It's no secret that there's been a calculated attempt over the last decade to transform once stereotypically boring government productions into engaging media. And it's a good thing.
In the gadgetry-based, stimulus overloaded world we live in, audiences expect nothing less. When it comes to supplementary Internet-based tools that are used to promote such media, the expectations are no less lofty, yet it seems that text-heavy sites still dominate those that rely on multimedia presentations and interactive activities.
Right whales navigate through challenges on the Sant Ocean Hall Website. However, there are a number of government agencies that have begun taking advantage of the creative integration of eye-catching graphic design and complimentary audio elements to present their messages in a way that informs and interests visitors.
PROMOTION WITH A PURPOSE
The Smithsonian's Sant Ocean Hall, a new exhibit hall that opened in the fall of 2008 in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, features high-tech displays and interactive kiosks that help visitors learn about the importance of the sea. One of the organizations that partnered with the Smithsonian to create the Hall, Ocean Conservancy, has dedicated a page on its website to further promoting an important mission of the Ocean Hall facility—to bring attention to endangered sea life, and in particular, the right whale.
To do this, the organization called on graphic design company Baker and Hill to develop an online interactive game that would have to meet the challenge of entertaining while also educating visitors about the seriousness of the right whale's plight.
"One of the most unique aspects of the game we created is that it sneaks in knowledge about the right whale and the man-made dangers to this population without the use of big blocks of text," said Clint Baker, designer and Baker and Hill co-owner.
In the game, which Baker created with Adobe Illustrator and Flash, players must complete a series of challenges that demonstrate the dangers facing the right whale. In the first level, for instance, players must move trash out of the path of a right whale that is moving through the ocean, while at the same time, being sure to guide shrimp toward its mouth.
At the end of each level, visitors are provided with tidbits of information about the sea animal, which appear in animated bubbles.
"We believe that by involving visitors in the challenges the right whale faces in his habitat, we are burning facts into their heads in a much more powerful way than bullet points," he said.
A similar example: the "Kids Page" on the Website of the Washington, D.C., government features moving animations, pop up text and a variety of interactive elements, and invites visitors to use a virtual paintbrush to paint pictures and solve photo puzzles that feature Washington landmarks.
The National Park Service's Fire and Aviation Managements Website aims to educate users about a variety of fire-related issues, including the history of fires.
While not an interactive game, the Web-based multimedia presentations featured on the Website of the National Park Service's Fire and Aviation Management division hit a similar chord.
"NPS had already created several presentations for its website, but the presentations required more visual interest," said Mark Hill, designer and co-owner of Baker and Hill. Not only were the existing presentations large, but they also required a full download before playing, not to mention the fact that they featured large amounts of copy, required visitors to click through one slide at a time and lacked audio elements.
"We transformed the presentations into more efficient, self-running programs that feature voiceovers read by actual NPS employees, automatically moving images, quick facts, and music. Now, in addition to supplying vital information about NPS programs, these presentations are also interesting to watch."
"By integrating images, the written word, and the spoken word, the Flash presentations are able to reach audiences through three ways instead of one," said NPS Fire Communication and Education Specialist Tina Boehle. "As a result, viewers obtain a complete picture of a complex story."
In many cases, the visual elements of Web-based media rely on a companion to generate maximum impact: music and sound effects. For instance, in the series of Web presentations for NPS, Baker and Hill and Sound Engineer Kevin Hill of Studio Unknown LLC engaged in extensive conversations about the instrument palette and how the audio portion of these presentations would affect the overall experience.
"Each of the NPS presentations we produced sound for took place in a different geographic region, and we wanted the music to complement this distinction," said Kevin Hill. In the presentations for which footage was shot in a woodlands region, for instance, Hill used wood block and woodwind along with percussion instruments to coincide with the images. In another presentation, this one shot in a prairie, Hill used piano, acoustic guitar and ambient ingredients to create a folk-inspired tone. In addition, when applicable, Hill added sound effects, such as the whir of a chain saw, the ring of sirens and the crackle of fire to add another layer of interest that contributed to the interest of the piece.
"The purpose of incorporating music and sound design in presentations like the ones we worked on for NPS really goes beyond making them nice to listen to," said Kevin Hill, who used Avid's digidesign and Pro Tools HD, Kontakt 3 (by Native Instruments), Sample Tank (by IK Multimedia), and Reason (by Propellerhead), along with live instruments for both the NPS presentations as well as the right whale game. "Music and sound elements actually help tell the story by supporting the content of the voice-over and what is being said, as well creating an emotional dimension and drawing visitors in, just like a film score would." Hill points out that they rely solely on still photographs, yet, because of the style in which they have been incorporated (with cross-fades, pans, zooms, etc.) coupled with the music and narration, they have the look and feel of video.