An expansive definition of design

Designers pick apart copies of a newspaper over drinks in New York City. (From Matt Mansfield's Instagram feed)

What do we mean when we talk about design?
Seems like a good question as we start a new year.

Journalist friends answer in different ways, yet their responses always appear — in my mind’s eye, at least — too tied to their lives at whatever media organization they work for, the print or online pages they make, the segments they produce for television, or the tablet and mobile applications they see (probably correctly) as their futures.

Is it wrong to want a more expansive definition?

Could it be less about our lives as journalists and more about the information we’re designing — and how that works out in the wild, among the people who use the things we make?

Here’s hoping.

Jonathon Berlin, the Society’s 2012 president and, it should be noted, a longtime friend and former colleague, has asked me to examine — intermittently throughout the year — how the design of news is evolving.

New technology.
New tools for creating things.
New (and diminishing) audiences.
New business models (or the lack thereof).
All of that.

Sounds good to me. I cannot imagine a more exciting time to be doing information design.

End-to-end design control seems to be a vestige of the print past, relegated to things that have been “open-sourced” and “decoupled” and, well, you get the picture. Exciting.

Yet I’m also fascinated by designed experiences and, I must admit, a fan of the truly distinctive delivered to me without the awareness that I even needed this lovely thing until it arrived. Delight can be powerful.

So, sure, let’s see what’s shaking.
(Quick answer: A lot — and fundamentally.)

Perhaps more importantly, we might just see outside the journalism industry and find design that works in ways that can be adapted for what we do, maybe even improved on. Maybe we could even disrupt a business or two.

To get started in the thinking process, here are three tips for 2012:

Find inspiration beyond journalistic design

Every day you’re seeing the culture because you are reporting on it or thinking about it for the pages you design or the apps you conceive or the code you deploy. You are on the front lines. Don’t retreat to the safe sphere of the known. Branch out. See beyond.

iPhone apps from AirStrip Solutions, which helps doctors track progress and puts more information in the hands of patients.

Design communicates and that feeds into how we behave, how we find things (or don’t). What will someone do with something you make? Design for experience.

Here’s an example: My brother was in the hospital recently (he’s OK now, don’t worry) and what struck me was how different the patient experience has become. There’s so much more information available — and it’s fairly gorgeously designed — intended to let the patient, and his worrying family, know what’s coming next.

This goes a long way from the old “the doctor will see you now” days and I could not help but think that it’s two things at work, the easy availability of medical information online, which forces more transparency, and the demand of consumers everywhere to be in the know. We want our medical care served up with a healthy dose of usability. We’re conditioned.

The charts on his wall and the small computer screen next to his bed also set conditions. Here’s what you can control and here’s what medical professionals have determined for you because we believe it’s in your best interest. Have a problem with that? Let us know.

Back at home, he has an app from his doctor that helps track progress. How’s that for personalized information design?

Pick one place you admire and study it for a week

There’s nothing like living in the weeds. We can all admire a great piece of work here or there, but can we live with the design of something day in and day out? That’s a real test.

Kogod Courtyard
Light casts shadows on the walls inside the Kogod Courtyard in Washington. (From Matt Mansfield's Instagram feed)

Choose an app. Maybe a website. Could be a newspaper or magazine if you like. But you don’t have to stop there. In fact, it could be any design you live with on a regular basis. Your mobile device. The bus you take to work. The bar around the corner.

Whatever you choose, put it through the paces.
Be unsparing in what you see, and think of how it’s working.

I tried this experiment with a place I go in my downtown Washington neighborhood, the Kogod Courtyard, nestled between the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. It’s become one of my favorite places since I moved to D.C.

The Kogod perfectly blends the indoor and outdoor, the sense of history of those great galleries with the wonder of modern architecture. Also, crucial to me, it’s shelter from the bustle of urban life.

What did I learn? It stood up to my one-week test (and, to be honest, has handled scrutiny for a few years now).

I can go inside on a cold day and still feel sunshine. On a hot day, it’s a cool respite. It’s usable — and it’s beautiful. There’s WiFi, the glue of modern life, as well as a little cafe to grab a snack or drink while I work. Best of all: It’s free.

Why would I need to leave that courtyard? Who ever would? The design got better every day I was there, both more familiar and also able to reveal itself in new ways.

Build something outside your comfort zone

That could be as simple as doing basic HTML and CSS if you’re a print designer. Want to learn a new programming language, now’s the moment. If you’re coding already, have you ever wondered what it would be like to make a print page? Give it a try. Could be scary and liberating all at once.

The truth about building something you’re not used to making is that it forces you to confront every decision as if it was the first, a handy way to stand in for the person on the other end of your design choices. That frees you from rote decisions you might make with the familiar, the spots where you already know, or so you believe, what’s being done with your work.

Screenshot from The Bold Italic, developed by Gannett and IDEO.

Ask yourself: What am I good at doing and how can I expand that?

One project from a legacy media company, Gannett, springs to mind: The Bold Italic. Ever hear of it? I hope so. The site represents the best of old and new media, pairing “carefully crafted editorial content with a diverse set of voices.”

The Bold Italic encourages San Francisco citizens to interact with their city. Publishing a cover story everyday, The Bold Italic uses savvy resident voices and compels readers through its highly visual design to delve in. The use of illustration and the fearlessness to reinvent every day makes it stand out, much like the city it’s built to serve.

My bet: Gannett is learning a lot about micro-communities by taking a different approach. Maybe that will scale to other places in the vast company. I applaud the risk.

Now let’s see what out there in 2012.
Untrod terrain and fearless reinvention go hand in hand.

Matt Mansfield is the co-director of the Medill School of Journalism’s Washington program and an associate professor at Northwestern University. Mansfield, a former president of the Society for News Design, was a deputy managing editor at the San Jose Mercury News until 2008, when he started teaching. Follow him on Twitter: @mattmansfield

About Tippi Thole

Independent visual journalist and owner of Bright Spot Studio.

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