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Dialogue Magazine

Serious Play: a lab for artistry, expression, and experimentation

Winter 2023 Features

The School of Communication has a new vision. Take a sneak peak behind the two-year process of rebranding, reimagining, and redefining our School.

By Kerry Trotter

What is the School of Communication?
Why are we configured this way?
How does our work stand out?

As SoC has grown and evolved—from a small department of elocution to a high-impact, global assemblage of arts and science scholars—these questions have persisted in kind. Yet when E. Patrick Johnson assumed his deanship in August 2020, the need to answer them felt urgent and necessary.

“So many of the challenges we face as a school could be traced back to this identity crisis of sorts,” he says. “We boast a wonderfully enthusiastic alumni, student, faculty, and staff community, but what else would be possible with more cohesive messaging? The ability to clearly define our vision and mission gives us a banner under which to work. It says, ‘We’re all on the same team,’ and teammates collaborate, create, innovate, and play.”

The challenge

How can SoC connect the dots between basic and clinical science, social science, and performing and media arts while demonstrating that these are meaningful connections? How do we better communicate our strengths as a school versus leaning on the reputation of individual departments? How do we advance our work in a strategic way?

SoC’s arrangement of departments is intentional and complementary, but it can be difficult to explain, and even harder to explain succinctly. Finding a theme that could move fluidly from one discipline to the next became the priority.

The process 

First order of business: dispense with the “shaky C.” The longstanding logo depicting the reverberating letter C was initially effective but was now out of step with Northwestern’s modern branding guidelines. The official “lockup,” which aligns the school with all others at the University, was already more prominently placed on all outward-facing and internal communications.

The next task: create a mission statement that would synthesize SoC’s goals and communicate its strengths across disciplines. Dean Johnson convened a senior leadership retreat in summer 2021 and, alongside the associate deans and department chairs, created a comprehensive list of words and concepts that were intrinsic to SoC and its culture: “interdisciplinary,” “excellence,” “scientific discovery and clinical impact,” “development of the whole person,” and more. One discussion centered around the idea of failure, noting that students often feared taking creative risks that could adversely affect their academic goals. But stumbles and setbacks are essential in achieving excellence, and it was paramount to communicate that SoC was rigorous but supportive—and, most importantly, a place that took seriously the often-playful process of discovery.

Next, Dean Johnson enlisted the expertise of Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications, specifically assistant vice president of marketing and chief creative officer Andy Madorsky and his team of writers, marketers, and strategists. After regular check-ins, the OGMC team developed several concepts and “headlines”—virtual elevator pitches. A simple but compelling standout emerged:

The School of Communication is a lab for artistry, expression, and experimentation: Serious Play.

The idea was fleshed out further: Performing at the highest levels, in a lab or on the stage, means hard work, training, critique, rigor. Everything we do is an experiment; we’re a research lab for communication. The freedom to try, to stumble, to fall, and then joyously rise again is essential to all learning and growth. Here, we embrace challenges, iterate, and try again—in our science, in our scholarship, and in our creativity.

We embody Serious Play in all disciplines and methodologies in SoC. From the very literal applications in theatre to the way we engage with and study people with communication disorders. We are a lab through and through, and fostering serious breakthroughs in communication means we must experiment, we must engage one another, we must play.”

E. Patrick Johnson
Dean of the School of Communication; Annenberg University Professor

Screenshot of SoC's website.
School of Communication's new website homepage.

“We were excited to work with this idea—serious play—as it so vividly captures SoC’s culture,” Madorsky says. “Additionally, it complements Northwestern’s broader marketing vision and drives home the idea that we are as much about intellectual rigor as expression and experimentation.”

Serious Play covers a lot of bases for Dean Johnson, too. It illustrates that SoC is a collaborative, interdisciplinary community; that it is inclusive and prioritizes becoming more diverse and equitable; and that creativity necessarily plays a role in any scholarly endeavor, scientific or artistic.

“We embody Serious Play in all disciplines and methodologies in SoC,” Dean Johnson says, “from the very literal applications in theatre to the way we engage with and study people with communication disorders. We are a lab through and through, and fostering serious breakthroughs in communication means we must experiment, we must engage one another, we must play.”

Cover of Summer 2022 Dialogue print magazine.
Cover of Summer 2022 Dialogue print magazine.

With the mission statement locked down, OGMC turned its attention to the most visible outlets for this work: the SoC website and Dialogue magazine. Its web team pored over analytics and stakeholder interviews to determine the primary audience (prospective students and their parents/caregivers) and then embarked on strategizing, designing, producing, and launching a new digital presence. The publications team rethought the magazine’s old “newsletter” approach and suggested ways to break up the copy and better utilize the school’s peerless cache of compelling imagery.

OGMC wove the Serious Play theme into both platforms in visually engaging ways, better defining SoC and its collaborative spirit. The new annual print magazine debuted last summer; the website launched in the fall. This Dialogue website houses digital-only content, delivered annually but with special content launching throughout the year.

