Grey Matters



grey matters



When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the area hardest hit was the Lower Ninth Ward. Even today, it's still not back to normal. NPR's This American Life investigated the situation in a recent podcast they described as A walking tour of the Lower Ninth. Residents discussed their experiences during the storm and the pain of the aftermath.


Given a transcript of the podcast and a collection of 40 items ranging from dollhouse furniture to packages of pasta, I had to combine these these elements to create new meaning.


When I listened to the podcast, what stood out to me was the perspective of the survivors on their situation. There were many examples of "black-and-white" thinking associated with the hurricane. For example, the belief that they would never have their old life back. Or the belief that with their lackluster response, the government abandoned Black Americans. If you step back, there are many forces at work. It gets murky - it becomes more of a gray area. Will the residents make a comeback? We don't know.



Hurricane Katrina was a very large and powerful event with complex social, economic, and environmental consequences. In order to form my own thesis about the podcast, I had to read what had been written about it. It was heavy stuff - racism, economic hardship, people losing their sanity. I wanted to approach it from a universal human theme - I knew that part of what I wanted to communicate was loss. This was an exercise in systems thinking - I began by drawing mind maps to figure out what I thought was important, what I connected with, and what I wanted to communicate through the book.


I made a low-fidelity prototype of the book to think through making. Early on, I knew I was going to apply changes of scale to help make my point.


The class conducted a speed dating session to get to know each other's books. Although my concept - which looked at ownership and contradiction - got some good reactions, it still wasn't quite resolved.


Next was a medium-fidelity prototype. I wanted to focus on expressing the heaviness of the emotions of loss in the Hurricane survivors. I experimented with size of image, and different typeface choices.


With the last prototype, I aimed to bring the elements together in a more intuitive way. For the dichotomy of certainty/uncertainty, black and white represented all-or-nothing thinking. Viewed from afar, these stark visual combinations created gray areas, symbols of confusion and complexity.


What I Learned

  • How to alternate between micro and macro scales

  • How to use extreme visual contrast to tell a story

  • How to keep a visual rhythm throughout an experience