Claire O’Neill and Wesley Lindamood will be joining SNDDC in April to talk about digital design and crossing boundaries. The two have become known in design circles for their award-winning work at NPR. Claire and Wes were part of the NPR Visuals team behind Planet Money Makes A T-Shirt, which garnered Gold and Silver medals from SND in the most-recent digital competition.
Tell me about your individual roles as members of NPR’s visuals team and your collaboration.
Claire: I’m a producer-editor hybrid person. My background is in writing, video and radio production, but I’ve picked up some design/code, thanks to Wes and our colleagues. These days I do a mix of storyboarding, art directing and editing collaboratively with reporters — to bring stories to life on the web. (Wes and I started pairing a few years ago, when he was designing for NPR’s product team. We did a few side projects together until he joined editorial a little over a year ago, when the Visuals team was formed.)
Wes: I’m an interaction designer on the Visuals team, which means I’m involved in a story from its conceptual stage up through publication. In the early stages of a project, I work closely with reporters and editors to think about the shape of their story and how to best tell their story online. In the latter stages of a project, I spend the bulk of my time on story design and production. Our process is highly collaborative and iterative, so the lines between ideation and production are blurred, but generally speaking my time is evenly split between conceptual work and tactical work.
NPR’s intriguing presentation for the “Planet Money” project also emphasized a cross-disciplinary approach. The project drew a team with varied backgrounds and combined best practices. Can you share what the the process like from brainstorming to concept to shipping? How beneficial was it to have everyone at the table from the beginning and incorporate design-thinking to the entire production workflow?
Our team is weird in that we are sometimes reporters, and we are sometimes support for reporters. The T-shirt project was an example of the latter. The Planet Money team has been reporting for radio for years, so they’ve got a lot figured out — and they know their audience well. It was after they’d raised money on Kickstarter that we joined the project — when they wanted help figuring out what to build.
The design/scrum process is what kept the project on track. But what made it distinctive was the harmony of (and trust between) two voices: A strong editorial voice (that of Alex Blumberg), and the story-serving UX design led by the Visuals team.
Having folks with different specialties working collaboratively in the same room for several weeks meant that, by the end, we’d developed a shared vocabulary. Brian Boyer (who now heads our department) learned the terms “photo sequencing” and “actuality” — and Alex started speaking in terms of UI. But in terms of vocabulary, the most important words we shared had to do with the story and the audience.
What other lessons can be learned from this approach?
The internet enables us to work remotely — but for intensely collaborative projects, physical proximity is paramount. Collaboration is also key, but the more clearly-defined the roles are, the better. Designers likely know the importance of task management systems and project managers, but newsroom reporters/editors might be unfamiliar. Part of the job is explaining how a design process works — and how it helps. Likewise, veteran story editors might not understand responsive grids, but odds are they can edit (or give feedback on) videos, graphics, as well as the look and feel of a website — and should be invited (and trusted) to do so.
NPR has really helped set the stage in recent years, producing great visual projects beyond radio. What do you think has motivated your team to set high standards for creativity across the industry?
Part of the mission of public media, especially on the web, is to create tools and standards for the public media ecosystem. Our team is young but the sensibility of NPR is deeply rooted and trusted, which really informs our work.
Where do you look for inspiration?
We tend to look beyond the world of journalism and draw inspiration from small design/interactive shops and documentary-makers.
Tell me about each of your favorite projects from this past year?
We’re pretty excited about a new web series we’ve launched called “Look At This,” which is still figuring itself out.
We started by re-imagining a photo blog Claire used to run, and borrowed some of the baseline design concepts from a photo project we launched in February about the U.S.-Mexico border. We’ve published 5 stories since launching in mid-September, which have been mostly text and photo in a card-style format, but this year we’re hoping to push more on audio and animation.
Can you share a little background on your respective careers?
Claire: I studied history and French and got my start in journalism with NPR’s then-called “multimedia” department. I started NPR’s photoblog and reported/edited that for a while, with some corollary radio reporting. I then started collaborating with Wes and getting more into interactive docs and web-native stories — and have been producing that kind of stuff for a few years. I don’t write a ton of code, but am somewhat conversant, which has really opened my eyes to what’s possible.
Wes: I studied journalism and visual communication in school and have remained at the intersection of these disciplines for most of my career. Before working at NPR, I held lead design positions at USA Today, Congressional Quarterly and Chemical & Engineering News magazine. In all of these positions, I’ve had the good fortune of sharping my skills as an interaction designer and front end developer, while working alongside some of the best reporters and editors in journalism.