Some questions for SND Frankfurt speaker Ted Irvine

Ted Irvine, the senior design director at Vox Media, joins an impressive roster of speakers at the 2014 SND Frankfurt workshop (click here to register). We asked him a few questions to get to know him better.

While I find inspiration from newspapers, I rarely read them anymore. When I do have the opportunity to do so, I read my “local” paper The Washington Post or The New York Times. That being said, until the maturation of online news, I was a daily reader of printed newspapers. The user experience of print is still a thing that I enjoy, turning pages, the way you can fold the paper to customize how you are reading, the tactile quality of paper… It’s just a satisfying experience. The downfall, for me, is that print just no longer moves at the speed that the rest of us do.

How do you describe Vox to people who haven’t read it yet?

Vox is the place where you can come and get the story behind the story. So much of the news is soundbites or stories without context, we provide that context.

What makes Vox so successful in the United States?

I think we have filled needs that were underserved for people. SB Nation is a great example of this. There are many sports sites for people to visit, places to find highlights, scores, and analysis. What there are not many of are places you can read about sports from a fan perspective and participate in fan-driven communities. With SB Nation there are over 300 sites where fans can read, post, and comment. Finding places where you can grow an audience is key to our success.

We made the decision that each of our verticals has its own voice, rooted in quality and authority, and people seem to appreciate that.

How are new media companies different from more established, legacy companies?

The answer is really in the question. New media companies have freedom from legacy. We don’t have the overhead of print. We are young and flexible enough to change as we need to without taking months/years or breaking the organization.

Who is the Vox audience, and how do you design each vertical to appeal to them?

Ted Irvine
Ted Irvine

What has been great about designing the brands that comprise Vox Media is that we can tailor each site for their audience. We work hand-in-hand with our editorial teams to understand who our audience is on each vertical, then create design systems for that audience. With each brand our goal is to create a design that the audience might not expect, but will love.

Our process is comprehensive and rather traditional in the thinking behind it: strong typography, color, and imagery. We iterate process here as well and try to get into code as soon as possible. We created responsive typeboards so we could look at design directions across devices rather than statically. Our plan is to open source this tool shortly.

What can traditional publishing houses learn from Vox?

I hope they can learn as much from us as we have from them.  Vox Media was founded by bloggers, we move fast and launch often, there is not any red tape for us to fight through. This mindset allows us to innovate at a rapid pace. We ship, we learn, we adjust, and we launch again with a better product.

We invest in people. Our team is our most important product and we iterate on our processes as much on an organizational level as we do on a project level. We collaborate across all departments. No project is done in a vacuum, the way we work across teams is crucial to the success of our products. We get together and hack, some of our best work is done outside the scope of our product roadmap. Also, we believe in magic.

We take technology seriously. Chorus is the platform we built from the ground-up for digital-native authoring, publishing, and distribution; and focused, high-quality community. Chorus is not merely a CMS. It is the modern media stack, facilitating the editorial, advertising, and community needs of today’s publishers.

Our mindset around advertising is another area where I hope people can take some cues. We want ads that are as compelling as our content. For us, both display advertising and branded content need to look as good as anything else that we do. We created Athena, our custom display display units and Harmony which allows us to ad serve branded content across all of our properties. We launched Vox Creative to help elevate advertising on our sites and across the web.

Could you describe your work in detail, or perhaps describe a “typical” day at work?

My typical day at work is pretty awesome – we have a team of great people and I get to work with them all. There are always a bunch of projects happening at the same time, so I get to see all these things get created and launched. I’ll provide feedback when needed and stay out of the way when things are smooth. I try to be as available as possible for anyone on the team to bounce ideas around. Every once and awhile I have the opportunity to get my hands dirty and design. My job these days involves as much organizational design as product design – we are constantly trying to improve our processes. What I love about this gig is there really is no typical day at work.

Who was a mentor or source of inspiration to you? What experiences were most valuable to you?

I was lucky, at every job I have had, there were more seasoned designers and colleagues that taught me many of the things I know now. One thing that I feel is a responsibility of all designers is to share the knowledge that you have gained with your peers. You did not get to where you are by yourself.

The most valuable experience I’ve had was working on the Creative Services team at The Washington Post early in my career. It gave me an understanding of the business side of online publishing that designers sometimes like to ignore. Ads are a key part of our business and there is no reason why they should not be treated like any other product we build.

What recommendations do you have for young designers and students? What is absolutely necessary to know for a student in our profession?

(Which skills a student must have nowadays?)

Mine the past to shape the future. Designers are in an awesome position where the web can now support sophisticated layouts that, in the past, were thought to be ‘print only’. Be a student of what has come before, understand grids and typography. Then fold that into your work with outstanding interaction design and user experience.

Always be making. Make things – things that don’t work, things that are not great, things that might make you cringe. There is as much to be learned from things that did not work as things that did. Don’t let the idea of perfection hold you back from the act of learning by making.

Find an internship. There are a ton of great people that will help you to get your career started and give you a chance to add some real world examples to your portfolio. Oh, and a job – you just might get a job out of the experience. On Vox Product, we have hired well over 50% of people that have interned with us.

Like this conversation? Want to hear more? Join us in Frankfurt!

About Lee Steele

is design editor of the Hearst Connecticut Newspapers and 2015 president of the Society for News Design.

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