The Graphics and Photographic Services Group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Engaged the Graphic Communication Institute at Cal Poly to Collaborate on Website Optimization
Harvey R. Levenson, Ph. D. Professor Emeritus and Director of the Graphic Communication Institute (GrCI) California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly)
Sunjay Moorthy Manager, Graphics Services; Installation Printing Management Officer NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
Steve NooneAssociate, Graphic Communication Institute at Cal Poly (GrCI) Website Design and Development Specialist
A communication organization at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) lead center for robotic exploration of the solar system—engaged Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, for assistance in optimizing the effectiveness of its website development practices for sharing scientific, technical, and educational outreach information internally, nationally, and around the world.
To achieve the stated goal, Mr. Sunjay Moorthy, JPL Manager of the Graphics and Photographic Services Group, and Installation Printing Management Officer, initiated a dialogue with Dr. Harvey R. Levenson, Professor Emeritus and Director of the Graphic Communication Institute (GrCI) at Cal Poly—an exchange that has resulted in a collaboration between the two institutions. The initial set of conversations led to a JPL subcontract under which the GrCI conducted a technical assessment of the Graphics and Photographic Services Group’s website procedures related to design, applications, methods, processes, technologies, and skills. The GrCI is an internationally recognized industry service arm of Cal Poly’s Graphic Communication Department and a leader in graphic communication research, testing, product evaluations, and training in print as well as non-print digital imaging processes, including web development and Internet publishing. The GrCI focuses on research, testing, product evaluations, consulting, training, seminars, workshops, conferences, and publishing. The technical assessment was conducted by Levenson and by Steven Noone, GrCI Associate and website design and development expert.
The JPL Technical Information Section, which comprises the Graphics and Photographic Services Group (i.e., Graphics) and the Documentation Services Group, provides a full range of communication services in support of JPL’s scientific, technical, and administrative activities, and assists the Laboratory’s public engagement and educational outreach organization, the Communications and Education Directorate. JPL is a federally funded research and development center staffed and managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology. As a federally funded research and development center, JPL functions under federal acquisition requirements for purchasing and related expenditures, including printing.
On August 14 and 15, 2014, Levenson and Noone spent two days at JPL, conducting one-on-one interviews, touring facilities, and documenting work activities in all Graphics functional areas. Although all Graphics functional areas were reviewed, the assessment focused on website development, including workflow, methods, techniques, processes, software, equipment, and skills within Electronic Publishing Services (EPS), which is the website development team in Graphics. The purpose of the assessment was to identify areas for improvement in EPS processes, tools, and methods and to recommend training actions. Levenson and Noone conducted detailed interviews with all EPS team members as well as other stakeholders in the Technical Information Section; they also toured the on-site Photographic Services and repro facilities. On September 12, 2014, Levenson delivered a full report of observations and recommendations to Moorthy. Monique Martinez, the 2014 summer intern in Graphics and a Cal Poly Graphic Communication student, provided administrative support throughout the assessment. The assessment report focused on two items:
- Making recommendations for improvements. This portion of the report includes standards, the latest industry practices, tools, metrics, standardization of team member practices, staff experience, continuity of processes, understanding of customer needs, graphic presentation, and related areas.
- Identifying training needs and recommending an EPS training program to be delivered at Cal Poly.
Graphics oversees several communication production activities at JPL:
- Printing Services: commercial printing through a contract with the Government Printing Office (GPO) that covers a complete range of printing services; also onsite repro services and networked multifunctional device copiers through subcontracts.
- Design Services: design, writing, editing, and creation of design publications and high-visibility communication products such as brochures, public outreach and educational materials, and JPL external publications.
- Electronic Publishing Services (EPS): standardized and sophisticated websites, using the latest development tools and advanced dynamic web interfaces to create solutions for web design, content, functionality, and usability, as well as online forms, forum and bulletin boards, and interfaces for Lab-approved credit card transactions.
