CD Studio Project 2: Making the Abstract Concrete

Topic: Earthquakes

Amrita Khoshoo
16 min readSep 26, 2019

Project Overview

Designers are often called upon to engage in speculative work that is situated in the context of unknown futures. Thus, the brainstorming of concepts and the communication of ideas frequently requires the visualization of experiences and objects that do not yet exist and are abstract. As a result, it is imperative that designers learn how to engage audiences in stories that utilize and weave together visual, aural, and temporal modes of communication as a means of effectively conveying visionary ideas.

It’s safe to assume that all of us have encountered information that was difficult to grasp: science and math concepts that use lots of abstract symbols; topics that are invisible or span a great deal of time or space; objects that are too large, small, or fast to see well; ideas that involve lots of jargon, etc. Although the very nature of information can make it challenging to grasp, the form that is used to communicate the content can aid or hinder understanding. Your task is to address the challenge of making something abstract concrete by moving through the following.

McCloud’s Understanding Comics, ch. 2

A key takeaway from this reading was this idea of form conveying meaning. Choices come with connotations. In the snippet above, how form is treated (drawn simply, realistically) can be used to assist “reading identification” or suggest “otherness from the reader.” This made me think about our typography and connotation exercise.

9/26 Mental Representations

We discussed project 2 and watched a few videos from past years. I liked the videos that had more of a story to them and mixed real footage with simplified symbols to explain abstract concepts. It was nice to see simple explanations using comparison and metaphor.

Image Exercise

Then, we moved into an image exercise. We were asked to individually draw our interpretations of the words cat, happy, connected, and disruption. We then pinned up our drawings. It was fun to see everyone’s mental representation of concepts. As each idea became more and more abstract, images diverged. We all had relatively similar, recognizable images of cats and happy. When we started comparing connection, things diverged a little. There were three distinct groups: connected dots, connected people, symbols in our life that represent connected (wifi, Bluetooth). One interesting this here is that these images may represent one thing in static form, but might better represent a concept in motion. For example, I drew an image of two people holding hands. This might be interpreted as a relationship or something else. But in motion, I’d be able to better convey the concept I’m going for. Disruption was a divergence. There were similar ideas across the board — interruptions, explosions, fissures. I drew a cop car with its siren on.

It was funny to talk about outliers. Outliers didn’t fit our mental representations of the thing. For the cat, I actually drew a cat that looked like a bunny. I don’t have a good mental image of a cat, and people were able to identify that quickly.

We then moved into a sketching exercise. We got into groups and drew out the abstract idea of a tornado forming. My group decided to go the route of metaphor, using Pacman to represent mesocyclones. One insight here, metaphor can be quite limiting. There were points where our Pacman idea started to break down because the form of the Pacman did account for the actual phenomenon of a tornado forming.

Initial phases of tornado formation: mesocyclones form in clouds, descend, take in downdraft, made bigger by updraft

McCloud’s Understanding Comics, ch.3

  • Closure: “This phenomenon of observing parts but perceiving the whole.” Closure is our mental model of the world based on our past experiences.
  • This is important because comics unfold in a series of panels. The gap or “gutter” between each panel is filled or connect by the viewer’s past experiences.
  • Different types of closure include: moment-to-moment (similar sequence, little closure), action-to-action (transitions of a single subject), subject-to-subject (different characters or scenes), scene-to-scene (movement through space/time, requires reasoning on part of reader), aspect-to-aspect (elements or scenes from one moment in time), non-sequitur (no relationship between sections).
  • Thinking about what to show vs. what to hide is important.

Earthquakes: Initial Research

I started researching my topic by googling various definitions and descriptions of earthquakes. I looked at text-based and video-based information.

What are earthquakes?

Description 1 (source)

The word earthquake is used to describe any seismic event — whether natural or caused by humans — that generates seismic waves. It is the shaking of the surface of the Earth, resulting from the sudden release of energy in the Earth’s lithosphere that creates seismic waves.

Earthquakes can range in size from those that are so weak that they cannot be felt to those violent enough to toss people around and destroy whole cities. The seismicity, or seismic activity, of an area is the frequency, type and size of earthquakes experienced over a period of time.

