Design lessons from 9/11

People covered in dust walk over debris near the World Trade Center in New York City, on September 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Gulnara Samoilova)

This week, I posted where I was on 9/11 and said what it meant to me now on an impressive interactive from The New York Times that aims to collect our experiences.

It felt weird. This whole week has, actually.

Just after 9/11, SND produced a special edition of its newsletter, Update, that looked at the design of the news in the days immediately following. SND Vice President Jonathon Berlin was then an editor for the publication, which was distributed at the Society's annual workshop in Phoenix just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks.Download the entire issue below under Resources and Links.

Everywhere you look, there are impressions of where we are 10 years on from the terrorist attacks, the things that moved us or made us worried or scared or overcome, with grief and sadness. Or, eventually, resignation and relief.

When I think back, I remember stunning work by visual journalists. Maybe that’s a conceit, a thing that makes me feel good about what I was doing that day — because what I was doing was clearly not as important as the firefighters or police or emergency workers.

Yet it feels real, feels like it mattered. The lessons I took away from that time shaped the rest of my career as a journalist and designer. I suspect I am not alone.

The people we learned from

On Sept. 11, 2001, I had not yet met Sarah Slobin.

I would, eventually. I would learn to admire her, the stunning skills she possesses as well as her absolute lack of pretense.

9/11 — Best of News Design

The Best of Show and Gold winners from the 23rd Edition.

That day, though, I simply knew Sarah as one of the first New York Times reporters on the scene, a storyteller on her way to work. The Times became a lifeline to people in Manhattan who wanted to know why two hijacked commercial airliners crashed into the World Trade Center — and whether they could return home or work nearby. Through Sarah’s stories, and those of her colleagues in the Times graphics department, I began to see the power of information design in a crisis.

Graphics can take you places you are not usually allowed to access. The Times put theory into practice, seeing for stunned New Yorkers what they could not see for themselves.

Charles Blow, who was then the graphics editor for the Times and is now an Op-Ed columnist, had put an enviable team in place and every day, in ways impossibly vital, those graphic artists, researchers and editors made “clarity out of the calamity,” as the judges for the 23rd Edition of The Best of Newspaper Design™ put it when they awarded “Best of Show” to the publication’s graphics. It was the first time in the history of the storied competition that information graphics had been honored in this way.

The New York Times produced helpful mapping that gave residents a sense of safety following the 9/11 attacks.

“The story escalated to the point where it’s inconceivable as to how you can deal with it in one newspaper,” Blow told SND’s Jonathon Berlin at the time. Berlin wrote this in the special edition of Update (Download here.) that appeared shortly after 9/11:

Only minutes away from the epicenter of the attacks, Blow knew his department had to rise to the occasion. He knew that as a manager he’d have to press his staff to produce information while consoling them for their loss. The department exceeded his expectations with a series of graphics that were groundbreakingly informative and stunningly simple in design.

Indeed, the graphics stand the test of time. Especially memorable are the useful maps, like the one telling residents how deep into Lower Manhattan they could go, a makeshift guide to reclaiming the space.

The graphic explaining who worked in the World Trade Center was a quick way to identify whether you might know someone who was in the attack.

There were many other standouts in the days and weeks following the attacks, graphics created to aid in understanding the chaotic events and the aftermath of the cleanup.

“This catastrophe happened in their back yard, and they reacted like every good journalist would to a local story. City readers were lucky to have them on the job, but so were the rest of us in the U.S. and around the world,” said Kris Goodfellow, who was a graphics judge for the 23rd Edition™.

The work stood out because of the level of reporting, as well as the clean, simple presentation of complicated layers of information. When you look back at other graphics from the period, you can appreciate even more the clarity of what the Times ethos brought to the 9/11 story.

“They showed a lot of initiative and hustle and perseverance,” said Celeste Bernard, another SND judge in the graphics category. “Without their contribution, a huge part of the story would be untold.”

The post 9/11 world would not be the same without the visual journalism that The New York Times has produced, either from its impressive staff or by publishing myriad important non-staff photography, illustration and graphics that allowed all of us to assess, as time goes by, the impact with our own eyes. You need to look only as far as The Reckoning, America and the World a Decade After 9/11, which has been rolling out this week, to see what I mean.

‘Everyone brought their A-game that day’

The judges for that competition had a difficult task when they assembled in snowy Syracuse, N.Y., in February of 2002 to look back at the wreckage, to make sense of the still-fresh work.


Three years after 9/11, SND asked visual journalists to reflect.
This video was shown at the annual workshop in San Jose.