- Photographic Services: creative and production services as well as photographic, video, and imaging solutions; photographers on call for assignments at the Laboratory and occasional assignments outside JPL; a full range of graphics products such as displays, exhibits, and signage; and an online image catalog containing over two terabytes of JPL mission imagery.
An important part of the Technical Information Section’s vision is to advance the art of scientific and technical communication in support of other departments within the larger JPL organization. This is done through the creation of products that incorporate concise detail, including data and facts, as well as storytelling. The data, facts, and stories connect business, science, education, and research professionals within JPL offices and around the world and engage the public to help create a common understanding of our planet, the universe at large, and the tools JPL is building to reveal the “mysteries” of the universe. Graphics uses art, photography, video, and text to illustrate and communicate. Their combination of design expertise and technical proficiency has established Graphics as the ideal partner for providing technical and scientific information and for fulfilling their mission of telling customers’ stories.
The Graphics group is staffed with bright, motivated, and highly competent individuals, many of whom have decades of institutional knowledge serving JPL in this information dissemination and storytelling role. Many members of the Graphics staff are liberal arts-trained, which brings many benefits and broad thinking. Many are educated in areas such as English, writing, philosophy, theology, and related areas. This is definitely a plus and points to the intellectual skills of the staff, and meshes with the GrCI being part of Cal Poly’s College of Liberal Arts. In addition, there is a need to identify sources of new talent to prepare for the future retirement of current staffers.
The technical assessment could be followed by a training session for EPS staff on-site at Cal Poly delivered by the GrCI. Even without training, Graphics has already started implementing several of the assessment recommendations for the EPS team, especially those crystallized in the following excerpt from the GrCI report:
“The organizational structure of each (Graphics) section should emulate a traditional organizational structure with supervisory personnel having a span of control of 1 to 6 employees optimally or 1 to 7 or 8 employees maximum. This would provide the opportunity for all staff to be subject to the same operating procedures and expectation as opposed to the ‘freelance’ structure that presently exists. Effective models for this structure might be the Photographic Services and Design Services teams where a more traditional organizational reporting structure seems to exist with a clear hub and ‘connecting spokes’.” In the cases of both of these other teams, there is a clear “point person” who is responsible for task assignments, resource allocation, and project oversight.
The goal of the follow-on training would be to establish a set of best practices in EPS for project management, customer service, and web development technologies. This group-training program would provide a common foundation of knowledge, establish a shared vocabulary to aid collaboration, and “kick-start” individual training in specific job-related areas. Levenson said, “We would cover in-depth topics related to web workflow optimization and conduct hands-on exercises using modern web development techniques to deliver fully responsive experiences across a variety of web-enabled devices.”
CONCLUSION AND NEXT STEPS
The Technical Information Section occupies a key strategic role within JPL as a resource for high-production-value creative and technical projects, and ongoing support of the proposal development process that is mission-critical to the organization. The Section helps its JPL “customers” tell their stories—what they do and why it is important. Section members create, capture, analyze, enhance, and deliver information that communicates the value and results of JPL’s scientific, technical, and business endeavors. The Section provides high-quality, innovative, end-to-end information delivery services and solutions. Expectations for the Section are high because of the critical nature of the work and a long track record of delivering high-quality service.
The following areas would be addressed in the EPS training program:
- Overview of User Experience Process
- Hands-on Cascade Style Sheet (CSS3) for Website Development
- Responsive Design Principle and Applications
- Layout and Design: User Interface Principles
- Layout and Design: Typography
Applying such training to developing effective websites using multimedia and new technology approaches would be the primary focus. To the extent possible, the training would include but not be limited to sound, motion, interaction, digital asset management (DAM), augmented reality, variable data, web-to-print, search engine optimization, mobile apps, and so on. Future training could be provided in other areas as determined by Graphics interests and needs in image and file creation and management, and trends and technologies.
The EPS training program could foster the continuing collaboration between an institution of higher education that prepares students for careers in communication (Cal Poly’s Graphic Communication program), and an organization that supports research and development (JPL Graphics) and is looking for the next generation of talent in the graphics communication field.