2019 Best of Digital Design Q&A

Every year, the Society of News Design invites professionals to Washington, D.C., to judge the best design work of 2019. There are four judging groups, features, graphics, news and World’s Best™. Each judge evaluates entries assigned their teams based on its individual merit.

Two conflict judges step in to help evaluate pieces when a judge has a conflict of interest.

Here’s what they had to say about this year’s competition:

Emily Wright, Ball State University
Illustration: Emily Wright, Ball State University


Graphics Judging Team

Simon Scarr, Reuters

What advice would you give to people who submit work to the competition?

“Sometimes we’ve seen the best part of a piece was actually buried. Sometimes a bit more restraint in selecting what elements go into a piece would be beneficial. Some pieces were getting very long, and then once or twice we’d get to near the bottom, and we’d be like, ‘Wow, that’s actually by far the best piece,’ but it was buried.

What really makes an entry stand out and go from an award of excellence to a bronze medal? Bronze to silver? Silver to gold?

“I think one key thing is, for example, an award of excellence. It may be special or really strong in one particular way, whether that’s the technology or whether that’s the design or the storytelling or whatever, but as you as you work your way through the different medals, it has to be exceptional in all of those areas. If a piece of work wins a bronze medal or a silver medal, it’s still exceptional.”

Is there anything that you look forward to taking back and putting it into your own work?

“I tend to think that I keep an eye on as much work as I can from other organizations, but actually, that’s still just a fraction of what you get to see when you’re here. The amount of inspiration you get by looking at all this work, it makes you think twice when you go back about how to kind of expand your ideas, pull a little bit and even visually and design wise how you tackle some projects. You definitely go back inspired and wanting to try some new things.”
Read more about Simon here.

Kennedy Elliott, National Geographic

What has been new and exciting about this year’s entries?

“I feel like the strongest pieces that I’ve seen are when the graphics are woven in with the narrative. They’re not quite standalone pieces to the to the story, but they’re woven in, and the text refers to them, and it’s a good complementary relationship.”

What advice would you give to people who submit work to the competition?

“Just because there’s a data set that goes along with something you’re describing in a text, doesn’t mean you necessarily have to make a chart out of it. So making the viz that you have in your piece more meaningful or as meaningful as possible.”

Is there anything that you look forward to taking back and putting it into your own work?

“I’ve seen so many pieces that have so much soul and that’s a huge takeaway for me this year. I also feel like after seeing so many pieces, I want to experiment more like do things that kind of break the mold.”
Read more about Kennedy here.

Jan Diehm, The Pudding

What are some trends that you feel like you’re seeing too much of?

“Working at The Pudding we’re known for scrolly-telling, and the idea that as you scroll, you get more information or stuff is revealed. I think that should be used in restraint. … I feel like you don’t wanna make the reader work too hard. Often, a simpler execution (is better) for some pieces, I think. Just because it’s kind of like the hype technology at the time, doesn’t mean it’s the right format to tell the story.”

What really makes an entry stand out and go from an award of excellence to a bronze medal? Bronze to silver? Silver to gold?

“I think what personally pushes me over the edge is: Does that story have a beating heart? Does it have a soul? Is there something that I can connect with that I haven’t seen in any other way? Something that reaches me on an emotional level that goes above and beyond kind of the technical and storytelling level. I’m trying to figure out how to capture that in design — those are the pieces that stand out to me.”

What is something you think people should know?

“I always knew that I wanted to do news design in high school. I was like a big SND junkie, and it was like the gold standard. Growing up and and seeing it all, you just realize that these are people and colleagues and friends that poured their heart and their soul into this work under tremendous pressure every day and tremendous deadlines. It really is kind of an honor to be on the other side of the fangirl aspect of it and have an opportunity to judge it and hopefully, through it, further the craft and help everybody continue to produce awesome work.”
Read more about Jan here.

Megan Megremis, Ball State University
Illustration: Megan Megremis, Ball State University


News Judging Team

Libby Bawcombe, NPR

What advice would you give to people who submit work to the competition?

