Behind the scenes designing WaPo’s ‘The Prophets of Oak Ridge’

In the dead of night, three peace activists broke into and shut down a nuclear weapons site to challenge the billions of dollars still spent on mankind’s most dangerous creation: The bomb. A chain reaction followed. The Prophets of Oak Ridge, a 10,000 word narrative by Dan Zak, is the latest long form, immersive storytelling experience by The Washington Post.

The process began in early April with a meeting between the editor, writer, and photo editor to discuss what the breadth of the story would be. Dan Zak and Ann Gerhart, the story editor, talked about the complexity of the narrative given the time flashbacks that were woven throughout the piece. We had archival photos and our talented photographer Linda Davidson had already been to Oak Ridge to shoot once. But we wanted to find a way to take the reader into the past. In order to help the reader immerse in the intangible parts of the story, we aimed to re-create a visual narrative of the prophets’ journey and symbolic protest. Illustration seemed like the best way to convey these flashback sequences, layered with photography to show exactly who these protesters are and to give a sense of place.

We had to consider the appropriate use of illustration and photography. The key was to have them feel decidedly different so they were sending their own clear signal. We commissioned Jeffrey Smith because his painting style feels very different than Linda’s photography. Jeff’s work has an intensity that conveys relevance and immediacy, which felt right for the story. He compresses a narrative so succinctly and effectively that’s it’s hard to turn away.

Before the photographer was headed back to Oak Ridge, a small group met to storyboard the chapters. They nailed down the main visual elements needed in each chapter, brainstormed photo galleries and photo sequence ideas, and discussed how to inject the Washington bureaucracy angle of the story. The notes from this meeting became the visual outline for print and digital.

The goal of the design was to weave Jeff’s illustrations and Linda’s photographs together to immerse the reader in the past, while also rooting him/her in the present. The illustrations created an ambience, while the photographs gave a sense of place and character. Structuring them together with strong, clean typography that had a slightly literary feel framed the visual voice. In the end, we hoped they would finished each other’s sentence.

Because we knew about this story and had several conversations early on, we were in a good position to create a special digital template outside the usual work flow. Tim Wong, the lead digital designer, was able to create wireframes and designs quickly after we established the story outline. We had sufficient time to review and tweak as the story and visual outline developed and we worked side-by-side with Andrew Metcalf, the lead developer, to flush out the responsive template.

This project would not have been possible without the collaboration we had between members of the print, digital, graphics and newsroom teams. We needed the right expertise from all areas to take the narrative and presentation to the next level across all platforms.

(Sarah Sampsel is SND’s Region 1 Director and the director of digital design at the Washington Post. Janet Michaud is the design director at the Post.)

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