side-by-side photos of people working in the industry now and a hundred years ago…

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…as well as data visualizations to further explain the statements in the video.

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Chapter four uses graphics and text to explain the shipping process.

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The last chapter is a little different from the rest because it consists of a short video and a gallery of many of the people who purchased the Planet Money T-Shirt created in the project.

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The purchases actually helped fund the reporting of the project. The unexpected and unusual video vs. gallery format works very well because it wraps up the story nicely by showing both sides—the people who created the product and the people who purchased it.

2. Video

“Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” uses video as a leading storytelling element. This is evident through the placement of the video on top of every chapter as well as the amount of information it presents. Each video is produced to tell a unique story but the stories all fit together as a whole. The placement of the video on top makes it possible for the viewer not only to watch the videos to every chapter but also explore additional information in the articles below if interested in learning more details.

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Visual storytelling is a powerful tool. The short video segments deliver an aspect of the story that is best presented through video thus proving that this is another great use of format in this project. Showing the various processes, people and situations through text would be challenging and lengthy but this is simplified through the use of video.

All of the videos incorporate a different editorial approach so they are suitable for the platform they are presented on. TV News usually use cutaways to cover the fact that a portion of the footage has been cut. This common practice is misleading to the viewers who are left with the impression that everything said was said altogether or in the same order. However, “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” uses a different approach—jump cuts. In video production jump cuts are usually unwanted and avoided but sometimes, as in this case, they can be used as a style technique. In addition, the use of to-the-beat audio editing helps smooth the jump cuts.

3. Text, Data, Graphics & Photos

Every video, except for the introduction and the final chapter, is followed by an article that provides additional information about the things discussed in the videos. Thanks to the videos presented previously, the text is not lengthy because it functions as additional information. Moreover, throughout the project, text is used carefully with best Web publishing practices in mind, such as: chunking, lists and linking.

Information is best presented through the use of appropriate formats. This is evident though the visualizations of data present in the articles. Furthermore, GIFs in the headers and simple graphics alongside the text help introduce the topic and create a visual break. They also provide at-a-glance understanding of the subject matter.

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Photos are probably the second important element in this multimedia project. They are especially powerful when used in comparison to visualize processes through time side by side. In addition, the use of photos in the last chapter to show people wearing the final product is very impactful.

4. Navigation

Navigation in multimedia features is extremely important because it helps guide the viewer through the content without confusing him what to view or read next. With that thought in mind, “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt” has created navigation that guides the viewer through the content but yet gives him the option to skip through or go back to other chapters.

Right from the start, the user is guided to view the introductory video, then the video in the first chapter. In the bottom section of every video there is guiding text, reading “Scroll to Read,” which indicates what the viewer should do after watching the video, which is to read the article. At the end of the article there is a link to the next chapter. The same structure follows through the rest of the chapters in both the desktop and the mobile versions.

The bottom left corner of the desktop version contains additional navigation with visuals linked to every chapter of the feature. Besides that, there is a link to the start page and a link to a page explaining how the project was created.

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5. Social & User Interaction

Even though there is visually minimal web-based interaction, the project itself has a user interaction component because it is designed to present “the world behind a simple t-shit” with a focus on the people involved in the process. Some of the interviewees reveal information not only about themselves, as the people who are behind the creation of a t-shirt, but also about their thoughts about who’d wear the t-shirts they create. On the other hand, the last chapter answers that question by showcasing Instagram photos of the people who purchased Planet Money’s t-shirt and therefore creating a unique connection between both sides.

The real interactivity component is the use of the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to help fund the reporting of the project. Planet Money setup the project on April 30, 2013 and just a day after reached their goal to sell 2,000 shirts. In the end, they had sold 25,000. The t-shirts are still for sale on NPR’s website.

 

The multimedia project is successful in presenting the story in a unique way. The idea of funding the project by selling the product it is about was very thoughtful. The crowdfunding was also a special interactivity element that helped make the story more personal and therefore bring it closer to the viewer. The supportive text, graphics and photo elements were created in a way to complement the leading video element. The project was beautifully designed to deliver same-to-similar user experience no matter the device, which is another very important component of multimedia storytelling.

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