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SND NYC 2018

My takeaways from two days of talks about news design and more.

I spent the past few days at the 2018 edition of SND’s annual conference, held this year at the New School in New York City. Along with my colleagues Hannah Fresques, Lucas Waldron, and Sisi Wei, I helped lead a workshop called Visualizing Complicated Investigations, and I spent the rest of the conference taking in 17 sessions of various shapes and sizes. Here are my takeaways.

John Maeda: Design in Tech

Less meaty and focused than I would have liked (due partly to a late start that cut down on time), but Maeda’s extemporaneous style and accessibility (he offered his phone number so people could text him questions) were a nice way to ease into the day.

  • Inclusivity is a good pitch for investors (who might otherwise be turned off by “social awareness” which isn’t a money-maker) because it broadens the potential market. Successes like Wonder Woman and Black Panther are showing that the status-quo-oriented data isn’t asking the right questions.
  • Muriel Cooper, co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, was an amazing woman that few people know about. Look her up.
  • The Bauhaus was half women!
  • Whether or not what you’re doing is commercial, all users are customers—they’re giving you their time.
  • Tangible media feels more true beause of its immediacy. Digital things (ostensibly) have more layers between you and the things depicted.
  • Look at innovation in India, Latin America, China. Think beyond Silicon Valley.
  • Reconcile the dangers of machine learning by attacking what computers are bad at: empathy. Get people involved who have been left out of the tech conversation.

Candy Chan: Demystifying Subway Stations

Chan’s Project Subway NYC is an amazing collection of sketches, photographs, and architectural drawings of NYC subway stations. Its goal is to give people a more holistic understanding of the stations than their wayfinding can provide, allowing for a greater spatial awareness aimed at making the stations safer and more enjoyable.

Ernst-Jan Pfauth: How Can We Optimize News Orgs for Trust?

De Correspondent is an Amsterdam-based journalism platform that “provides an antidote to the daily news grind – shifting the focus from the sensational to the foundational, and from the attention-grabbing headline to the constructive insight.” Five things they’ve learned:

  • Have developers and designers in your highest ranks. De Correspondent’s design philosophy is to cultivate calm. I’m particularly interested in how their design uses sidenotes to give context to links rather than expecting the user to click blindly.
  • Make readers the most important stakeholders. Taking advertisers out of the equation keeps you from having to get readers’ attention for attention’s sake.
  • People value journalism for social change. More understanding equals less cynicism.
  • Let your readers be ambassadors. Paywalls hinder influence. De Correspondent lets members share articles with non-members: “This article has been given to you by paying member John Doe.”
  • Involve readers in your journalism. A thousand doctors know more than one health care correspondent.

De Correspondent is now trying to make their model work in the U.S. Challenges include broadening the membership structure to be more inclusive (what could be different ways to pay?) and dealing with intense national polarization.

Allison Arieff: Better Blocks, Half a Plan, and Other Lessons from Urbanism

The author of “Automated Vehicles Can’t Save Cities” (among many other things), Arieff went over several initiatives and concepts revolving around building better cities and communities, noting that urban planning moves much more slowly than tech, which makes tech ill-suited to being the primary driver of change.

  • Better Block Foundation: A nonprofit that educates, equips, and empowers communities and their leaders to reshape and reactivate built environments to promote the growth of healthy and vibrant neighborhoods.
  • Just Enough Green: An investigation into the relationship between urban parks and gentrification. Improvement without displacement.
  • Civic University: Promoting and teaching the art of powerful citizenship.
  • Direct Democracy: A form of democracy in which people decide on policy initiatives directly. Banishes fake news and political filter bubbles.
  • Place It!: A design- and participation-based urban planning practice that uses model-building workshops and on-site interactive models to help engage the public in the planning and design process.
  • Public Life Data Protocol: Standardizing collection and storage of data about people in public space.
  • Center for Urban Pedagogy: Using the power of design and art to increase meaningful civic engagement.

Tobias Ahlin: Leading with Critical Thinking

  • The critical thinker is nuanced, delays judgement, looks for information to prove themself wrong.
  • The non-critical thinker is dogmatic, quick to judge with insufficient data, and is convinced they’re right.
  • Things to ask and watch out for: How did they measure that? What would the data have to look like to prove me wrong? Big words can be an indicator of ideology.
  • When someone says no to an idea, don’t let them shut it down. Ask, “What would have to change for this idea to work?”
  • Dare to say “I don’t know” when the facts still aren’t in.

One of the most interesting parts of Ahlin’s talk was revisiting Steve Ballmer’s predictions for the iPhone when it first launched. Ballmer’s take has been ridiculed for years, regarded as arrogant and short-sighted:

There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I’d prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.

If you look at the data, Ballmer was actually spot-on. Apple’s wild success in mobile has been in profit, not market-share.

Kevin Quealy: Compiling Trump’s Twitter Insults

Fascinated by Trump’s lack of filter, incredulous at his endless capacity for derisive rhetoric, and inspired by the Pearl Harbor casualty list at the USS Arizona Memorial, Quealy collated all of Trump’s Twitter insults since the beginning of his presidential campaign. As of the latest update on January 3rd, it includes 425 people, places, and things Trump has insulted. It’s over 16,000 words long! On Valentine’s Day, the Times also published a list of Trump’s more positive tweets (some of the most frequent recipients of praise are himself, his family, and his golf courses).

