Journalism + Design: Building solutions to our greatest challenges - hero image

Journalism + Design: Building solutions to our greatest challenges

In late 2019, a team of designers, writers, researchers, and software developers at The New York Times published a list of 10 “themes” around news consumption to watch for in 2020. The list included plenty of interesting insights, but far more exciting was the methodology behind it.

NYT’s designers didn’t build their 2020 forecast from tracking analytics, sending out reader surveys, or doing market testing. They did something else: They sat down with readers, in their own homes and workplaces and on their commutes, and observed how people consumed the news.

“We watched how people use their social media accounts, we listened to podcasts alongside them in their cars and we sat in their kitchens while they asked Alexa for the weather forecast,” the team wrote, concluding:

“In order to grasp how media is evolving, it’s important to start with people.”

This probably sounds self-evident: Isn’t the news inherently about people? Of course. But despite journalists’ work to understand the people in their stories, few in the industry are equally adept at understanding the people who make up their own readership — or their own staff.

As a result, publishers, editors, and journalists are almost certainly missing major pain points and opportunity areas in how they think about developing, building, sharing, and evaluating stories.

Human-centered designers, like those at the New York Times, prioritize these users — the people their service is for. Like journalists, designers research human behavior, through interview and observation, in an attempt to understand complex problems: Where do people feel pain between what they need, what they have, and what they want? What barriers exist to resolving this pain? How are people using what they have? Why are they doing that? How do we know?

But where journalists focus on content, designers focus on experience — what and who the content is for, how it’s delivered, and how behavior may change as a result. And where journalists synthesize these insights to tell stories, designers push into making solutions. Designers come up with ideas (sometimes incremental, sometimes radical), in an attempt to resolve the pain points they have seen; they build and test prototypes, to evaluate whether and how the ideas provide value; and they iterate, tossing out models that don’t work, revising the ones that do, and trying again.

My most fulfilling moments as a journalist have been when people found each other through a story I wrote and went on to collaborate because of it. While distinct professions can — and to some extent, must necessarily — serve different functions, I’ve long been bothered by a creed in journalism that it is strictly someone else’s job to fix the problems that journalists uncover.

When I left my job as an online editor to pursue design strategy in 2018, I did so because I wanted to better understand what it would take to build solutions to the many challenges I was observing through my reporting. I wanted to develop expertise not just in noticing problems, but in trying solutions, and evaluating them, too. One year into this work, I believe we will need many more practitioners with this end-to-end expertise in order to meaningfully solve the problems of the 2020s.

We just moved into a new decade overshadowed by the consequences of past ones. Many (most?) of our institutions and norms are in flux; our sense of common ground and shared reality is eroding; many of our technological capabilities are fast outpacing our ability to regulate quality, understand consequence, or predict impact.

We are in urgent need of those who can observe the truth about the state of our world. For both journalists and designers, finding the truth and continually making sense of it is paramount. Both journalists and designers believe in creating things of value. And both journalists and designers, on our best days, believe our work can help remake the world.

I suspect journalism and design, as fields, also hold some keys to the other’s way forward. Designers’ exuberance to “move fast and break things” en route to a new future instead broke many things we relied on, with nothing close to adequate replacements. Design leadership in 2020 must reflect a more journalistic integrity: focusing on human needs; on outliers and anomalies; on the consequences of “innovations;” on truth and nuance over brand agenda and company bottom line.

Journalism, for its part, is in an “apocalypse” of its own: Publications are bleeding money, award-winning teams are withering under acquisitions and naïve business owners, reporters are being laid off by the thousands, and journalists are under persistent intimidation. Journalistic leadership in 2020 must develop a more designerly risk-tolerance — one that is willing to think creatively, proactively, and boldly about how to make journalism resilient, vital, and lucrative for decades to come.

Some groups are already chipping away at this intersection. Solutions Journalism is a network of reporters focusing on “solutions” stories: eschewing the industry habit of focusing only on problems in favor of reporting on and evaluating solutions — and in the meantime, rebuilding reader trust in the news.

Other organizations like Internews are focusing on “information dark spots,” pairing reporters with existing community information networks and civil society organizations to ensure citizens have access to the news that affects them and their community.

And interdisciplinary programs like Journalism + Design at the New School is combining journalistic training with design thinking — preparing students to apply imagination, empathy, rigor, and research to their future careers.

We are in urgent need of those who can observe the truth about the state of our world — the journalists who are striving to continually communicate these truths, the designers who are striving to build something better, and the growing team of collaborators at the intersections.

Catherine Woodiwiss

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