Can you See Tibetan Plateau in Peril? A Visual Communication between Science and Journalism

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This was an award-winning interaction project designed for the Center on U.S.- China Relations at the Asia Society. China Green was the digital platform for Asia’s voice on global environment issues. To convey a simple and powerful message that glaciers are retreating” to online audiences using two photographs of Mt. Everest: one taken by the member of Royal Geographical Society in 1921 and the other by the filmmaker and mountaineer David Breashears in 2008.


Design Challenge

Instead of showing a rotation of images on the project’s website, I tried to design a way to make it more interactive so that the audience could see the change by moving their cursors across the images in addition to being able to watch the transition passively. We could not perfectly superimpose the two before-and-after images without distorting them through a change of perspective, however, which was something we were determined to avoid. My team and I had philosophical debates about how the order of years ought to be presented (whether to start with 1921 or 2008), whether to use color or black-and-white photos, etc. To help bring a consensus view through the decision-making process, an online study was set up to explore if the images of retreating glaciers were more than an illusion. According to cognitive theory, our perceptions are not a simple registry of sensory stimuli and our brains can fill in the missing pieces and perceive more than is actually there. A relatively small number of participants were involved in the study, but the result concurred with prior studies that our sophisticated cognitive processes help figure out the change between two images by analyzing the hints of many visual features, including spots, edges, colors, shapes, movements and textures.