James Morehead, Alex Valdiva: More Than Mocks: Achieving “Effortless” Design When Creating Bulletin, from Google

Bulletin is a hyperlocal social network / progressive web app thing from Google. Share pictures, videos, and text of what’s going on around you. It’s early days still (with pilot programs limited to Nashville and Oakland), but for now I don’t really see what’s new here.

Jennifer Maravillas: Trash Maps

Over the course of three years, Maravillas walked the entirety of Brooklyn’s 71 square miles, collected scraps of paper from every block, and made a massive map out of them. She has since expanded the project to include all five boroughs of NYC. What a fantastic project.

Allison McCann: I Keep Trying to Put the Web on TV

McCann walked through some of her data reporting work for Vice News Tonight and talked about adapting from working on the web to working on TV. As a Harmonix alum, my favorite part was her taking inspiration from Guitar Hero to visualize the data in a piece about women in national politics.

  • Dense data can work on TV with careful pacing—the designer is scrolling for the viewer.
  • TV is less elective than the web. The viewer hasn’t necessarily arrived at your work by choice and might not be paying close attention. Narrative is important.

Jennifer Daniel: Money Money Money

For years, Daniel’s basic message has been, “You think you’re hot, but you’re not.” It’s hard to argue that her sanctimonious targets in tech and journalism don’t deserve to hear it, but her acerbic style overwhelms the substance, and her apparent indifference to being remotely constructive isn’t a great look.

  • News design’s 2020 is tech’s 2010. Snapchat, Facebook Instant, AMP, etc are the result of newsrooms not caring about UX.
  • What visual possibilities exist beyond the traditional article? How might distribution be reinvented?

Greg Lamarche: Process and Progress

I’ve seen Lamarche’s work before, but couldn’t put a name to it. No especially revealing insights in this talk about where his aesthetic comes from (graffiti, comics, 70s rock band logos), but his typographic collage murals sure are nice to look at.

Scott Stowell: Design for People

After an introduction to his design company, Open, Stowell walked us through the experience of rebranding the ACLU (and doing a damned fine job).

  • The display type (GT America) is partly inspired by historic protest posters.
  • The engraving treatment for images takes its cues from paper money.
  • “Informational voice” type is set in Century, referring to a federal law that memos to the Supreme Court must be set in Century.
  • If red or blue is used, they should both be used, since each can appear partisan on its own.
  • The ACLU Design Handbook is pocket-sized in the tradition of the ACLU’s pocket Constitution.
  • The design system is made to be usable by amateurs, and is tech/software-agnostic.

Longform Live in Conversation with Paul Ford

Aaron Lammer interviewed Paul Ford for the Longform Podcast, and I was too engrossed to take many notes, but they talked a bunch about Ford’s mammoth Bloomberg piece “What Is Code?” (which I want to revisit), his self-initiated digitization of the Harper’s archive, and how the book he’s writing on his experiences in tech and publishing required him to write his own CMS.

Meredith Broussard: Designing News for the Future

Broussard’s talk undersold just how fucked we all are with regard to digital archiving, but I’m sure it was the right move; the listener would otherwise be too depressed to act on any of her advice. Four things you can do to preserve data journalism:

  • Take videos of interactive work (and be sure to periodically update the videos’ file format).
  • Bake out. Make static versions of dynamic pages.
  • Make a sunset plan at the time of launch (before you move on to other things and forget).
  • Work with libraries, memory institutions, and commercial archives (get your work in a scholarly archive—people in the future are more likely to see it there than on your own site).

Archiving considerations:

  • What tech platform are you hosting data projects on?
  • Copyright
  • Emulation versus conversion
  • Learning from other fields: contemporary art, reproducible science
  • Rhizome Webrecorder: Easily create and share high-fidelity, fully interactive copies of almost any website.

Kat Downs Mulder: What I’ve Learned in 10 Years at The Washington Post

A good microcosm of the last 10 years of interactive work on the web (I kind of forgot how much people really leaned on Flash a lot, even for a few years after the iPhone came out). Lots of great lessons for folks early in their careers, but only a couple I was compelled to jot down:

Hilary Greenbaum: From Magazine to Museum

Greenbaum’s move from writing and designing for the New York Times Magazine to leading the design team at the Whitney yielded lots of interesting insights, but the presentation’s breakneck pace made it tricky to absorb them.

  • Times: Help people stay informed. Whitney: Help people stay inspired.
  • Times: Few projects, rapid deadlines. Whitney: Many projects, varied deadlines.
  • Times: More givens, fewer emails (~40/day). Whitney: Less givens, more email (~75/day).
  • Times: Editorial design is necessarily separate from marketing design. Whitney: All design is integrated with marketing.
  • Times audience: More men. Whitney audience: More women.

Overall takeaways:

  • Inclusive process results in inclusive design.
  • Curiosity is a large factor of success.
  • Design thinking is a strategy tool that designers should own.

Fun facts:

  • The Times and the Whitney are both housed in buildings designed by Renzo Piano.
  • The Whitney’s softball team is called The Whitney Houstons!
  • 42% of Whitney visitors are artists.

Kristen Dudish, Thea Lorentzen, Alex Breuer, Lisa Larson-Walker: The Multi-Level Redesign

Dudish and Lorentzen: the New York Times’ upcoming homepage redesign; Breuer: the Guardian redesign; Larson-Walker: the Slate redesign. A bit hard to follow at times, but I was especially interested in the revamped Guardian navigation (changed from reflecting internal priorities to reflecting reader interest) and the design/editorial collaboration on the Times homepage (zeroing in on a word count range for headlines to optimize for white space in a responsive layout).