2020 Judges Q&A

Every year, the Society of News Design invites professionals to Washington, D.C., to judge the best design work of the year. This year, due to the pandemic, we gathered via Zoom across timezones to discuss the best design work from 2020.

This year, we have six judging groups, two news, two graphics, features and product. Each judge evaluates entries assigned their teams based on its individual merit. Three 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:

A collage of three photos shows, from left, Jane Pong with Bloomberg; Rebecca Pazos with The Straits Times; and Agnes Chang, with ProPublica.

News 1 

Jane Pong, Bloomberg | Rebecca Pazos, The Straits Times | Agnes Chang, ProPublica

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

“The topic areas because 2020 was such a huge news year, and (there were) so many, so many events that happened with protests and (the) coronavirus. We’re seeing a lot of innovation in covering those topics. … It’s very clear that a lot of work has gone into them.”
— News 1 Team

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

“There’s definitely more multimedia storytelling than I’ve seen before. I think it’s a matter of teams working together better within the newsroom, and having cross collaborations between photos and graphics and reporters on the ground, getting color and reporting done. … Doing a multimedia story well is very difficult because there are so many stakeholders in a story. But when it’s done well, I think it really, really shines. … It takes a lot of attention to detail, it takes a lot of editing. It takes a lot of letting the story speak for itself over the technique or technology you’re using.”
— News 1 Team

Also…

“I find it very exciting this year I think there’s much more multimedia integration, particularly around the different formats of like working with video as well as data. User-generated video of the search that we might see in protests and having all that integrated with like professional photography, as well as data and graphics — it’s actually very challenging from a technical standpoint. I think we’ve started seeing a lot more superb examples of how that can be done, and it would be exciting to see more.”
— News 1 Team

 Is there anything else you want to tell us?

“2020 was a crazy year, and it’s just amazing the amount of work that everyone produced. I think coronavirus presented us with the situation in our industry to do a lot with data; there was a great need and data from our readers. It meant that, I think, we have to just go above and beyond everything that we’ve been learning in the past. … I think a lot of the stories that I’m locked up with because of their ability to communicate very complicated data sets in a simple, straightforward way to ever read up.”
— News 1 Team 

Also…

“Transparency is very important — especially for coronavirus coverage and data for the public good. It is very important to include methodology sections in any analysis, and I’ve been seeing that more and more, and I am really glad for this trend of linking out to the original reports, or the data sets, as well.”
— News 1 Team


SND-BODD42_judgesteams5

News 2

Martin Frobisher, Tampa Bay Times | Lily Mihalik, Politico | Alexandre Lage, Globoesporte

What are some trends you noticed in this year’s entries?

“One thing we saw more of this year was the horizontal scrolling. I mean it was really well done. … One of our favorite pieces was a horizontal scroller and there were others that were really well done.” There also was “good use of audio” and  “a lot of color this year.”
— Martin Frobisher

“I think the ones that worked for me, we (Politico) just tried to do one of those tap experiences with the ‘Reimagining Uncle Sam Experience,’ and I think that the ones that worked the best for me actually don’t have that. They let the scroll pull you through. I think that’s sort of an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me. I think we’re all infatuated with the Instagram user interface. It seems great, but when it comes to telling these longer stories, the ones that work the best for me — when we move into that horizontal space — are the ones that have the least amount of friction. Those are the ones that work really well and something I’m taking away for my teams.”
— Lily Mihalik

“I think responsive design is still a challenge for everybody. You make a design for a big screen and a small screen. It’s not not working well for everybody. … I saw a lot of panes working a little bit taller because there is too much focus on mobiles and when you open full screen, they lose power.”
— Alexandre Lage

What is something you would like to see more of in the future?

“I saw a lot of variation in performance. The big organizations seem to have website performance down, whereas some of the smaller ones were really struggling with making their websites perform well.”
— Martin Frobisher

Also…

“To me, performance is really important. If it takes forever to load the top of the page, or you start scrolling down and you just got a big blank spot, and it’s like, ‘Is this supposed to fill up with something?’ And sometimes it never did. I’d like to see more work on performance, possibly, or maybe some resources to make it easier for people to make their sites perform.”
— Martin Frobisher

What is one trend you would like to see reinvented?

“One thing that I figured out: that people some time ago, we did much interactive points in our jobs. Nowadays. I think they feel uncomfortable. They just want to scroll and everything shows. People don’t want to explore like they did before; just scroll. I don’t know if it’s because Facebook and WhatsApp it’s just scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.
— Alexandre Lage

“When we’re in crisis, how do we design so that people get what they need at the top, but in a way that doesn’t pull the punch of the rest of the piece, which you need to make a more nuanced decision? How do we weigh point for people better getting to the piece that they want — I think is just a good challenge for us.”
— Lily Mihalik

What are you looking for when you’re considering giving an entry a medal?