“I would say for these parallax sites that are doing this scrolly-telling method — designers and developers need to be really careful with those. What I’m noticing is that the timing has to be right on those things. There are many projects where we’re seeing this photo is at 100% opacity for like a second and then you scroll on to the next thing, or you see this little blurb of text for like a second. You hear this piece of audio for like a second, and if you scroll past it too quickly, and everyone’s going to have their own pace, you can miss a lot of the content of those projects when that timing isn’t right in those stories.”

What is something you’ve noticed while judging pieces?

“I’m seeing a lot of things that are sort of meant to be pushing the aesthetics or the boundaries of what the design looks like. But I’m like, Can most people read this level of contrast? Is it going to meet WCAG requirements on people being able to actually consume this content to know which things are actually buttons? (There are) lots of things embedded into graphics that really should be dynamic text so that people have access, too. So I worry about those things.”

What are some things you’d like to see more of?

“I’d like to see more audio integration. The pieces that I’ve seen, for the most part, have used audio as ambient sound to set a place of scene, and that is great. But can we push audio beyond setting the mood with music, which I’m not sure is appropriate for news stories — you don’t want to set a mood for a news story. Is there a way that audio can be incorporated even better in these pieces? I mean, podcasts (are) so hot right now, and as more and more people are turning to that for their storytelling and their journalism, is that something that we can work better into the web?”

What is something you think people should know?

“I would recommend to news organizations to enter things. We do tend to see a lot of entries from the bigger news organizations that have a lot of resources, and it would be great to see smaller newsrooms entering competitions like this. Being a returning judge this year, a lot of the usual cast of characters turns up and it could be a matter of awareness of the competition, or awareness of SND. I know there’s a lot more that can be entered into this competition that isn’t showing up and you can’t win if you don’t enter.”
Read more about Libby here.

Jeremy C.F. Lin, Bloomberg

What has been new and exciting about this year’s entries?

“I’m actually seeing a lot of really good audio pieces that feel incredibly organic and don’t feel forced. I feel like in the past, I’ve seen a lot of audio pieces that feel — it doesn’t feel natural, it feels forced, and it feels like an afterthought almost.”

What are some trends that you feel like you’re seeing too much of?

“I’m getting a little bit sick of scrolly-telling. I think it’s incredibly effective and in the past, everybody loved it, right? But when you are judging and you are seeing so many entries in a day, and many of them are scrolly-telling, it just becomes very repetitive. Sometimes, it feels forced. It feels like I want to make something fancy, and you can tell the person who designs it gets a little bit carried away by the technical aspects and not what actually serves the reader the most.”

Can you talk a little bit more about how you feel about scrolly-telling?

“I think scrolly-telling can be incredibly effective when it feels fresh. The thing about it is there are many pieces that the entire thing is scrolly-telling, and you don’t know when it’s going to end, you just scroll and scroll and scroll and everything is flying around. In the end, it becomes a very exhausting experience mentally.”
Read more about Jeremy here.

Martin Frobisher, Tampa Bay Times

What is something you’ve noticed while judging pieces?

“I know this is kind of like a design-y thing, but if I get a website and the font size is inappropriate for the column width … I just look at it and go, ‘You guys got to fix this.’ That kind of drives me crazy, and I’ll check off for that right away. I think somebody ought to be thinking of the typography in particular — there’s a lot of reading to be done.”

What has been new and exciting about this year’s entries?

“I’ve seen some really just beautiful designs, just a joy to look at and while they’re communicating complicated ideas in a clear way.”

What are some things you’d like to see more of?

“I love data-driven pieces. I love it when somebody goes out and there’s tons of data out there, and they collect it. And then they sort out the data in Python or whatever, and then they create a presentation that’s like I can drill into it. I’m thinking of the Tesla one yesterday was a good one. Every little dot on those big charts was like, you scroll over and it said, this is the quote from the car owner who was unhappy with his Tesla. I’m just pointing that out as an example. Even though I know I’m not going to read every quote from some Tesla owner, it’s just to me it actually validates the story I’m reading, like you really did go out and dig up all this data or interview all these people. I’d like to see more data-driven projects, although good writing is good writing, there’s no doubt about that.”
Read more about Martin here.

Maggie Getzin, Ball State University
Illustration: Maggie Getzin, Ball State University

 


Features Judging Team

Tiffany Middleton, ESPN

What is something you’ve noticed while judging pieces?

