Lily Mihalik on building the Los Angeles Times’ 101 Best Restaurants interactive

Screen shot 2014-05-30 at 4.39.29 PMThe Los Angeles Times didn’t gloat in their new redesign long. They continue to publish outstanding interactives, and the latest one from the food department does not disappoint. The big project is Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants. Digital designer Lily Mihalik gave us the inside scoop into how the design and development went down.

How long had the 101 project been in the works? As the designer, have you been part of the discussion from the beginning?

Jonathan Gold has a rich history of creating best-of dining lists in Los Angeles, so we knew that when he returned to the L.A. Times in 2012 he would continue the tradition. I’m part of a small team called the Data Desk that builds news apps, develops data visualizations and conducts analysis for reporting projects across the newsroom. When the food editors first mentioned the 101 list, I jumped at the chance to start designing.

Early conversations tapped our Art Director Stephanie Ferrell, Mobile Editor Tenny Tatusian, News Apps Screen shot 2014-05-30 at 4.41.13 PMDeveloper Anthony Pesce, Deputy Managing editor Megan Garvey, and myself. We started with utility: What would we want on our phones, or browsing on a tablet or desktop?  In addition to Jonathan’s summaries, we wanted Times food photography to be boldly spotlighted, supported by news you can use: the map, phone numbers, hours, etc. After setting up our priorities I went to work, building off the 2013 version, while rethinking styles and having a whole lot of fun. Then it was into design reviews and long hours at Anthony’s desk discussing everything from line height to media queries.

The project lets you explore the restaurants in many ways: in ranked order, by name, by price, on a map, etc. But you can’t explore by type of food, which may be useful to readers. How did you decide how to organize the project?

Good question. We only have so many pixels, which meant wanted the filters not to overwhelm the existing real estate across devices.  That meant tough discussions about what should stay and what should go. In terms of filtering by type of food, we felt the list was wasn’t long enough to filter for say, sushi. There are four traditional sushi restaurants on the list, and many of the restaurants can’t really be classified. So, when something had to go, that was it.

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The list function is awesome. How did you conceptualize the illustration of the man?

Thank you. The 101 list is inherently social, so we knew we needed a way for readers to see how they measured up to Mr. Gold, as well as save places they’d like to explore next. Food criticism makes me think of reservations under false names and undercover dining, so a dark silhouette of Mr. Gold seemed a perfect fit. When I did the initial design of the “My List” page, I wasn’t expecting it to go anywhere. I was sitting at my desk with our design director when I pulled Mr. Gold’s giant silhouette onto the page and filled it with restaurant names. We both laughed, and then said, hey, there’s something here. At first the team thought I was crazy, but if we can’t have fun on this project, where can we?

This project went wild on social media. What do you think contributed to its sharing success?

Look at most places on social media and you’ll see photos of food.  People love food, and we know they love to share pictures of what they eat.  A thriving Los Angeles food scene, stunning photography and Mr. Gold’s unmatched descriptions of curried brainssous-vide cephalopod, and the physical impossibility of eating Guisado’s chile torreado tacos did the rest.

The photos and videos sections link out to regular LAT pages. After the redesign, this is still a great experience, but were you tempted to keep everything within the project? 

We knew this project would be timed to our redesign so we wanted to take full advantage of the new responsive website.  The Data Desk works hard to create a seamless relationship between these special projects and latimes.com.

Screen shot 2014-05-30 at 4.40.15 PMThe map includes an “embed map” button. Is this something new the LAT is trying out? 

We featured the map last year, in part because we knew fans, bloggers and other publications would want to publish as much of the list as possible. By offering an embeddable map we created a symbiotic relationship where other outlets could feature the list while linking back to our fuller experience.

What was the hardest design decision you had to make? 

Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote that in writing you must “Murder your darlings.” The same is true of design. There were so many things to fit into this project, the map, the photos, the filters. Deciding what to include and what to toss was probably the most painful. The biggest design challenge though, was trying to figure out how to get a quick scan on the phone. We’d tried everything and thought we’d have to live without it, when, a week before launch, it donned on me and Anthony: We’d bring in the right rail as a pull tab! Presto, problem solved.

What was your favorite part of developing this project?

I work on a wide range of design and database projects spanning from the crisis in the Central African Republic to corruption in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Jonathan Gold’s 101 offered a nice break into a positive and uniquely Los Angeles project. Beyond ogling food photography, the collaborative nature of this project marked a growing shift across all departments to work together seamlessly.

What type of work are you hoping to do in the future?

I’m currently working on a refresh of our recipes database, an interactive seasonal produce guide, and a regional food guide that explores the great diversity of ethnic food in the Los Angeles area. I’m a self taught designer so I’m constantly looking for inspiration from my peers online and in print. Looking ahead, I’d like to continue my education,  cross-departmental work,  and design more interactive news apps. First up: Elections.