“I needed to see the ‘wow impact.’ … You see a lot of things. For me, I had to think, ‘Wow, how I didn’t think about it. I would like to make this. … I feel jealous.'”
— Alexandre Lage

“It has to be just stunning, and then I think surprising was something that we were held, I said earlier, to a high bar. Like, is this a creative way to solve this problem? … That’s sort of the entry level for bronze, I think for us; truly something we found to be like a great problem solve for that particular story. Continuity through each individual piece or in a series that was especially important. We wanted to see the design integrity brought through with a ton of intention.”
— Lily Mihalik


A collage of three photos shows, from left, Dawn Cai with The New York Times; Julius Tröger with Zeit Online; and Xaquín González Veira with Visualization for Transparency Foundation.

Graphics 1

Dawn Cai, The New York Times | Julius Tröger, Zeit Online | Xaquín González Veira with Visualization for Transparency Foundation

What are some trends you noticed in this year’s entries?

“The use of more video and 3D animation, where able to scroll at your pace. That was really interesting — to reveal more details in a video that you would see if you saw it at a normal speed. That was kind of interesting in several pieces to use the scroll element to go through videos and 3D animations.”
— Julius Tröger

“I think more and more places started doing these visual investigations pieces that use annotating videos, like get security camera footage, and annotate them, use animation and combined into bigger reports.”
— Dawn Cai

Also…

“There has been pieces with bigger and larger collaborative efforts. It’s not just (the) graphics team doing work on their own, there’s a lot of collaboration with the rest of the newsroom. With the virus, I think it’s amazing to see how many great public service pieces are out there. Almost every organization has a tracker, or multiple trackers, and all of those trackers just take tremendous effort to design, to maintain, to update.”
— Dawn Cai

“One of the trends I saw — and a trend that actually excites me, a trend that I think I want to see more of — is how many visually driven pieces there were. We’ve been seeing this for a while now, but I think this year is different from 2017 — the last time I judged. There are more pieces where it’s clear that they thought of the visuals as the way of solving communicatively a portion of the story. It wasn’t like, ‘This is the story. Where can we fit the visuals?'”
— Xaquín González Veira

What is one trend you would like to see reinvented?

“We judged, we’ve been told this, the largest category in the contest, COVID. I don’t want to see another COVID dashboard. But with this nuance: I don’t want to see another COVID dashboard that is not contextualized. That was one of the most annoying things of going through that category was seeing data dumps.”
— Xaquín González Veira

“I think that technical proficiency has improved a lot across newsrooms, even smaller publications are able to do very impressive, interactive charts and maps and stuff like that, but I think it would be better if there were more careful and mindful design choices. I think a lot of pieces, the technical level is there, but it’s not incorporated in the content or the design choice is not quite there yet.”
— Dawn Cai

 Is there anything else you want to tell us?

“I voted for projects that stuck in my head somehow. Either it was the use of web technology, or a surprising visual. It was the case with several pieces. So it was really amazing. After judging, there were several pieces you were able to think about, and it was because of the visuals also, because of the story itself, often, but sometimes because you thought about the chart or the animation.”
— Julius Tröger


A collage of three photos shows, from left, Priya Krishnakumar with CNN; Brian Jacobs with National Geographic; and Darla Cameron with The Texas Tribune.

Graphics 2

Priya Krishnakumar, CNN | Brian Jacobs, National Geographic | Darla Cameron, The Texas Tribune

What are you looking for when you’re considering giving an entry a medal?

“If it’s a really great concept and mostly nails execution then I’m like, that could be an award of excellence, depending on the resources of the organization and where they’re coming from and who their audience is. To get past the award of excellence to a medal, I think something has to really be unique and cohesive.”
— Darla Cameron

“The pacing has stood out to me as something that’s elevated certain pieces. They could have a lot of good component parts, but if they just seemed kind of glued together a little haphazardly, they didn’t flow from one to the next, then I hesitated with with awarding a medal. To back up to what qualifies for award of excellence, it probably goes without saying, but these days, if it doesn’t work on phones, I won’t be giving it a checkmark. It just has to these days.”
— Brian Jacobs

“In terms of like elevating something to a medal, I think the pieces that really stay with you. … We’re looking at so many things that if a piece has stayed in the back of my brain, or I felt like jealous of it or whatever, then I’m like, ‘Maybe I should go back and give that one a second look.'”
— Priya Krishnakumar

What advice would you give to students or professionals looking to enter the competition?  

