#SNDSF speaker Michael Martin on flexible design solutions

Code and Theory managing partner Michael Martin

Michael Martin is one of the speakers at this year’s SND conference in San Francisco. He’s a managing partner at Code and Theory, a leading independent digital creative agency, where he’s been since 2010. He also spoke at SNDDC last year, but don’t worry, you won’t be hearing the same thing.

How will your talk be different than last year’s?

Last year, my talk focused on how the notion of responsive design can transcend a visual design framework and relate more to the broader need for publishers to create systems that maximize flexibility in storytelling and delivering the news – both at a design and organizational level. This year, I hope to drill down deeper into the concept of modularity in a way that will be even more actionable for those who design the news. I’ll be joined by my colleague Francisco Tavares, Design Director in our San Francisco office, who will demonstrate how this approach comes to life from a designer’s perspective. I’m incredibly excited to have the opportunity to co-present.

You’ve worked with a lot of big media clients such as the Los Angeles Times and Hearst Magazines. What can smaller organizations learn from your best practices?

Code and Theory’s clients have spanned large media organizations like The Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Hearst and the Los Angeles Times, to properties like Mashable, The Verge, Bleacher Report, and Communication Arts. Regardless of the size of the organization, a few fundamental truths remain constant: business priorities, editorial agendas, publishing workflow, and consumer expectations will constantly change. So whether the newsroom contains hundreds of writers or only a handful, it’s absolutely critical that the design system adheres to the ever-shifting nature of how news organizations operate.

The second key consideration is that content syndication through social means that the article page is really the workhorse. So if the goal is to keep users going through the site, the design and content strategy of this entry point is paramount. I still think this concept is underserved in most digital news platforms.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that while data is a critical input to decision making, it can only ever be historical and that no matter how effectively or accurately you can extrapolate trends, in order to create something truly unique – you have to be willing to trust your instincts and try things out. The canvas for experimentation is right in front of us, on every device, every day, and the only limits to who creates the next “best practice” are creativity and risk appetite – not staff size, traffic, or legacy.

What is the biggest opportunity for growth in digital design for journalism?

Striking the balance between personalized content delivery and editorial agenda is challenging, and this is the frontier where I think you’ll begin to see real innovation in how the design systems can flex to allow for both. I also think that as the preponderance of new storytelling formats continues to grow (VR video would be one example, Facebook 360-degree video would be another), the way in which stories are conceptualized and executed will continue to evolve as well.

What is the benefit to utilizing outside design firms?

The value of partners can vary. For large organizations, design firms can execute with a level of speed and focus that sometimes can be difficult to effectuate when there are so many stakeholders involved. In this way, outside firms really act as change agents.

For smaller organizations, the investment in partnering with an agency like Code and Theory can be very valuable to catapult their product to another level. Ultimately, the length and depth of an engagement is entirely bespoke to the organization’s needs. We’re increasingly being asked to help publishers think about how to structure their own internal teams – something that we love to do even though it may mean organizations become more autonomous and therefore less reliant on us. We always think about how best to add value and as such we care more about working towards a shared vision of success versus a strategy that tries to lock clients into something that no longer makes sense.

LA Times copy

How do media organizations compare with other clients your company has worked with?

The media landscape has undergone so much digital transformation over the last decade+ in terms of design – however, the business models are still relatively the same. Yes, advertising formats have evolved both within the traditional framework of CPM-based revenue approaches as well as native opportunities, but fundamentally it’s still traffic driven and/or subscription based. In other industries, the models are so diverse that the goal of the experience design is highly variable.

Publishers also live in a world where the content is the product – in other verticals, content is more supplemental to a core product or service offering. This is why so many brands have begun to act like publishers – there is tremendous value in being able to showcase content in vibrant, frictionless, and contextual ways – whether you’re selling running shoes, health insurance, or technology services.

What are you most excited for at SNDSF?

Last year was my first SND and I had a blast. I met so many brilliant people who approach the challenge of designing the news from so many dimensions. I look forward to re-connecting with them, meeting many new people, and learning from everyone.

Like cool people and great design? We’ll be profiling #SNDSF speakers all month. And follow the hashtag #SNDSF on twitter for more updates. To register for the workshop, which runs April 7-9 in San Francisco, click here. Space will be limited.

About Rachel Schallom

is an interactive designer for Fusion.

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