Why the Tampa Bay Times Used Legos to Tell a Complex Story

Eli Zhang, a data and graphics intern at the Tampa Bay Times, used toy cars to simulate traffic on the Howard Frankland Bridge, which connects St. Petersburg and Tampa, Fla.
Toy cars were used to simulate traffic on the Howard Frankland Bridge, which connects St. Petersburg and Tampa, Fla.

Journalists can attest to the fact that not all stories are created equal, at least when it comes to the public’s level of interest in them.

Though newsrooms have experimented with different ways to tackle the problem, a pair of reporters from the Tampa Bay Times and one imaginative interaction designer recently applied an unusual approach to explain a rather complicated local news story.

With the help of a couple hundred Lego pieces and some clever stop-motion photography, the team managed to design a simple, eye-pleasing narrative about how the plan to fix Tampa Bay’s most important bridge fell apart.

“Transportation is a complex subject but it can also be a fairly dry one. Despite the fact that transportation policy affects all of our readers—after all, everyone has to get from point A to point B—most shy away from reading a 30-inch story about roads,” said reporter Caitlin Johnston, who was the main writer for the project. “That’s where creative storytelling comes into play. The Lego format allowed us to visualize the story for our readers in a fun format.”

While it had been discussed by local lawmakers and the state’s department of transportation for several years, the toll road project called Tampa Bay Express, or TBX, remained a convoluted web of bureaucratic jargon to most of the paper’s readers.

For the story to be delivered clearly, the team understood it had to first consolidate the key components of the 182-page plan and figure out how the Legos would help demonstrate them.

Caitlin Johnston
Caitlin Johnston

“Who doesn’t have a sense of nostalgia when it comes to those colored bricks? Suddenly this topic that seems really dense, complicated and dry becomes simple and entertaining,” Johnston said. “We had several readers comment that they wished every political policy was explained with Legos.”

Once that step was taken care of, Eli Zhang, an interaction designer at the paper, got to work in the photo studio, shooting the project frame by frame. A few dozen Micro Machine toy automobiles assumed the role of cars on the bridge, while Lego people were used to portray local lawmakers and state officials. According to Zhang, the project took several months. When it was finally completed (tampabay.com/legobridge), Zhang said he had made a total of 336 handcrafted stop-motion frames.

“It was a big challenge for me on a technical level. I’ve done stop-motion animation before but I didn’t have any sort of experience doing it for the web,” Zhang said. “That being said, there was never any doubt we could pull it off. We have some very talented engineers and designers in the data team and they were always willing to help.”

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