Alexander Cheek, a School of Design alumnus and an Assistant Professor of Design and Information Systems at Carnegie Mellon University, is the driving force behind the Interactive News, a visionary archive of the best examples of digital and interactive journalism today. The Interactive News serves as a resource for educators, journalists, and designers to see past and current practices in visual storytelling, data presentation, long-form narratives, and event-specific coverage.
“I remember the New York Times ran an interactive called ‘Word Train’ for the Obama-McCain election,” said Cheek about the genesis of the project back in 2008. “It was the first time I saw something so well designed and so engaging that was also audience-generated. Around the same time, the Times published a number of multimedia pieces that had a terrific blend of text, video, imagery, diagrams, and animation, taking long form stories to a new level.
“The problem is that the stories fade from view and get buried in the archives,” Cheek added. “Links break and formats go out of date. I built The Interactive News as a way to curate the last decade of design and journalism, to be a resource for my students, other scholars, and journalists.”
“Word Train”, which became a major part of Cheek’s masters thesis and helped to the spawn what would become the Interactive News, received a Carnegie Mellon University seed grant. The grant was used to bring on an Information Systems alumnus, Ahmed Hashmi (CMU DCH&SS ’16), and several advisors, including Andrew Mills from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.
Along with being an archive for interactive journalism, the Interactive News highlights emerging trends in technology. “The more recent examples are beautiful and engaging because they utilize the latest web technologies and design languages — parallax scrolling, full-browser imagery, streaming video, responsive layouts,” said Cheek. “They balance great writing with visually rich content and keep reader attention in a time when it’s so easy to click over to something else.”
Notable example that can be found on the Interactive News include “Snow Fall”, which documented the avalanche at Tunnel Creek, “Bracing for the Falls in an Aging Nation”, which has an impressive use of video, and Alvin Chang’s piece from Vox, which frames the issue of gun control and assault weapons in America with interactive imagery and video.
Cheek has been teaching at Carnegie Mellon University’s Qatar campus for seven years now, teaching design and information systems. “At a summer party, David Kaufer and Dan Boyarski encouraged me to consider a faculty position that they had created in Qatar,” said Cheek. “I thought it was crazy but agreed to go for a semester — and here I am.”
Carnegie Mellon University Qatar has it’s own state of the art facility focused on interdisciplinary innovation and problem solving. It’s a groundbreaking center for scholarship and research that is an ideal complement to Carnegie Mellon’s mission and vision.
“Balancing my research and practice with teaching was difficult because the teaching demands were quite high, but working with the students was very rewarding,” said Cheek about teaching in Qatar. “They’re not designers in the typical sense, but they often embraced the design perspective that I introduced.” Cheek hopes that design approaches can help provide a pathway for burgeoning technologies and businesses in Qatar.
Cheek believes that the focus on interdisciplinary study and research found at Carnegie Mellon and the School of Design set him up for his international success.
“At CMU, I became a better thinker about design and a believer in what design can do when approached in our human-centered and methods-based ways,” said Cheek. “I was deeply influenced by Buchanan, Boyarski, Kaufer, Evenson, Ishizaki, and the ability to conduct my thesis work across campus.
“Even though I was in the School of Design, much of my time was spent in the English Department and my project advisor was in Computer Science. That was incredible.”
“There are very few design schools within an R-1 university, and even fewer within a university that has such diverse strengths,” he added. “Good design depends on working across disciplinary boundaries and having as many different minds as possible working to address complex problems. Design is a great facilitator in that regard. The School of Design encouraged that sort of activity when I was a student, and I’ve continued to foster that kind of environment as a faculty member.”
Photos courtesy of Stephen V. MacNeil, Carnegie Mellon Qatar