Description 2 (source)

An earthquake is what happens when two blocks of the earth suddenly slip past one another. The surface where they slip is called the fault or fault plane. The location below the earth’s surface where the earthquake starts is called the hypocenter, and the location directly above it on the surface of the earth is called the epicenter.

Sometimes an earthquake has foreshocks. These are smaller earthquakes that happen in the same place as the larger earthquake that follows. Scientists can’t tell that an earthquake is a foreshock until the larger earthquake happens. The largest, main earthquake is called the mainshock. Mainshocks always have aftershocks that follow. These are smaller earthquakes that occur afterwards in the same place as the mainshock. Depending on the size of the mainshock, aftershocks can continue for weeks, months, and even years after the mainshock!

How do earthquakes work?

Description 1 (source)

At the Earth’s surface, earthquakes manifest themselves by shaking and displacing or disrupting the ground. When the epicenter of a large earthquake is located offshore, the seabed may be displaced sufficiently to cause a tsunami. Earthquakes can also trigger landslides and occasionally, volcanic activity.

Earthquakes are caused mostly by rupture of geological faults but also by other events such as volcanic activity, landslides, mine blasts, and nuclear tests. An earthquake’s point of initial rupture is called its focus or hypocenter. The epicenter is the point at ground level directly above the hypocenter.

Description 2 (source)

The earth has four major layers: the inner core, outer core, mantle and crust. The crust and the top of the mantle make up a thin skin on the surface of our planet.

But this skin is not all in one piece — it is made up of many pieces like a puzzle covering the surface of the earth. Not only that, but these puzzle pieces keep slowly moving around, sliding past one another and bumping into each other. We call these puzzle pieces tectonic plates, and the edges of the plates are called the plate boundaries. The plate boundaries are made up of many faults, and most of the earthquakes around the world occur on these faults. Since the edges of the plates are rough, they get stuck while the rest of the plate keeps moving. Finally, when the plate has moved far enough, the edges unstick on one of the faults and there is an earthquake.

While the edges of faults are stuck together, and the rest of the block is moving, the energy that would normally cause the blocks to slide past one another is being stored up. When the force of the moving blocks finally overcomes the friction of the jagged edges of the fault and it unsticks, all that stored up energy is released. The energy radiates outward from the fault in all directions in the form of seismic waves like ripples on a pond. The seismic waves shake the earth as they move through it, and when the waves reach the earth’s surface, they shake the ground and anything on it, like our houses and us! (source)


10/1 Verbal Storytelling

Summary of McCloud’s Understanding comics, ch.2

  • Emphasis — finding the right details to focus on.
  • Scales — complex v. simple, realistic v. iconic, objective v. subjective, specific v. universal
  • Being mindful of where representations of what you create sit/consequences of those choices.
  • Icons have a symbolic connection to physical things it’s representing. Versus alphabet that needs to be learned, doesn’t have connection to thing to be learned/letterforms don’t stand for anything connected to that form). Why is this important? How are you using shapes that you’re presenting -is it connected to the natural world, are you showing something that is hidden/doesn’t have a form?
  • Connects to Don Norman and his work. The appropriateness principle: the translation happens between the “thing” and how the thing is represented.
  • Matching representation to the task at hand/appropriateness principle. What do you want people to grasp? And how do you match that rep to that task?

Summary of McCloud’s Understanding Comics, ch. 3 “Blood in the Gutters”

  • Participation of viewer in the whitespace and how important it is to design
  • create something where you don’t give all the answers, engage audience w/o confusing them. Create something from frame to frame that causes the audience to think more critically
  • How might you think of using this approach in this project? Additive/deductive storytelling aspects, transitions** — comes up when there is a change in state, moving from one concept to another.
  • 6 transition states: moment to moment (blinking), action-to-action (dance), subject-to-subject (conversation, game), scene-to-scene (house to store), aspect-to-aspect (child-adult), non-sequitur (noodles and socks).
  • Why is this important? What are the transitions you think you’ll use most often? Think about the spirit of the assignment. Mostly subject, scene, aspect. short amt of time and describing how something works. Clarity. Need a concept to be understood.
  • Shifting attention around the frame: scale and position more jarring than the value (Appearing/disappearing). Any time you see movement- draw attention more. More than a change in value

Channels of communication

  • Storyboarding the sequence of story — visual, audio (narration, ambient, sound effects), motion
  • Look at Moyer napkin sketching for ideas.

