Ignite #NewsFoo 2012: 'Design is the missing link'

Over the weekend, some of the Knight Lab team participated in News Foo, an unconference at the Cronkite School of Journalism, hosted by O’Reilly Media and the Knight Foundation. It's in its third year, deliberately maintains small – somewhat controversial – attendee list of about 150 "campers," all of which are involved in technology and/or journalism an interesting ways. It was overwhelming and exciting and we feel incredibly grateful have had the opportunity to participate.

I participated in one of the Foo camp traditions: Ignite talks. Ignite is a series of 5-minute talks presented by "campers" about the passions, interests, challenges and difficulties in their lives. I decided that I had something to say and, while this one was not one of my better stage performances, a number people have asked me to share the transcript.

Have at it.

Saving Journalism: Your survival is Designed.


I am the first in five generations of women who does not make clothing for a living.

One of my great, great grandmothers was the only woman's tailor in Brooklyn at the end of the 19th century and the other was a small town milliner who earned her passage to America by selling hats.

My great grandmother attended Parsons to become a dressmaker. My grandmother ran a costume shop for local theater program in DC. And, my mother has made her career in costume production from her college days to present. She's currently a costume development manager for the Walt Disney Company, overseeing entertainment costume manufacturing.

At a very young age, my mother began the indoctrination of me: Clothing matters. What you wear says something about who you are and what you value … It tells your story.

As the black sheep, I do not earn my living making clothing … Though I argue that my craft is very similar. I have been a designer for nearly 14 years, seven of which have been spent inside newsrooms.

As a news designer – not unlike me as a web designer – my role was to organize and present information so that it is discoverable as well as rationally arranged … To illustrate ideas that deepen understanding of stories … Maintain the visual identity of the publication … All while working within the constraints of the medium.

Journalism needs designers who are skilled in both web and editorial design and they need to be embedded into our interactive news teams.

Some of our larger news operations have a few, quite good, user-experience designers … And when I reference UX designers, I mean our colleagues who can create a highly effective, truly immersive architecture around the way humans interact with software.

And I think we all agree that newsrooms have some pretty sophisticated editorial designers, thanks to decades polishing our craft in the publishing tradition … These are the designers who know how to enhance and even maximize a reader’s understanding of a story or package … They are significantly experienced in working with writers and editors, shaping what we read as they combine words and visuals.

Since we are here this weekend to talk about making the internet better, about innovating Journalism. Well, then, journalism needs more “design thinkers” and the quickest way to that would be by embedding designers skilled in both editorial and the web.

“Design Thinking” is a methodology for innovation. It involves "thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way a particular product is made, packaged, marketed, sold, supported."

You want to know who is really good at design thinking? Visual designers … PLUS, visual designers can realize ideas, products and stories into a graphic representation … And they do all of this while maintaining the consistency in the visual identity – or clothing – of a business.

Designers are master researchers and communicators. I have yet to meet a designer who accepts research collected by someone other than him/herself.

… Designers talk to everyone in the business: Editors, reporters, the newsroom developers,  the core-dev team,  product managers, project manager, marketing, analytics, executives and directors …

The work of the typical web designer goes well beyond pixel-pushing beautification and rare is the project that has no need for a designer.

At one point or another, nearly all departments cross paths with “Design” in order to conceive of or execute a project … And the most successful ones engage a designer from concept to completion.

Designers are malleable, they are responsive, they learn to work within the constraints of a medium … We’ve talked a lot about responsive design … How it changes the way we think, a shift in attitude … How responsively-designed websites are one of those changes in approach that opens up a whole new set of questions.

Designers like questions.

Designers, by their very nature, are always learning.

On any given team, designers are the cog … Therefore, the designer is uniquely positioned to be one of the most informed people in any organization, knowing most of the idiosyncrasies of all the moving parts.

When I was thinking about how to craft this argument … The idea that big-d Design is the thing, the thing that Journalism needs … That Design / user-experience / craft is the ingredient that we seem to value last …

I thought about The Walt Disney Company … about Apple and Steve Jobs … And we all should be thanking the Obama for America tech team for giving us one bad-ass business argument for the value of “executive buy-in” has to the success of a technology approach … That fully-realized technology team got our president elected … Twice.

So why is “Design” so often considered a luxury in our news operations? OR, if it is not a luxury, why is it an after-thought?

I am not the first to make this argument and I feel confident that I will not be the last: We need to put more digital designers into our news operations.

I am talking about those visual designers who can realize ideas and experiences into code because knowing how to write code helps produce better prototypes, and the best way to communicate an idea is through an interactive prototype. Producing quick prototypes brings ideas to life sooner, quickening the pace of decision making and software development … Ultimately helping Journalism respond faster to how quickly technology changes on the internet.

Unfortunately, we can not count on our current newsroom, editorial designers to learn these skills. We have tried to teach them. It has not worked. The few who have learned some technology skills are not learning them fast enough to keep pace with the shifting winds on the internet. This sounds harsh, but their contribution is not enough.

So why aren’t we teaching web designers editorial design skills? Why aren’t we making web designers journalists?

We have gotten programmers into our newsrooms … We have built news apps teams of engineers … We are showing our work and we are open-sourcing our code … Design is the logical next step in the digital journalism revolution!

P.S. Yes, I am aware of the irony of publishing this script to the Knight Lab blog while it is undergoing a rebrand, redesign and relaunch. Please pardon our dust.

About the author

Miranda Mulligan

Executive Director, 2012-2014

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