Why Design is So Important for Journalism Projects

    by Cody Shotwell
    December 3, 2010

    As this year’s batch of News Challenge applicants hurriedly slid those last-minute applications under Knight’s door, the SeedSpeak team and its technology partner Gate6 were busy prepping a very limited sneak peek of the SeedSpeak website.

    Please stop by and show us love by giving us your contact information; we’ll use it solely for the nefarious purpose of letting you know when the fully functional version is running, which should be very soon! After that, why not follow us and give us a quick Like on Facebook?

    We are excitedly bracing ourselves for all of you to explore, evaluate and explode SeedSpeak. As past News Challenge winners know (and a new batch will very soon discover), getting to this point takes lots of daydreaming, plenty of phone calls, and loads of… design.


    Importance of Design

    In particular, the process has exposed questions and uncovered opportunities about design thinking and its role in journalism instruction, practice, and innovation. I was a student working on several projects at Arizona State University’s New Media Innovation Lab when the first thought struck: “I’m getting a journalism degree. But I’m working on design projects. And I love it! Whoa. What am I? Who am I?”

    It’s exactly this kind of serendipitous identity crisis that the world of journalism innovation should more regularly — and explicitly — inspire among beginning practitioners. If you find yourself in a similar position, consider this post a call to action to better understand the role of design and its implications for the non-fiction storytelling ecosystem.

    My little hypothesis is this: Once the vocabulary of the design thinker becomes the vocabulary of every journalist, the journalism community will be better positioned to innovate and even compete with media innovations that arise from, for example, places like this, and dare I say even places like this.


    The rising standard for design thinking in the business world — and the success of tech companies that design amazing media products — hints at the amazing implications for grassroots activists, civic geeks, community journalists and social entrepreneurs of various stripes. You can see evidence of this in advice to last year’s News Challenge applicants from Dan Schultz, who hints at a design-minded approach to a winning application.

    In another post from last year, Chris O’Brien touches on the great journalism product ideas that can emerge from the design process. And I suspect the two esteemed members of the Knight family who make up the bulk of the Google hits for the search terms “human-centered journalism” (Andrew Haeg) and “design thinking in journalism,” (John Keefe) would be thrilled at a more widespread discussion.

    To the folks with product development and technology backgrounds, the importance of design is old news; it’s among the building blocks of effective products. But to an incredibly large swath of students, practicing journalists and educators, this is an underexplored or completely unexplored concept.

    So, to those News Challenge applicants not rewarding themselves by taking an extra-long nap this afternoon, I propose a much less exciting and substantially less monetarily-rewarding challenge: Get to know some of the design concepts and tools below, and stretch for an understanding of how you can leverage these for your projects (and for life in general!).

    Considering some of the philosophical parallels between design and journalism, the journalists out there may be surprised by what they discover. And don’t shy away if your project isn’t tech-heavy: Design consultancies like IDEO use design thinking to help identify and solve all sorts of problems.

    Learning About Design Concepts

    So, here we go! This is by no means an exhaustive list. Just a jumping off point for some design discovery.

    Some big picture stuff. Yes, these concepts totally overlap, but it’s worthwhile to know where they overlap. Check out the Austin Center for Design’s definition of interaction design and these principles of interface design. Be aware of the existence of terms like human-centered design and goal-directed design, and check out these thoughts from Whitney Hess about user experience design. Also, learn a little about design validation and usability testing.

    Some concepts, tools and techniques that you’ll come across as you delve into design include mental models, personas, use cases, task analysis, and more abstract stuff like heuristics and affordances.

    You should know what ethnographic research is compared to the kind of research you may be used to. Check out some of these prototyping programs, and understand some benefits of paper prototyping and card sorting. Why not check out more fun stuff like Arduino, and make yourself aware of the existence of other professional design tools like Unity and Maya. Happen to have Adobe Creative Suite on your computer? Figure out what those programs do, and make something with each one of them. Or, get to know some of the open-source alternatives.

    Design Thinkers

    Now for some ways to connect with design thinkers. For starters, check out the Interaction Design Association, AIGA, the Information Architecture institute, and the Design Thinking Network. Also, don’t hesitate to throw in some fun blogs like UX Booth, Johnny Holland, Core77, Designmind, Design Observer, Experience Matters, Dexigner, Putting People First, LukeW, Designboom, etc.

    Hope that has you overwhelmed and excited. Happy designing!

    Tagged: design thinking human-centered design innovation journalism non-fiction storytelling seedspeak

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