Concept Speed Dating

This was fun and challenging! It was awesome listening to other people’s stories.

Post-Speeddating reflections

My story sounded like a textbook explanation. (I drew inspiration from an “Earthquake for Kids” website. This really translated.) Key takeaways/next steps:

  • Simplify terminology and use more visuals to break concepts down.
  • Things to visualize: tectonic plates, friction between plates/fault lines, epicenter, aftershock, what happens beneath the surface of the earth.
  • Motion will help translate the concept better.
  • One of my listeners brought up a really good point — our mental model doesn’t necessarily include the earth as being made up of the things that make earthquakes happen (e.g., plates beneath the surface of the earth).
  • Start with a narrative. I’m a California native, which means earthquakes are very relevant to my life. I might start my story with some sort of aftershock setup. Or with an apocalyptic scene similar to one from the movie San Andreas. But then scaling out to breakdown how this might happen. Or introduce past earthquakes that people might know (1989 SF, 1960 Chile, 2017 Mexico City). This might help the concept stick a little better.
  • Also, I’d like to use more humor (without being insensitive).

Listening to my classmate’s explanations

  • It was really fun to see how people approached this. There were a lot of comparisons, which I found really effective. Shambahavi had lightning. She drew a comparison to a circuit that extended throughout her story, which I thought was really effective.
  • A narrative can really help engage an audience and also help give them a better framework for understanding an abstract concept.

10/3 Storyboarding

During class today, I mostly worked on my storyboard and outlining my script.

Storyboard & Script Outline


Current outline to my storyboard:

  • Setup: TBD. Either will choose to start with an aftershock and zoom out or will show a few famous earthquakes throughout history.
  • Zoom out to a view of the earth to talk about earth’s core and plate tectonics. I plan to touch on the superheated liquid mantle and gravitational forces that shift the earth’s plates.
  • Zoom in to a discussion of faults. I plan to outline the 3 different types of faults.
  • After discussing faults, what happens when an earthquake strikes.
  • While will help me move into a discussion of seismic waves and their destructive effect.
  • Ending: TBD. Dependent on my setup.

Writing a script will help me solidify the organization of my storyboard.

Stacie encouraged me to think about my transitions. Currently, I have a lot. I alternate between a circular Earth and a flat one. Is there a way to combine things? How can I reuse elements to show things?


I really enjoyed researching my topic. It felt like I was back in my elementary school science classroom. This inspired the visual language that I’d like to use.

This made me think of old natural history style posters.

I like the treatment of the pages, the thin line weight, colorful illustrations, and old-style feel.

Moving into the week I plan to solidify my script and my storyboard and start producing a few visuals.

10/8–10/10 Working Sessions

The next few classes were working sessions. Things I’ve been thinking about:

  • Communicating complex ideas in simple ways
  • Leveraging different channels: audio, motion, visual
  • Framing key points in a way that’s understandable

Form Explorations

I started exploring visual form by working in Illustrator. Using my moodboard as inspiration, I created illustrations in an older textbook style and in a more literal style.

Exploration: color, texture

I wanted to stay true to an old textbook-like visual form, I decided to continue with the tan background. With motion in mind, I simplified elements that appear in each frame. This means that I may only include one key element at any given time.

A few scene explorations:

earth’s core
tectonic plates

Developing Harder Concepts

Last class, Stacie encouraged me to think about developing concepts that are harder to communicate.

With this in mind, I started exploring various ways to communicate fault lines. Fault lines are tricky because they describe the interaction between two tectonic plates. Motion is pretty essential.

I started exploring 2D form as most of my visuals are flat. I quickly ran into issues trying to explain strike-slip faults. Strike-slip faults describe the horizontal movement of tectonic plates. Depth is important as strike-slip faults move forward and backward. Conveying this concept in 2D is tricky. I started to think about switch perspectives between side and top views of the earth. But this perspective change might be confusing for viewers.

Exploration of 2D form & motion (motion shows reverse fault)

To continue exploring, I decided to try 3D form.

3D form better conveys the interaction that large pieces of land have at fault lines. The only issue I have now is how these 3D elements will work with my other flat image style. It might be that I move all visuals to 3D.

3D motion normal / reverse / strike slip fault

I’ve also been working on my script in parallel. To get a sense of timing and length, I recorded a burner copy.

