Why Do Journalists Need Design Knowledge?

by | May 20, 2020 | Blogs

It’s astonishing how content and news are consumed and the pace that humans are viewing content.  

In an example, a student of design project made a sculpture out of found objects, to make a point on throwaway consumer culture. 

One critic said, “This might be better realized as a large, immersive installation.”

Ahh,”said the other critic, “ I would prefer it as a poster with images and explain the journey of these objects.”

“I see it more as a performance,” said a fellow student.

At this point it is clear that information could take on an infinite number of forms. It could be a sculpture, a newsletter, book, or video. 

Journalists are making design decisions – which medium? which platform? which community? – now more than ever before.

It turns out that the whole practice of design is about making decisions – both small and large – about the best way to give ideas form, for particular audiences, in particular situations. But how do you learn how to make these decisions?  

As Praveen Kumar N, Co Chairman at Bangalore School of Design says, “Design is… a practice of invention: It offers processes and strategies for grappling with the uncertainty and fear that come from working in hard-to-define problem spaces with as-yet-determined solutions.”

“One thing designers spend a lot of time with is problem definition,” says Praveen. If you set aside assumptions and spend time exploring the problem or issue, “it will change the story and how you tell the story.”

Praveen believes that journalists can leverage design methods for addressing systemic problems like environmental degradation, corruption, racism and domestic violence. 

The Form

Form is not typically a word used in J-schools nor a subject of journalism training, but individual reporters are making design decisions – which medium? which platform? which community? – now more than ever before.

Journalists can start to borrow from designers their design methods and mindsets to incorporate in the digital news ecosystem.

For example, if a reporter is putting together a story on the Gas Leak in Visakhapatnam and long term health impact. Should her story be a long-form narrative? A live blog, accounting the process of negligence? A twitter chat connecting the chemical plant owners with the local community? A podcast? An interactive documentary? Virtual tour with timeline of events? A slideshow with powerful images of the struggles of local residents? An in-person community storytelling event that brings together diverse stakeholders from industry to advocacy?

Some newsrooms, documentary producers and online publishers have always had to think about form and engagement in multiple ways. But to other journalists, these possibilities may feel overwhelming and unfamiliar.  And all newsrooms don’t have equal resources and the luxury of time to understand an issue and produce interactive and visual content that intervenes. 


Developing the Design Mindset

People covering crisis situations in journalism did not have to worry about decisions like “interactive documentary vs Twitter feed vs live blog?” too much in the past. Take a typical print journalist from 15 years ago. Her/His job was to deliver copy. This would likely involve doing background research, interviewing people, developing an angle and writing the story.

He/She did not have to think about when to publish the story – that was given by the schedule of the newspaper. She did not have to think about where the story would go in the paper – that was the editor’s job. And the spatial layout was clear – it would be a vertical column of black and white words of a certain length. That was fixed by the format of the paper. She did not have to think about who was reading the story because it was clearly the subscribers to the paper and they were handled by the business side of the operation.

Social media, mobile phones and comments have drastically transformed the relationship between publishers and the audience.

But in the digital era none of these things are given. Journalists are, for better or for worse, thinking about aspects of the digital news ecosystem like medium, audience, and distribution that were previously considered very, very far outside their job description.

This is where the skills of the designer bring methods and mindsets to bear that can help to navigate the complexity. 

Journalism + Design

So is there a demand for this kind of thinking? It is the most popular undergraduate course at Bangalore School of Design.

The work of bringing two distinct fields of practice together is mostly happening in an ad-hoc way. But the more strategic connections made between journalism and design will build a strong foundation from a career point of view.

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