Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Designing the News

This post was co-written with my partner-in-crime on the very gnarly and  momentas USA Today relaunch – Lisa Smith.

The Future of News panel at NYC Advertising Week in September 2011 was polarized by blind optimism and Grinch-like misery and gloom. Spokespersons from CNN and Flipboard were ebullient – There has never been a better time to be in this business! Look at all the new and exciting things we are doing! Those from USA Today and AdWeek pointed out that until those new and exciting new things generate ad revenue, there is nothing to shout about. Of course they are both right. And much discussion was dedicated to something they all agreed on: design will be increasingly important in adding value the to highly commoditized business of news delivery.

With major players and large investments at stake, designers have an opportunity to win big by developing new ideas for news presentation and delivery.  Interaction design, visual storytelling and good-old fashion graphic design are all needed to add value and rebuild the dying business models of this centuries-old industry.

People are spending more time consuming news than ever before - 70 mins per day, up 10 minutes per day on the past decade. Teenagers are becoming interested in news younger and – presumably because of its accessibility online – spending more time with it than their counterparts of the past decades.

As the world becomes increasingly connected we both want and need to know more about what is happening in other places and a lot of the events issues that effect our everyday lives are increasingly complex. It’s no longer enough to write a thousand-word feature to explain most current affairs topics. Storytelling needs to be multi-media and multi-layered, peppered with jump-off and drill-down points, while still maintaining a discernible and satisfying narrative.

Info-graphics and data visualization have shifted from the status of visual interest to necessary components for getting the story across. Many news organizations are building specialist departments and making extensive use of freelancers to improve their chops in this kind of visual storytelling. As an indication of the growing importance of this design discipline, in Fast Company’s recent list of the 50 most influential designers in America, five of them were experts in the once niche (and slightly nerdy) field of information graphics.

The further shift of much news consumption from the web to app-based tablets and smartphones changes the opportunity again. Here we have a ‘lean back’ medium that is both mobile and highly interactive. The ubiquity of smartphones makes it likely that in the near future they will be the number one way in which news is consumed in many countries. At the moment, what makes the smartphone a preferred platform for news delivery is the fact that it is in your pocket rather than anything particularly great about the way the presentation is designed. As Martin Belham says in his excellent blog currybetdotnet ‘We are at the animated gif stage of design for the tablet and smart phone.”

While many are resigned to the fact that all print media is dying and that printed news is dying fastest, there are examples of design cleverness and innovation helping some papers put up a good fight. It requires more innovative thinking than just format size and price. Designers need to be looking at how printed news fits into a whole user-journey of news consumption throughout the day and across multiple platforms. 

i the national newspaper in Portugal was born in May 2009, at the nadir of journal closures and debate around the death of printed news. Not structured like a normal newspaper it starts with the assumption that most readers will already know a lot from other news sources and doesn’t try to cover all aspects of all stories. It’s front section is dedicated to overviews of the past 24 hours, followed by some opinion and a dozen or so in-depth articles. It’s design is bold and brash but draws heavily on the sort graphic design sophistication more often seen in book or high-end magazine design. The circulation numbers were promising from the beginning. And they are now building an impressive following online and looking to expand their readership beyond internationally.

The mistake for newspapers is to think that a redesign means a new masthead and grid, missing the opportunity to reinvent the whole product. The Independent in the UK has undertaken three redesigns in three years, with no effect on their circulation. In what only could be seen as a last ditch attempt to find a voice on it’s 25th Birthday, under their new editor, Chris Blackhurst, they set about creating a “faster, more accessible and urgent paper”. This October they have reveled a fourth redesign by Errea Communications, the agency behind i. Errea were briefed to turn the paper upside down, with no limits, looking at content structure and graphic design. At time of writing it’s too early to comment on the results but the bravery and intent are to be applauded.

When approaching design for news in any media designers need to focus on adding value and reinventing business models. Nuances of typefaces and grids may be important but not unless they are executing on the answers to big questions around what, when and how people want news. And what add value will incite them to pay, either with their money or their attention? 

Jacek Utko, design director for Bonnier Business Press International and several-time winner of ‘World’s Best Designed Newspaper’, sums it up well in his 2009 TED talk. He describes a new role for designers in news media that takes responsibility for reinvention from beginning to end, "Design can change not just your product, it can change your workflow, actually it can change everything in your company, it can even change you. Give power to designers." 

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