Design is neutral: Jennifer Daniel on the need for authenticity

The New York Times graphics editor, Jennifer Daniel, says she would like to believe her profession is important “to democracy and freedom.” However, she often feels conflicted with the idea that design and news can change the world. Daniel outlined challenges facing news designers in a Saturday morning talk that was dour and a bit confrontational – but with a heavy helping of wit and cute animal GIFs.

“Why do designers have ‘Design can change the world’ tattooed on their foreheads?”

In San Francisco, this mentality of designing to change the world is “gospel,” she said, illustrating the tech company culture that tells people what they want to hear with a GIF. 

“I can’t tell you how to most of our ears, that sounds like parody because it sounds like designers making fun of themselves in some way,” she said. “But to think that design can solve problems is extremely arrogant.”

When designers try to elevate their role as a designer, they become tone-deaf to what their practice is really about. Unfortunately, this same rhetoric is spoken by journalists too.

“Instead of saying we saying design can change the world, we say ‘News can change the world,’” she said.

“On our way to yoga, ‘News can change the world.’”

“At therapy, ‘News can change the world.’”

“When we listen to NPR, wear canvas tote bag, retweet important news, we think we are changing the world.”

Daniel said this empty rhetoric is simply used as a justification for poor hours, pay and institutional baggage “to say that our work counts for something.”

“At the best, we’re providing analysis. We’re marketing our first amendment right,” she said. “Design is neutral. But that’s not sexy–you can’t sell that to your editor. Design is not a philosophy, or a cause, or a revolution, it is neutral.”

As a part of the news and design industry, Daniel urged SNDSF participants to start taking responsibility and produce what people actually want to read and experience. But we are standing in our own way, because design is really about money.

Money money money

“There’s a very monkish aspect to working in news, that we don’t want to make money, that we think money corrupts us in some way. But we’re in an industry that requires money to continue,” she said.

Money limits us because newsrooms try to secure their brands. But this culture ultimately causes them to neglect their audiences and prevents innovation.

“Designers have stopped thinking, have gotten accustomed to designing, writing, for each other, rather than for the citizens. It’s tragic, dumb and stupid, but that’s the reality,” she said. “We need to figure out why that’s the case because we’re all guilty of it.”

She claimed that while tech companies are our gatekeepers, they are also our competitors in the news industry and we can’t assume they will solve our problems. For example, today we see people moving away from news sites getting their news on social media.

“But we let that happen, because newsrooms did not give designers control to make a better experience,” she said. Newsrooms thought it was a business problem and confuse the experience and the story for the same thing.

Stop designing for each other, but for the people.

The New York Times started writing articles in 1851 and they’re still doing the same thing today. However, a story is not a vacuum, but a user experience that needs to be accounted for.

“How many times has an editor told you that the story needs to look more special?” She asked. “I wish the story was more special.”

In order to innovate and create a more authentic culture, newsrooms need to pay attention to their stories and their readers, but more importantly, newsrooms need visual thinkers.

“Some of us still believe that we can still use our craft to do something important, but  you should be doing something that people actually want,” she said. “These people are you, so what do YOU want? It’s time to live up to your own expectations.”

Keep up with @jenniferdaniel and follow her on Snapchat at xxemogirl1694uxx.