The result 

The school now boasts exciting, photo-driven storytelling that better highlights the experiences of students, the eminence of faculty, and the success of alumni. Department goals, priorities, and distinctions are more effectively demonstrated, as is how they all fit together under one dynamic roof.

“I am elated with the result,” Dean Johnson says. “The new branding so beautifully reflects the excitement and import of our contributions to communication and the community in which we want current and future students to find belonging. We are collaborators and creators, and what better way to tell that story than through examinations and celebrations of serious play.”

Serious play at work

She’s got rhythm 

Kennedy Williams has found the coveted secret of marrying art and science. A pre-med senior in human communication sciences, she is a research assistant in the Auditory Research Laboratory under communication sciences and disorders professor Sumit Dhar. She is also a prolific drummer.

Insert all the eardrum puns here.

Kennedy Williams
Kennedy Williams

“I’ve always been fascinated with music and, more broadly, sound,” she says. “It was a match made in heaven: The human communication sciences major can be anatomy-biology-neuroscience heavy, which I wanted. But I also get to explore a lot of phenomena related to sound and the other senses.”

Williams became interested in medicine when she had surgery for scoliosis as a child, around the time she discovered the drums. She considered majoring in music at Northwestern but landed in HCS when she saw how it bridged both her worlds and offered a phenomenal springboard to medical school. “It was a really nice pairing of my interests,” she says.

A founding member of the Jazz Club, Williams has drummed in Wirtz Center productions and participated in Philharmonia, Northwestern’s largest student orchestra. Her lab work uses mathematical modeling to study the workings of the inner ear.

“This work helped me realize that there’s a methodical, scientific way of thinking in music, just as the natural sciences and topics covered in HCS will often warrant creativity,” she says. “When you’re in a lab setting, you’re working with a team to frame and interpret experiments and papers, and a lot of creativity comes with this way of thinking. And in drumming there’s understanding the science of how your body is working, the kinesthetics of it all.”

Williams credits music with opening her up to new experiences and new people, a definite asset for a medical professional. “I’ve noticed that my brain is working in very similar ways a lot of times for these two very unrelated activities,” she adds.

It’s a rhythm that is sure to take her far.

Watch Kennedy Williams perform with her band, Pink Penguin.

Having fun with AI

Duri Long
Duri Long

How to take the intimidation factor out of AI? Play with it.

With collaborators from Georgia Tech, communication studies assistant professor Duri Long has been awarded a grant to produce interactive museum exhibits that encourage young people to interact with artificial intelligence and expand their AI literacy. The three-year National Science Foundation Advancing Informal STEM Learning grant will enable Long to work with Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry in building installations designed to engage primarily middle-school female-identifying students with no computer science background.

Why? AI is here to stay, so it’s best to get to know it early.

“We’re trying to help people better understand these systems so they can make informed decisions about when to use them and understand how their data is being used by them,” Long says. “And thinking critically about when a recommendation is offered by a system—how do we make sense of that?”

Long and her partners are taking previously developed at-home activities and scaling them up to create museum exhibits that include both embodied interaction and creativity. The intent is to get participants thinking about new ways to use and work with AI—like drawing a picture or dancing together. As Siri, Alexa, and ChatGPT continue to infiltrate and influence our lives, Long says it becomes imperative to take ownership of how we choose to interact.

“The goal of the project is to foster interest in AI, which can be a very vague and intimidating concept,” she says. “Getting young people to engage in playful, game-like activities that allow them to collaborate and talk with each other—and allow them to enter into the activity without any prior knowledge of AI or computer science—can help make some of these topics more approachable, less intimidating, and also fun. Perhaps that leads to future careers in AI or a long-term desire to stay up to date with how this technology works and how it’s being used in our lives.”

Connecting music and emotion

A team of innovators at Colorado Public Radio follows a mandate: Try new things.

As part of that team, Luis Antonio Perez (GC16) is game. He is host and producer of the award-winning Music Blocks podcast for kids, presenting five-to-six-minute segments that explore how musicians use sound to express emotions and tell stories.

Luis Antonio Perez
Luis Antonio Perez (GC16)

“When we got the green light to create Music Blocks, we developed it in consultation with Colorado teachers and music educators,” Perez says. “We asked them, ‘What can we create that would be helpful to you in the classroom?’ Their answer was, ‘More resources that engage students to help them explore music appreciation.’”

Perez and his colleagues use a curriculum adviser to ensure the episodes hit the right educational note, but they rely on their creativity and sense of fun to make the magic. Through questions about well-known musicians, episodes have explored how music evokes romance, heartbreak, celebration, and surprise. How did Janelle Monae, Lil Nas X, Shania Twain, and Nina Simone make sounds about feeling great? How did the Clash and Fela Kuti represent anger? How did Billie Holiday use music as protest?

A graduate of the Master of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program, Perez cut his public-radio teeth in his hometown of Chicago, where he was a host and producer at Vocalo Radio. When the Colorado opportunity arose, he jumped. “I consider my work in audio, podcasting, and storytelling to be service work,” he says, “and I think it’s important to be part of the community of people we are serving.”

Perez’s newest podcast project with Colorado Public Radio, My Story So Far, premiered last month.