The CNN Magic Wall, with John King at the controls, has been a popular and critical part of CNN’s politics and live election coverage and storytelling for almost 10 years. It has spawned internet memes, been a guest of Saturday Night Live, and been imitated by all of the CNN’s competitors.
With the approach of the 2018 midterm elections (which were sure to be the most watched and hotly contested in history) CNN partnered with Code and Theory to take its iconic Magic Wall to the next level.
Designing an experience that could bridge physical with digital broadcast.
The Magic Wall presents a number of design challenges. It is a piece of digital software that is operated by one user on a large touchscreen. The ultimate audience experience is watching John King use a piece of technology as the performance is captured by various television cameras under specific lighting conditions in a television studio. That means we had to take into account everything from John King’s height to his personal motion preferences: how he likes to move, how he pinches and zooms the map, the level of responsiveness he looks for from the telestration feature, and also how colors would look on camera.
Information had to be big, bold and bright to show up from a variety of camera positions, while interactions and animations had to pop in a theatrical way that would look great on broadcast. Finally, John had to be able to smoothly operate a number of complex features and filters while continually talking and never turning his back on the audience.
Working collaboratively with CNN, we reimagined the look, feel and core feature set of the main individual applications that make up the Magic Wall. We developed a suite of new features and capabilities designed around anticipated 2018 Midterm Election storylines, including, for the first time ever, a House Battle for Control simulation application.
We also reworked the technology to make it more secure and scalable for the future, helping CNN stay ahead of its competitors in an increasingly crowded and cutthroat media environment.
Considered Design And Functionality
To create a more modern (and intuitive) look, we incorporated CNN's proprietary font throughout the Wall, made the key information panels more vibrant and engaging, and made the map movements more theatrical and immersive. A new information hierarchy made previously complex information much more digestible to the audience.
We also built an entire country's worth of custom maps, and narrowed down the scalable features to make geographic borders cleaner and clearer, giving them the most powerful and flexible storytelling opportunities.
CNN was the #1 rated show in the most critical demographics.
The Magic Wall performed flawlessly throughout 13 continuous hours of intense use on live television and, by CNN’s estimation, was on camera for more time than any other national election broadcast in the history of the program. It enjoyed far more screen time than competitors’ products.
Magic Wall apps, including some experimental features, on Surface tablets, were used in the CNN control room to help the politics team drive the coverage. Some of CNN’s journalists used the Magic Wall installs outside of the studio to come up with story ideas for that night and the next day. Not only did the Magic Wall end up being an invaluable on-air storytelling tool, but it played a big role in helping the CNN team off-camera as well.