“I haven’t seen many African-American based publications, as far as like submitting work into the design contest. For me, that’s something that next year I would like to see more of just different African-American sites doing more art or design type of things, because there are African American designers out there, but (I) haven’t seen much work represented by the culture.”

Do you consider the size and resources of a newsroom while judging entries?

“Yeah. I think for me, that’s the most difficult part because it’s basically like trying to judge Lamborghini money and Honda money. If you see a Lamborghini, you’re never going to want to get into the Honda, but the Honda gets you from point A to point B. It going to cost you less, it’s going to be something you can use for a long time. We’re visual people, so we’re going to go for the thing that looks fun, but hypothetically, it may not be what it’s for. For me, that’s the most difficult thing this whole time is judging things individually because you’re trying to take a bias out of your mind.”

What really makes an entry stand out and go from an award of excellence to a bronze medal? Bronze to silver? Silver to gold?

“That one we saw (What Do Rally Playlists Say About the Candidates?), I probably spent 15-20 minutes on just that one. I’m not super political or anything like that, but it taught me so much about the different people, and I’m a big music person. So for me it was everything that needed to be there. it was You ever wake up one day and you put on a nice outfit and you feel like your best self? There’s no doubt about it. There’s no second guessing. It’s like, instantly you see it. It’s like at that very moment you know that’s it. It’s the Lamborghini.”
Read more about Tiffany here.

Umi Syam, The New York Times

What is something you’ve noticed while judging pieces?

“What I’m actually most surprised with is, because I don’t visit the Chinese publications a lot, and I realized that the trend there and it’s probably a cultural thing, right, like the way people consume their news in China probably are all catered towards like mobile. So like, if you open those sites on a desktop, they’re just like this weird square with nothing in it, it’s really not meant for desktop.

Can you talk a little bit more about that trend?

“I suspect that it’s hugely influenced by like the web toon culture. The way they do web apps is that they treat them as a scrolling comic. It’s a unique form of storytelling, but as far as the news goes, I think the production definitely requires a long time to produce compared to traditional news.”

Have you noticed anything we might see more of in the next year?

“To me what I’m excited about, I think that’s probably going to be coming pretty soon, is incorporating more WebGL stuff, into web in any kind of form like 3D. At the same time, the drawbacks with that is the device support and sometimes it requires a certain OS version. So there’s always some technology aspect to tackle if a news publication decides to like go all out on WebGL stuff. People with older OS cannot access that news — there has to be a default, a fallback.”
Read more about Umi here.

Sohail Al-Jamea, McClatchy

What is something you’ve noticed while judging pieces?

“I’ve noticed that scrolly-telling is a tried-and-true method. Everyone uses it. The fact that we’ve still been using it for many years now, and it hasn’t turned into a gimmick — I mean, to me, it shows that it’s an effective way of storytelling. I think users like having a single-page experience where you’re not just constantly pushing buttons and getting new windows. I think we like things that are linear.”

Have you noticed anything we might see more of in the next year?

“I’ve noticed a lot more drone photography as being a lead image or a lead visual (for) enterprise pieces. They’ve been quite popular for a number of years now, but I think they’re being used even more. It’s nice, and you don’t need a budget where you need to hire someone with a helicopter and a camera crew and stuff. I mean now it’s just video journalists who get trained how to fly a drone and they can get this awesome footage.”

Also…
“The video game format. For example, the Amazon piece that we didn’t look at it, we played it. If it is executed well, it’s a very effective way of storytelling. I’d like to see more of that.”

What really makes an entry stand out and go from an award of excellence to a bronze medal? Bronze to silver? Silver to gold?

“I have a feeling that we all have our own kind of standards for gold. I think that’s fine. I think we should. I think that’s what makes the judging process interesting — having three judges versus one. For gold, for me, I just need to be absolutely blown away, wowed (and) incredibly excited. (And) feel like I need to engage throughout the entire piece. For example, The New York Times the music playlist one — I was just so wowed by that, I just didn’t want to stop. I feel like if you have to think about it a long time, it’s probably not worth a gold.”
Read more about Sohail here.