“Something I would have loved to have seen in the line of coverage (category) is more explanation from the organizations about why they had submitted these (entries)  together and what made them work as a package. For a lot of them, I think, we could kind of get there on our own, but it’s nice always to know what people are thinking.” — Priya Krishnakumar

“Be a little more deliberate about which categories things go into would have been helpful. I would like to have known, ‘We planned these together and here’s how we reported them,’ and what was their thinking behind, I think, might have helped elevate some of the lineup coverage items for me.”
— Darla Cameron

“Some of it comes down to restraint and editing. If a certain project can’t get an extreme level of polish when it comes to interactivity or scrolliness, should scrollytelling be used? Can the graphic really work as a static graphic, and then can it be improved with scrollytelling? And do you have the time and energy to invest in all of the extra complication that that introduces? Then only should it be considered.”
— Brian Jacobs

Is there anything else you want to tell us?

“Everyone is doing incredible work under very difficult circumstances. That is in our heads as we judge this: the fact that you’re doing this at home with your team who was probably not remote before this. Or if you’re reporting, here’s what you’re dealing with in the world. I’m just really impressed, and I think that … everybody as journalists has really shown up for people in terms of telling the stories of the moment, which are so important.”
— Darla Cameron


A collage of three photos shows, from left, Jan Diehm with The Pudding; Corinne Chin with The Seattle Times; and Michael Grant with Get Current Studio.

Features

Jan Diehm, The Pudding | Corinne Chin, The Seattle Times | Michael Grant, Get Current Studio

 

What is one trend you would like to see reinvented?

“I think all three of us are a little tired of the horizontal scroll, in a non-mobile context, especially. I’m really tired (of) when you scroll and the text covers up the photo. I don’t like that.”
— Corinne Chin

“I feel like scrollytelling has just become scrollytelling for scrollytelling sake because everybody’s doing it, and people have built templates out of it. I really miss the purpose-driven nature of when it was harder to do because every scroll counted. There was a payoff for every scroll. Now I feel like you see sometimes where it’s just another text block, the image doesn’t change, there’s not that much more context added for that extra scroll bit. It kind of goes to the passive versus active nature of being an audience and how you want to consume this stuff.”
— Jan Diehm

What is something you would like to see more of in the future?

“What I appreciated most this year is when you see almost standardized web conventions, like a drop down, used effectively. So if it’s well designed, if the content is rich, if the photography is beautiful, you may not need to do all the fancy programming to still do a really great job.”
— Michael Grant

“I’ve never judged SND before, but I’ve judged ONA and NPPA, and I think that there’s likely more diversity in the entries, hopefully, in every contest, post 2020. I hope that will continue. I think we can still see more. But, I saw a lot of stories that I think just a few years ago would have been dismissed as niche stories treated with real reverence and care, and I really appreciated that.”
— Corrine Chin

 

What advice would you give to students or professionals looking to enter the competition?  

“It’s easy to see the big names like The Washington Post and The New York Times and how many awards that they win, but both years that I’ve judged, I’ve seen some incredibly innovative small publications, even ones that may not win awards, they have opened my eyes to how they’re doing the reporting.”
— Jan Diehm

Also…

“In a couple of years, SND will probably be judging TikTok. So, do what you do and what you know best as a student because that’s already challenging what we think of as design. I think it’s really healthy to get that young injection into our mindset of how we grew up.”
— Jan Diehm

“If the design can get out of the way of the story and just serve the story and just make it a seamless experience, where it’s just me and the story, that’s a great entry — definitely enter that. It doesn’t need to have a fancy thing. It doesn’t need to have a video looping. It doesn’t need to have an interactive element — it just needs to be great digital storytelling.”
— Corinne Chin

Also…

“A quick thing for students: Experiment now. Take risks now. Don’t play it safe. If you do get one of those few and far between newspaper design jobs, there’s not going to be as much room for experimenting. We, the judges, love to see this experimental stuff. We’ve seen a lot of things pushing the boundary between journalism and art, and it’s been really cool to see.”
— Corinne Chin

“If you’re a student of journalism, you’re always looking and studying and trying to elevate your own ideas about what the craft entails. It’s nice to look at the stage of really wonderful work, to see how other people are pushing the bounds. If you continue to be a student of the work, and a fan of other people’s work, chances are, you’ll be able to do something special, too, if you keep working at it.”
— Michael Grant

Also…

 

 

“The way we’ve been doing journalism is being questioned and the systems are being questioned. Why not try to figure out how journalism can continue to elevate? Whether that’s through creativity, or diverse staffs coming together to do more interesting things, or dig deeper into communities and be representational — all those things are going to get journalism to a place, like maybe we haven’t seen the good old days yet.”
— Michael Grant


A collage of three photos shows, from left, Tiffany Middleton with FanDuel; Tony Elkins with USA Today; and Reed Reibstein with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Product

Tiffany Middleton, FanDuel | Tony Elkins, USA Today | Reed Reibstein, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Can you chat about the state of the AR/VR entries that were submitted?