My next steps include:

  • Refining and rerecording my video script
  • Refining my visual form to make sure all visuals work together cohesively
  • Continue thinking about harder concepts

10/15–10/17 Exploring Visual Form, conti.

I had a chance to talk to Stacie about my progress. Feedback included:

  • Reconsider visual form and color choices. The current visual style feels a bit clinical, which my script feels more conversational. How can I make these styles match?
  • Think about keeping visuals all in 2D or 3D for consistency.

Color/Visual Form

I dove back into Illustrator to continue exploring visual style. Things I’ve been considering include how to abstract the world a bit more and make it look more approachable.

I did a number of different forms and color explorations.

explorations in a very messy illustrator file

2D Fault Line Explorations

I started playing around with scale in 2D to illustrate the concept of a strike-slip fault. I’m hoping that this motion will be able to communicate horizontal movement.

normal, reverse, strike slip

Communicating forward/backward movement is still proving tricky in 2D. I’ve been playing around with scale, but more often than not, it looks like one element is getting smaller, as opposed to receding backward. I’ll continue pushing forward and exploring.

10/22–10/24 2D and 3D explorations

Things I’ve been making progress on have included my script. I revisited my script to make sure concepts are clear and coherent.

I’m currently working on:

  • Visual form. I’m playing around with 3D forms. Currently considering 2D and 3D together. Working through transitions between both now.
  • Fault lines and how to communicate this concept. I’m running into trouble communicating 3D horizontal movement in 2D.
  • Seismic waves: communicating seismic waves and their effect on the earth’s crust/surface.
  • Transitions from once concept to the next.
  • Paring sound to visuals.
Exploring ways to communicate plate interactions // cause & effect

Feedback Session

  • 3D works well. Consider communicating all concepts in 3D.
  • Simple shapes/form works well.
  • Wiggle movement of shapes communicates earthquake motion.
  • Think about transitions
  • Might be better to have land run off the screen when showing fault line movements
  • Think about color contrast and making ground two different colors.

I’ll be working on updating my visual form, adding more detail, and stringing my compositions together.

10/29–10/31 3D it is!

Over the weekend, I worked on updating my 2D visuals to 3D. I also worked on playing around with movement in After Effects and pairing movements with audio.

Updating visuals to 3D

3D Earth
Seismic movement and waves
seismic wave explorations
seismic wave motion explorations

I want to add visuals related to my 2D horizontal movement explorations, but my original After Effects files are corrupted. I think too many files and moving files broke many of my asset connections.

Things I’d like to work on this week:

  • I’d like to continue refining my compositions, adding relevant detail.
  • Making sure my transitions work well
  • Continue refining how I communicate fault line movement and what happens as a result of that movement
  • Think about communicating seismic waves and different forms
  • Start working through the visual form of my conclusion

Earthquakes are movements in Earth’s crust. The Earth is composed of plates that sit on top of a partially molten mantle, which causes this movement. Plates may interact through compression, tension, or friction. As energy is stored over time, fault lines break, sending out a series of seismic waves that shake the ground. Earthquakes are hard to predict, but new science is developing.

Iterations and finalizing the form

I continued to iterate on my wave motions. This is a concept that was very challenging. After trying out and testing concepts on multiple people, I landed on a linear animation of each wave type.

The final stretch was the hardest part. It was a lot of tweaking, refining, stringing transitions and everything together.

Final takeaways

  • Feedback throughout the process was essential in helping me move forward.
  • It takes a lot of work, thought, and countless iterations to come up with visuals, motion, and audio that communicate a topic or concept.
  • I’d still like to work on polishing certain concepts/motion in the video to better convey certain concepts.
  • ***It’s a process. Just looking back at where I started up to where I ended, it’s been a process of editing, tweaking, getting feedback, and starting over. I had countless iterations of almost everything — waves, plate interactions, visual form. I think this is the hardest, but most enjoyable part of any design process, to work work work required to make sure an artifact is thoughtful and makes sense.
  • Taking breaks is key. Design can be exhausting at times. Every detail needs to be well thought out. This isn’t a bad discovery at all because I love design and the process.

Final video



Amrita Khoshoo

Interaction Designer | Carnegie Mellon University, School of Design | MDes ’21