From a young age, Rachel Orr knew she wanted to be a designer. But it wasn’t until she took a class in news design in college that she realized she wanted to pursue visual journalism.
Now, Rachel serves as the design editor for By The Way, an initiative launched by The Washington Post’s Emerging News Products team last June that’s all about traveling like a local. We recently sat down with Rachel to speak about her path to The Washington Post, her work with By The Way, as well as her experience with the 100-Day project.
How did you first become interested in news design?
I’ve always known I wanted to be a designer since I was really young. I decided to go to Ohio University and go into digital communications, but while I was there, I decided to take a class on news design, which was something I had never really considered as a career until then. I realized that I really liked the format of news design. I loved organizing information and telling stories visually on the page. It was that one class in college that kind of got me in the mindset of thinking like a visual journalist. When I graduated, I just jumped right into news design, and I haven’t left yet.
Tell me about your path to getting to The Washington Post.
I got a job right after school with the Gannett Design Studio in Phoenix as one of their very first hires. I applied and got the job with two other women from my class, actually, and we all three moved out there and started working. I worked on the Arizona Republic and a lot of other different papers, as well. This was when design studios were first really starting to become a thing. I really loved it because we got the chance to work on a lot of different papers with different editors, working on different sections as well as working on both tabloids and broadsheets. I also had my first foray into digital design while I was there while working on some iPad magazines, which were popular at the time.
I spent about two years out there, and I was kind of craving that next step. I ended up coming to D.C. to work for The Washington Post Express, which is now not in existence. I was still doing print design when I first got here, and I did that for about a year. But then Jeff Bezos bought The Post, and he decided to create the Emerging News Products team, which I helped to found and have been working on for the past five years. Since then, we’ve launched The Washington Post Select app, the Lily, Snapchat and now, By The Way.
Can you tell me a little bit more about what By The Way is?
By The Way was pitched by my editor, Amanda Finnegan. She had thought of the idea years ago and pitched it in 2018. A lot of research work was done before it was launched. We hired a 12-person team to create all original content for it
By The Way is really about what it’s like to travel somewhere like a local. We really lean on hiring localized journalists and writers to tell us what the best places are to go in their cities. I think that’s my favorite part of it. The biggest part of our site is creating these city guides, where we hire a local writer and photographer for each city. And being the design editor, I just felt really strongly about including a local artist in some way to tell a story of each city. I got the idea to hire a local typographer from every city to create type that really shows what their city looks like to them. Right now, we have around 65 guides, and we’re adding one every week. In addition to that, we also publish a lot of news and travel stories. We have two staff writers who write a lot about news that’s happening and pitch things like how to unpack your suitcase correctly or the rules for each seat on an airplane.
What’s a normal day look like for you at your job?
When I get in, I check in with my two editors about what stories everyone’s writing for the day. I look at our Instagram content document we have to try and plan out if there are any changes that need to be made based on stories of the day. I’ll do some one-on-one check-ins with my two designers who work under me, who produce and create content for By The Way’s Instagram account and website.
Each day definitely looks different, but it’s a lot of Instagram strategy, meeting with people on my team, meeting with people on other teams, having conversations with my editor about content that would be good for Instagram, and planning and working on enterprise pieces for bigger stories.
Has there been a particular city guide or project for By The Way that has been your favorite so far?
In October, we did a large series with different articles about dark tourism, which is when people travel to places that are associated with death and somberness, like when people go to Auschwitz or the 9/11 memorial or Chernobyl. We did a lot of different stories about things such as what dark tourism is and how to be a respectful dark tourist when you do go visit these places. We also talked to a ghost hunter about how she packs for trips and talked about spiritual communities. It was just a topic that I wasn’t really familiar with until we did the series. We hired an illustrator, Keegan Sanford, who I’ve worked with in the past, and he did all of our illustrations for the series, and they turned out really great.
So, a little off-topic, but you recently finished the 100-Day project. Tell me a little more about that.
I’ve been following an artist for awhile named Elle Luna. She actually decided to start this (the 100-Day project) because she wanted to do something that held her accountable to work on a skill that she wasn’t used to working on. It kind of gained momentum once her and her friends started putting their stuff online, and more and more people joined. I don’t know how many people are participating now, but it feels like a lot. Whenever I look at the project’s hashtag, it’s a ton of different people.
I read an interview with her a couple years ago and decided to sign up for her mailing list. I got a reminder last March that asked if I was going to do the 100-Day project, and I decided I was.
Since I’m a designer, I do a lot of photo illustrations and visual collaging already on Photoshop. Everything I do with design for the most part is on the computer and also related to work, so I wanted to take that opportunity to get off the computer and design something analog that I’ve always been interested in but never gave myself the time to explore. So I decided to do one collage a day for 100 days.
I started in April. When I first started it, I knew I had to set some parameters so I’d actually follow through with it. I was going to do one collage a day with just 15 minutes to spend on it. I also had a vocabulary deck that I was using, where I picked a card with a random word on it, and then I’d spend 15 minutes to do a collage inspired by that.
It actually took me 174 days to finish it, which was totally fine. The woman who runs the 100-Day project now is acknowledging that your 100-Day project can take however many days it needs to. Some people might not even finish it, and that’s also okay. It’s really about taking the time to create a consistent practice for yourself, and that’s what I really took out of it.
It actually led to some really surprising things for me that have been really humbling. I was asked to speak at D.C. Design Week this year about my collages. The woman who runs D.C. Design Week saw my collages on Instagram and asked if I would do a talk at Apple to talk about my process. Everybody who attended also got to create digital collages on iPads, which was really cool. And since then, I’ve discovered other people in D.C. who also like to collage, and I’ve gotten together with some of them. A couple of my friends have gotten really into it, and we’ll have some collage nights. I’m going to start selling some of my collages as prints and postcards. It’s just been super unexpected, and it feels really good to have something creative that’s just for myself.
SND has edited statements for clarity.