“I remember thinking: ‘Everyone brought their A-game that day.’ The work was top notch across the board — ferreting out the best of the best was a heavy responsibility we all took quite seriously,” said SND President Steve Dorsey, who was a news judge for the competition that covered 9/11 work. “It was almost like everyone realized the importance of the work they were producing and they pulled out all the stops.”

Thomas E. Franklin's photograph from Ground Zero was used widely around the world. It quickly became a symbol for resilience and rebuilding.

That year, 11 Gold awards went to work in the “Attack on America” category, the SND designation for 9/11. Four of those Golds and “Best of Show” were for Times graphics. The Chicago Tribune (2), the Detroit Free Press (1), the San Jose Mercury News (3), and The Seattle Times (1) received the others. There were 159 winners in all for work related to 9/11.

“It was an honor to review all that exceptional work, but it was also emotionally overwhelming,” said Dorsey, who worked for the Free Press then but recused himself from judging his own newspaper. “After living through the events themselves, and then assembling Design magazine (Dorsey was editor then) soon after, delving that deeply and up-close into the reams of entries was intense.”

I was at the judging in Syracuse, one of the first I attended as a facilitator, and I can attest to the mood. There was the sick-to-your stomach feeling of it all flooding back, recalling the improbable odds during those extraordinary moments. It was palpable.

Somber assessment was the order of the day. There were few dry eyes, by the end, when the graphics judges asked for unanimity, a requirement, in awarding The New York Times “Best of Show” for its singular sophistication in the face of alarming odds. There was little question the honor was deserved. And, yet, there was a sense that everyone wished those graphics would never have been needed.

Photographers were even closer to the action. Thomas E. Franklin of The Bergen Record made one of the iconic images from the attacks of three fire fighters raising a flag amidst the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center. To mark the anniversary, Franklin interviewed several of the photojournalists who were there that day for the following documentary.


“Witness to History: The photographers of 9/11”

The ‘whole newspaper’ approach

Five newspapers were also judged World’s Best-Designed™ for 2001.

Five years after 9/11, The Virginian-Pilot's Sam Hundley made this effective cover, which won a Gold award at the Best of Newspaper Design™.

Five years after 9/11, The Virginian-Pilot's Sam Hundley made this effective cover, which won a Gold award at the Best of Newspaper Design.

“Many publications did a tremendous job covering 9.11.01,” the World’s Best™ judges wrote. “Those pages were filled with a sense of urgency and openness, many breaking the molds of daily journalism. But, for many, the molds quickly returned.”

But the three non-daily — Die Zeit (Germany), Palabra (Mexico), and The Independent on Sunday (U.K.) — and two daily winners — the San Jose Mercury News and The Virginian-Pilot, both from the U.S. — “showed an ongoing dedication to take chances,” said the judges.

I’m writing this essay, in no small part, because I was a journalist at the Merc then, and because what I remember about those days has informed my work every day since.

We were not in New York or Washington, but we felt an indelible connection. Flight 93, which crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa., was bound for the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of the people on the flight were our neighbors, friends in the community the Merc serves.

I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by an amazing journalism family. My colleagues knew the job ahead. They performed it with exceptional professionalism.

The judges were right about one thing: 9/11 did help us learn to take more risks with our storytelling. Nothing else could have in the same way. Our design did become more bold. We did play photos larger, with more emphasis. We found new immediacy online. We explained more in graphics. We helped people understand in whole new ways.

What those judges also probably knew — and did not write — was that none of us ever wished for that kind of catalyst.

One year after 9/11, SND's Design magazine looked back at how the events of that day had re-shaped the visual journalism landscape.

Three lessons for big news days

  • Get out of the way: When there’s documentary photojournalism that tells the story, the designer should keep it simple. Typography should not detract from the image(s). The goal should be to show, then tell. This applies in print and online.
  • Explain the unseen: The reason the graphics from The New York Times worked so well? They transported the audience to new places for contemplation and connection. When possible, use graphics to illuminate the places the audience cannot access. Tell stories about concepts and connections this way, too.
  • Trust your instincts: Your audience is at least as smart as you are, probably smarter. Count on your viewers or readers to be thinking people. Be aware of that. Especially in a crisis and because information can flow so quickly, it’s imperative to be thoughtful. In fact, that’s maybe the biggest lesson of all.

Resources & Links

What did you learn?

There was stunning photojournalism from the attacks. There were astounding information graphics. There was indelible design. We all began to understand our online roles in helping people navigate information would become more important. As a visual journalist, what did you learn from 9/11? Share your story in the comments.

Matt Mansfield is an associate professor at Northwestern University and the co-director of the Medill School of Journalism’s Washington program. Mansfield was president of SND in 2009 and one of the editors of SND Update in 2001, when he also was an assistant managing editor at the San Jose Mercury News. Follow him on Twitter: @mattmansfield