Research Explainer, Print and Digital
- Creative Director
- Video Producer
- Digital Video Specialist
- Assistant Director, Digital
- Content Strategist
- Social Media Coordinator
- Writing and editing
- Video production
- Art direction
- Graphic design
- Social media strategy
- Cross-functional collaboration
What Was the Challenge?
Our office is continually looking for leads on interesting, impactful faculty research. Six times each year, we place stories in the print edition of Texas Monthly magazine, and we produce in-house digital content to complement the print piece. Geography professor Jason Julian was the featured faculty for November 2018.
These projects have two big, recurring challenges: to explain complex research succinctly, and to express that research visually in print and video. Luckily, this particular research story was straightforward to visualize — we could use the San Marcos River right on campus.
How We Got It Done
Working in concert with the provost’s office, our team annually identifies six faculty members to feature in Texas Monthly over the course of the year. After we’ve compiled that list and scheduled each project into our editorial calendar, the writer kicks it all off with an informational interview with the faculty.
During our initial conversation with Julian, we asked questions to help us understand what his current work is, the process behind it and why it matters. These questions were based on preliminary groundwork, in this case, reviewing his CV, faculty website and a couple of research presentations. We checked to make sure that we understood the field-specific terms and the research methods: Is it appropriate to talk about water clarity versus turbidity? Does he talk to river users in person or rely on other technology like trail cameras to track usage patterns? (Yes, and both.)
Next, our writer wrote a creative brief — a one-page summary of the story angle, key messages, possible visuals and deadlines — to guide the project. In a conversation with the whole project team, the writer filled us in about the research topic, and we bounced ideas off each other for how to tackle it visually. Based on the initial research that went into the brief, along with this group discussion, the visual team (designer, photographer, video producer, digital video specialist) were able to narrow in on strategies.
After that meeting, the writer turned the interview notes into a 250-word story. Shorter writing often takes the most time, effort and editing! We thought hard about which elements of Julian’s story were essential in order to communicate the purpose of his research in such a short format. The audience for this piece wouldn’t necessarily have any familiarity with the topic, so we needed to describe Julian’s work in layperson’s terms, put everything into a logical structure, and show how the research is relevant to everyday life in Texas. After several revisions, the creative director signed off on the draft, which was set aside until the design was ready.
Photography and Design
In order to avoid reinventing the wheel six times each year, we use a standard design template for the magazine feature. The consistent photo sizes make life easier for our photographers; and our designers know that they’ll always have one wide horizontal shot and one vertical shot that’s good for close-ups, a layout that provides visual contrast.
But even within a template, there are lots of design choices to be made. The designer and photographer worked together closely from the beginning. They each read the written draft to understand what story we were telling and the research underlying it, and talked through their ideas. We decided to use an aerial photo of the San Marcos River (an actual study site for Julian’s research) as the main image, including people enjoying the water, since Julian’s work is about human-environment interaction. For the second image, we wanted to highlight the tools that Julian uses as an environmental geographer.
The aerial shot didn’t need much art direction — the photographer knew exactly what he wanted to show — but for the second image, the designer came along to the photoshoot to help set up the right look. First, we tried shots of one of the simple tools that researchers use to measure water clarity, but the photos just didn’t communicate the story clearly enough. Luckily, Julian was willing to jump in the river to model for us. He brought some of his water-quality equipment, and we brought our waterproof camera case. Our photographer stood in the river alongside Julian to achieve the split-screen effect, with the camera half underwater and half above.
After photography is completed, the designer reviews it to select just the right picture. We take a few hundred photographs for these research-explainer projects — fewer if it’s a scene that we’ve staged specifically, more if we’re capturing genuine, candid action where the perfect shot might happen at any time. With Julian, we took around 300 shots…and it was the very last photo that ended up in print.
To drive home the point that there is high demand for a limited supply of natural areas, we decided to incorporate geographic visuals in addition to photography. Julian provided an accurate map of protected areas in the Austin region, and our designer tweaked it to match the look and feel of the rest of the piece. The map needed to be large enough for legibility, but not so big as to cover up the photo underneath it; we positioned it so that there would be room for a caption, and so that the caption wouldn’t be stuck in the gutter (the middle of a two-page spread in a magazine or book).
After finishing the graphics and touching up the photos, the designer went back to the writer to get descriptive captions. This is also the stage where the writer might be asked to make adjustments for any issues that appeared during layout, such as shortening a too-long title or cutting some text so that everything fits.
Our editor and creative director checked everything — the grammar and punctuation, the photo quality, the university brand boilerplate — and then we sent a proof to Julian to review for accuracy. Based on his feedback, we made edits to the writing. After getting his approval, we sent the proof to his dean and the provost for a final review before putting it into external media.
Once the print piece is out for production at the magazine, our work shifts over to the video crew. For this story, we wanted to create two different videos to serve two audiences: a traditional interview video for the website, and a more contemporary cut for social media. Both of these would start with a studio interview.
Our writer came up with interview questions — similar to the ones from the very first informational conversation with Julian, but precisely targeted to prompt clear on-camera responses. Like the print story, the videos would need a beginning, middle and end, so we asked questions whose answers would fit into that narrative framework. During filming, the writer conducted the interview from off camera while the video team monitored their equipment. We usually film around 30 minutes of interview for each two- to three-minute research video.
The studio interview was the principal footage for the traditional video. We would intercut this footage with B-roll — additional video to give context to what Julian was discussing. To begin, the video team reviewed the interview footage, choosing the best quotes to tell the story and considering how to match those words with appropriate B-roll. For this project, we took advantage of our campus’ stunning natural areas to show examples of people enjoying outdoor benefits such as fishing, kayaking and hiking.
We used the same raw materials to make the social media version, but with a different strategy, informed by modern news media trends. Whereas the traditional video positioned Julian and his research as an outstanding example of the important work occurring at the university, we wanted the social media cut to focus on the intrinsic interestingness of the topic…which just happened to come out of Texas State.
This video needed to be shorter and punchier. To achieve that, our writer distilled the story’s message even further into a voiceover script that would take little more than a minute to read. Again, we pulled a key quote from Julian’s studio interview and added B-roll to match the script. This time, understanding the highly image-driven nature of social media, we paid special attention to using gorgeous footage, and we added kinetic typography to emphasize the key points.
We recorded the voiceover at Texas State’s Fire Station Studios, a facility in downtown San Marcos used for the sound recording technology degree program.
Putting It All Together
When the print edition of Texas Monthly hit newsstands, some five months after our first contact with Julian, it was time to share everything. We built a digital version of the story for the Texas State website, and featured that link on the university homepage. We also posted the social media video along with the link to the written story.
These research explainers garner a wide audience. Texas Monthly has a readership of more than 2.4 million people; the magazine’s top markets are Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin.
The videos have been viewed 11,000 times.
“Very well done. Please pass on my thanks and appreciation to all those who worked on it.” — Jason Julian