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6 newsroom lessons for addressing challenges with a design mindset


6 newsroom lessons for addressing challenges with a design mindset

Picture of Linda Vecvagare
Linda Vecvagare — Marketing and Communications Manager
June 28, 2018

A round-up of the key learnings from the News Impact Summit in Paris

The challenges that journalism is facing today have reached an all-time level of complexity, making it difficult to find appropriate solutions — or even define the underlying problems.

Time and again we hear about design thinking and human-centred design that, when implemented correctly, can help newsrooms find innovative approaches to problem-finding and problem-solving.

But what do we mean when we talk about applying design practices and a design mindset in the newsroom?

To explore this question, last Monday our team organised in Paris the first edition of the 2018 News Impact Summits, powered by the Google News Initiative.

The focus of the event was ‘Powering Journalism with Design’.

Some of the brightest minds working at the intersection of journalism and design in Europe and beyond joined the event to share their learnings and experiences. Together we explored how we can implement a user-centric approach in our newsrooms to enhance and support innovation.

One thing became obvious very quickly: while a lot has been written about design methods in theory, now it’s time to learn first-hand from concrete case-studies.

1. Wicked problems require new ways to solutions

As Heather Chaplin — Founding Director of the Journalism + Design programme at The New School — explained in her opening keynote, some problems can benefit from a design approach more than others. The so-called wicked problems are so complex in nature that it’s difficult or even impossible to define them precisely, let alone solve them. The crisis journalism is experiencing is a wicked problem too.

David Dieudonné, Google News Lab Lead in France, emphasised how these are very challenging times for the news industry: “Firstly, it’s more and more difficult to ensure that people consume accurate information. Secondly, the digital ad revenue is not growing fast enough to offset the decrease in print ad revenue. Thirdly, it’s challenging for news organisations to keep pace with technological innovation,” he explained.

It’s the combination of all these challenges and how they affect one another that makes it so difficult to find solutions.

In Heather’s words, the problems that journalism is facing “won’t stay still”. And that’s why approaching them with a design mindset can open up new unexpected ways to understand them. It helps journalists to ask the right questions, understand our audiences better, challenge our preconceived assumptions and redefine problems to untangle hidden solutions.

2. Just because something is feasible, it doesn’t mean it’s desirable

The audience has to be at the core of any design practice. As Heather Chaplin pointed out, the needs of the audience have to drive the innovation, not the other way around. “You need to always be asking yourself — who is this for and why do they need it?”

Likewise, Sébastien Bossi Croci — Head of Editorial Projects at Uxo — shared how previous failures made him realise that engaging the audience is the key to any project’s success. “We want our news to be read. We want to have an audience. Not because we want to be liked, but because failing to have an audience means failing as journalists,” he explained.

So how can a design mindset help us understand our audience better? As Sophie Huet — Deputy Global News Director at Agence France-Press (AFP) — explained, designers often bring a consideration to the table that journalists tend to forget: the user’s experience. Journalists do not often ask themselves who is going to read their work, who is it for. “Design methods, therefore, can help to put the audience at the centre of journalist’s work,” explained Sophie.

AFP, one of the most influential French media organisations, initially implemented design methodologies to successfully move infographics from print to digital. But after recognising the potential of design approaches, AFP decided to carry out design and UX workshops to redefine who their users actually are. The workshops on design thinking helped them clarify their ideas, as well as prioritise and rank them in the process.

3. Embracing experimentation is the key

Design is all about building, testing and learning on the go. It requires prototyping, iterating and observing how people engage with what you’ve created to see how it’s actually used.

Amy King — Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director of the Washington Post’s publication “The Lily” — explained: “we knew from the start that we needed to create something that would show our idea instead of telling it.”

For that reason, six months before going live, their team started experimenting with mockups, and from the very beginning they realised how important it was to show the visual and editorial voice they’re pitching.

In collaboration with 150+ illustrators, they created several mocks, a fake Medium page, Facebook and Instagram accounts, with the aim to create something real and, after the feedback, make improvements. This is how eventually their strong visual identity was achieved.

Similarly, Sunnie Huang — Newsletters Editor at The Economist — admitted they “prototype and test like mad” and iterate, because there’s always room for improvement. Her team identified four problems that The Economist’s readers face:

  • Confusion about what they offer
  • Difficulty in finding the content
  • Difficulty to read
  • Unread copy guilt

Afterwards, they hosted workshops to generate new ideas and worked in diverse teams to bring as many different perspectives as possible in the process. Experimentation and testing in front of real users played an invaluable role when it came to finding the best ways to solve audience problems and to implement a readers-first vision for the newsletter.