“I think everyone’s on the same playing field. I don’t feel like people are pushing the limits, but I feel like probably all these teams are about to start doing new things. Because pre-Gannett, VR was gimmicky to me. I’m not saying that about newspapers. I go to South by Southwest every year, and the VR and AR experiences are empty. No one cares about it.”
— Tony Elkins

Also…

“My gold standard for AR still doesn’t exist, and it came out on the very first commercial for maybe iPhone 5. It was a young couple, and very much either had to be  Hong Kong or Singapore, and they lifted their phone up and all the signs for the restaurants were translated and it had links to the menu. That’s an AR experience that’s rewarding. … Making AR useful is where we need to go, not making AR pretty and fun, or it needs to be fun — it just doesn’t need to be look at this thing in your living room.”
— Tony Elkins

“For me, it’s like 3D movies — just a little too complicated. I’m a very simple person. I think the reason iPhones and Twitter and Facebook are so usable because it’s simple. VR — it’s like back in the day when touch phones, like, they hadn’t quite figured it out, so it was just too complicated. Maybe eventually it’ll work out, but right now, it’s too complicated for me to try to figure it out. I need the technology to be more developed version.”
— Tiffany Middleton

 “I think for me, too often, I was looking at AR/VR experiences and thinking, is this really better than if it were presented in a more typical way as a webpage or app screen? I think there’s potential to really to really go farther, but I think that’s the challenge for AR/VR designers.”
— Reed Reibstein

What is one trend you’re tired of seeing? 

“I do think there can at times be a little too much scrollytelling. It’s a nice tool to create more integration between text and visuals, but it’s not the only tool.”
— Reed Reibstein

Also…

“For any category that has to do with product, or really digital design these days, you have to think about the user and their context, and making sure that it actually fits into their lives and doesn’t demand something of them that doesn’t make sense to them. … Be thoughtful about what you’re asking of people, where they might be, how much time they have is, would be important to keep seeing.”
— Reed Reibstein

“I still think too many design teams are creating for judges and awards and not for readers.”
— Tony Elkins 

Also… 

“I think something that I wish more designers would do is at every inflection point where the screen changes, when an action happens, they should ask themselves, ‘Is this going to make the reader leave?'”
— Tony Elkins 

“I think you can get so stuck on the aesthetics of something versus readers they can see cool illustrations, they can see a cool function, but it’s almost just like VR. It’s cool, but it is causing me not to be able to do what I need to do and lose people. Especially in product, it’s more about the usability and how easily accessible something is versus what it looks like.”
– Tiffany Middleton 

Also…

“I don’t think a lot of people think about that. It’s like going to the art museum — it’s beautiful when you go, but not everybody goes to the art museum. It’s not accessible to everybody, versus if you’re art used in a practical way. I think that’s the key here — design is more so like practical art versus it being art. I think a lot of times,  people are designing for a contest versus designing for users first.”
– Tiffany Middleton 

What advice would you give to students or professionals looking to enter the competition?

“I would say design user first. Simple is always better, but simple doesn’t have to lack sophistication.”
— Tiffany Middleton

“We discussed when judging the broadest product categories, which I think would be particularly best product, or new or redesigned product or homepage, wanting to look not just at the visual design, at the usability, at the technology, but also at the impact and the strategy. So my advice would be giving the judges as much context as reasonable about those aspects in the entry to help make an informed decision because product is a really holistic discipline. It’s ultimately about not just does it look great, but did it solve an unmet need for users, and did it have the impact that it was supposed to?”
— Reed Reibstein

“The things that we all agreed on were the best designed, also had text that accompanied it, or a PDF that accompanied it, which to me shows that they thought about it. …  Design for your readers, don’t design for us. We’re reading this for the first time, and we probably don’t read their publication on a daily basis. So we’re approaching it fresh, and we don’t have any context for any of this.”
— Tony Elkins 

Is there anything else you want to tell us?

“There’s a lot of great content out there. There were a lot of good entries. I hope news is ready to make the jump to full digital, instead of thinking digital as a part of what we do. … I hope we stop just accepting digital best practices and start trying to be groundbreaking on digital.”
— Tony Elkins

To read more about this year’s judges, click here.