Reflections on My Capstone Project

by Guest Author

Britain Willcock Guest Blog by Britain Willcock

The Capstone experience in my final quarter of the Master’s in Information Design and Strategy program was the perfect culmination of the skills and ideas learned throughout my time at Northwestern. We were challenged to reflect on the various classes and projects completed in the program and develop a Capstone that aligned with our passions while showcasing the various lessons we had learned.

Finding the Focus

In brainstorming for my project, I realized that there was a consistent theme I had grasped onto throughout the program: the power of information was only as potent as our ability to communicate it. Having spent the first part of my professional career in theatre, I have grown to understand that no matter how well crafted a story may be, if it doesn’t connect with the audience then the work is incomplete. Using this idea as a filter, I examined the theories and concepts presented in the program and noticed there was a gap between how virtual communication is often utilized and how our brains are wired to receive and comprehend information. In everything from standard daily emails, to the presentations presented in the boardroom, we are stuck in older models of communication that weren’t created with virtual mediums in mind, and thus keeping us from using them to their fullest potential to improve comprehension. While I had numerous ideas around the matter, combined with powerful research to support them, I was struggling to find the “center” of my project. Something that could ground the ideas around a solid foundation of clarity. In a one-on-one video call with Dr. Noffs, my Capstone instructor, we discussed various ways this could be approached. At one point the idea of a conceptual model was presented and it served as a moment of clarity that became the bedrock of my Capstone. 

Developing the Model

From there everything fell into place. Through my research, I realized that communication had become almost a product, due to the necessary translation into a digital form and ultimate “deliverable”. While most products are carefully designed, digital communications are often created haphazardly with little to no thought to structure and aesthetics. This is where I developed the Intentional Design Model of Digital Communication. With the idea that communications should be created with the audience at the center, focusing on empathy, and intentional choices should be made around three component phases: the message, the medium, and the design, before reaching the decision point.

Figure 1. The Intentional Design Model of Digital Communication

Intentional Design Model of Digital Communication

Since every communication revolves around the sharing of ideas, it is important that the message be constructed in a way that aligns with the audience and helps clarify an idea. This requires intentional choices around the structure of the story, words used, and the overall tone. This focus can help direct whether the information is best shared through prose, a bulleted list, an infographic, etc. Considering the medium allows us to choose which method is best for the delivery of the message. It also helps us break away from the stagnant conceptual models created around the written word and allows us to consider the various tools that each medium provides. For example, email platforms now often include more dynamic text options (bold, italics, bullet points, text colors, highlighting, etc.) that could be used to help draw the reader’s eye and connect thematic elements. These possibilities lead us to the third component…the design. Continuing with the email example, most are sent with no intentional design and thus arrive as a large block of text with similar weight and visual appeal. This creates a monotone message that doesn’t help the reader to understand the message. Instead, various elements of the email could be designed to improve comprehension such as chunking sentences together, titles, various font weights, and colors, etc (based on Gestalt Principles of visual perception). These simple changes, which require little time, can drastically change the overall feel and efficacy of the digital message. Finally, we reach the decision point, where the communication is reviewed and an intentional choice is made to either deliver the message to our audience or address the design components once more in an iterative process. 

The Capstone Process

The power of the Capstone Process for me was that chance to synthesize the information from the program with my own perspective through the creation of the project. It provided me the opportunity to take an important observation and expand it into a fully realized conceptual model through a structured process that kept me both accountable and motivated. The invaluable guidance from my instructor, combined with the support and input from my peers, allowed me to create a final project that demonstrates the power of the IDS program and can serve as a portfolio piece that I am proud to share with future employers.

About the Author

Britain Willcock is a professional storyteller and communication specialist. After earning his M.F.A. in Acting he has spent the past 12 years working in professional theatre as an actor, director, and fight choreographer. Looking to apply his skills in other areas of communication he recently earned his M.S. in Information Design and Strategy in Communication with Data, from Northwestern University. His passion lies in taking ideas and insights gained through data and breaking them down into accessible information. At the heart of this approach is an intentional design method that shapes information to align with how we think and learn, improving comprehension and building a connection between communicators. He is currently shifting his career towards an information design role.