“We keep track of open rates and click-through rates to see what stories they’re interested in, what do they engage with. But another thing that’s important in addition to listening what people say is observing what they do. We try to bring them in the newsroom and observe how they interact with the newsletter, where do they click, how deep do they scroll,” said Sunnie.

4. Don’t underestimate the importance of having a clear visual strategy

One of the things all speakers agreed upon was that a strong visual direction and clearly defined design guidelines are essential for news products’ success on the web.

A consistent and unique visual brand strategy was also the key to success for The Lily. They only use two emojis (✌️and 🖤) and no exclamation marks. They also have a list of words and expressions they agreed to never use (such as “girl boss”, “totes”, “sorry not sorry”, and many others). All of this has helped them to build a strong and recognisable editorial voice.

At the same time it’s worthwhile to remember that “you don’t need high-tech equipment to make something beautiful or visually interesting,” added Amy.

Many tools are available to allow newsrooms of all sizes to create beautiful data visualisations and interactives. Flourish is one of the most powerful tools as Daan Louter — Head of Newsrooms & Design at Flourish — explained. It’s free to use for newsrooms and it combines creative formats with an easy-to-use interface, allowing you to obtain beautiful results without spending too many resources and too much time.

5. Collaboration is the new disruption

Design in journalism is all about teamwork and cross-functional teams. Design methods cannot do any magic without a collaborative culture in the newsroom.

Sophie Huet shared how the relationship between journalists and designers is not simple and there’s still a long way to go to unlock its full potential. “There’s often a mismatch between the urgency of the daily news and the time necessary to the designers to develop their work,” she explained.

However, there is also a lot of benefit in this cooperation: “as journalists, we know how to frame problems, but designers are much better than us at finding the right solutions,” Sophie explained.

Émilie Garnier — Freelance UX and Visual Designer — provided her own perspective by pointing out how we can improve the collaboration between designers and journalists: “Empathise, try to involve every team member from the beginning of the project and share the developments step by step with the rest of the team. Talk, think about the project together and discuss all the problems in a collaborative way.”

Marie-Catherine Beuth — Founding Editor of Business Insider France — agreed that it’s essential to have all the interested parties involved in the process: designers, journalists, developers, but also the management. In order to make it work, as Heather Chaplin advised, you have to “dedicate some time at the beginning to agree on a common language and how you will be communicating. How will you collaborate? What tools do you use?”

Le Monde provided a great example of the power of co-creation in the newsroom. They have created a Snapchat team where article editors, video journalists and motion designers work together on a daily basis. “The dialogue is very interesting. Journalists are experts in what we want to provide the audience in terms of content, but the designers know inside-out the visual part of the presentation,” explained Jean-Guillaume Santi — Editor of the Snapchat Discover edition at Le Monde. He learned that it‘s useful for motion designers to pitch topics in the staff meetings like any other journalist. Everyone expressing their ideas is the key to successful teamwork.

6. Not every problem has a design solution

Gerald Holubowicz — Journalist & Digital Content Strategist — explained that there are various cases when design methods can help to improve the work of journalists. They have proven to be helpful when a newsroom wants to increase the time spent on their website, to create prototypes and improve new products, to design systems for collaboration, re-imagine the newsroom as a workplace, build new story formats, or improve the overall user experience.

But at the same time, “design thinking is not the answer to everything. It may help to create new products and storytelling formats but it won’t solve every problem you face in your day to day business,” warns Gerald.

Heather Chaplin added at the end of the day: “If design tools are not providing an added value, just don’t use them.” Design surely offers journalists a broad set of tools and methods that can improve our work but the key is to find the right occasions when it can actually benefit your newsroom.

After a day full of inspiration and knowledge sharing, it feels we’ve just covered the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more to learn about design and journalism, and the best way to find out is to experiment and try it yourself. This is how we can unlock new opportunities for using design in news organisations.

Do you want to be part of the next News Impact editions?

In 2018 we are organising two other News Impact Summits, in Cardiff and in Berlin. Check out for all the details and subscribe to our Events newsletter if you want to stay informed: in the July newsletter we will announce the topics of the next Summits!

The participation is free-of-charge and you can already sign up at

And don’t forget about our News Impact Academy. The next edition in Barcelona on 25–26 September will focus on newsroom leadership and you have just a few days left to apply at

The topics of the last two editions (London and Warsaw) will be announced in the next Training newsletter and applications will open right after.

Related readings

  • What happens when you apply a design mindset in the newsroom
  • Design in journalism: beyond the buzzwords
  • Innovation needs a network to thrive
  • Why bridge roles are essential to a newsroom’s evolution
  • What we learned from News Impact in 2017


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