What I’ve learned as a print designer at SND digital

Now in its 15th year, the SND Best of Digital Design competition continues to grow and has seen technology shift from Flash to Apple watch apps. The number of entries, the quality of entries, and variety of organizations and platforms represented speaks to the evolution of this competition and the industry.

The Best of Digital Design competition evolved out of the SNDies (multimedia competition) in 2010. Co-directed by Ryan Sparrow, journalism faculty at Ball State University, and Jeremy Gilbert, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Washington Post, the Best of Digital Design competition aims to reflect the emerging technologies available to journalists and an ever-changing definition of what defines “news.” Last year, the World’s Best Designed™ website was awarded to Facebook.

This is my first time attending the Best of Digital Design judging and I am primarily a print designer, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. But I’d say my experience has far exceeded any expectations I had entering the weekend. I’ve come away inspired by the beautiful visuals and technological proficiency showcased, even in the non-winning entries. There’s truly great work being done, by publications large and small.

In conversations with the judges, I’ve noticed trends. They are looking for polished user experiences, careful editing and contextualization. The judges are looking for wow factors and projects that take chances, be it in the design, technical execution or storytelling.

Lynne Perri, journalism faculty at American University and our host for the weekend, observed: “The buzzword here is “stretch.” Yes, the entries — on the San Bernardino shootings, the Paris bombing, killings by cops — are tremendously interesting and visual. But the question asked again and again by competition co-director Jeremy Gilbert is this: Did the graphic designers, artists, web-developers stretch?”

I am coming away from this judging with a clearer understanding of the Best of Digital Design competition. To win an award here, it’s not enough to simply have great visual design, clean navigation and seamless integration of multimedia. The medalists are immersive, innovative and push the boundaries of digital design. Yes, they are heavily evaluated on their technical merits, too. But award-winning work is the project that makes you take a step back and wonder, why didn’t we try that or wouldn’t it be cool if we all were doing work like this?

I think that’s my takeaway from this weekend: Whether you’re an interaction designer, a print designer, or a developer, do work that serves your readers first. Give them a clean, intuitive experience and great storytelling. But then push yourself and your publication to take chances and think beyond the current limits of the medium. Even if you don’t win an award, you’ll be giving us all something to think about.

And as the competition continues to evolve, we’re witnessing conversations around a changing definition of design. Awards discussions are just as much about story design as experience design. When asked where the competition may be headed in the future, competition co-director Ryan Sparrow said, “From wearables to VR, we’re seeing designers think about how these stories work and function across a multitude of platforms. But it’s just an extension of the role news designers have always played. And that is as an advocate for audiences and the desire to have their news and information prioritized and explained in a compelling and appropriate manner.”

About Courtney Kan

is a designer at The Washington Post and the editor of SND.org.

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