Election 2012: Inside the Washington Post’s digital efforts

Sarah Sampsel

As designers, we know too well how much planning goes into covering an election. This year, there are a ton more factors at play. On the web, we have more competitors than ever before, especially in non-traditional places and we need to think about our brands differently. We must think about how we fit in the mobile and tablet space, how we’re represented on social networks, how we promote all the great work we’re producing, and how we handle data visualizations and interactives across platforms.

Luckily, there are some simple things you can work into your approach to cover more ground and tackle any big story in a more nimble way.

First, build things that scale. Make things that can be used and reused in multiple ways, something that will adapt to change quickly. This could be anything from branding and illustration to building a framework for WordPress.

We established a brand around all our campaign coverage early, running the logo in print and online. The logo helped unify our coverage across all platforms and specifically online, helped signal our campaign coverage more prominently on our home page. Establishing this early on really helped to bring everything together more cohesively.

Scalability is one of the key ideas executed in The Grid, our comprehensive, real-time events platform. Reports flow in from our staff and users around the web via articles, videos, photos and tweets. In addition to the latest headlines from the live blog, The Grid has the extensibility to drive the experience with live video, maps, instant polling and interactives.

The infrastructure was built to be flexible. We launched our first Grids for the Republican and Democratic Conventions, but have since utilized the platform for the presidential debates, the Washington Nationals playoff run and tracking Hurricane Sandy — it doesn’t take much effort to spin up a Grid if there is breaking news.

We envisioned the design of The Grid as mobile-first and visually scaled up from there. Each module was created to appear in a one column display and the design would adapt to include additional columns depending on the device someone was using. It was designed and built completely responsive using existing frameworks with some simple customization. The visual concept then began to influence the way convention coverage was presented in print.

And it wouldn’t be an election without prediction & election maps!

For our race projections maps, we added a layer of analysis to help our users understand how factors such as unemployment and population density could affect the outcome of the presidential race. We also used historical results to show how each group had previously voted. Each map includes a table view to better understand the distribution of states in each bucket, from solid democrat to tossup to solid republican. The demographic filters also apply to tabular views to clearly see where the groups of states fit in the voting picture.

Since there are lots of election maps out there, it was important to add a level of analysis and customization to set ourselves apart. We even created video “trailers”, like this Path to 270 with The Fix’s Chris Cillizza to add another layer of explanation to the voting scenarios. Rather than a standard promo, the video format was easily shareable and ended up being a great method to drive people into the map for a deeper look.

Think web and mobile first. Often times the best stories and presentations will originate on the web and evolve into something different for print. Tailor your approach to the platform and understand how and when your readers will be interacting with each. Thinking across digital and print is important, but starting with the web is key to making that approach more successful.

Above all, be bold, take risks and be ambitious! Stories this big don’t come around every day, so make them count and use these opportunities to experiment and push your ideas and story forms further.

If you want to learn more about The Grid, here’s a blog post I co-wrote with Ryan Kellett, our  National Digital Editor, about the process and thinking behind the idea.

(Sarah Sampsel is the Director of Digital, Mobile and New Product Design at The Washington Post.)