What it’s like when an agency designer and a journalist swap places

David Sleight and Sarah Sampsel prepare to give their presentation "Trading Places."
David Sleight and Sarah Sampsel prepare to give their presentation “Trading Places.”

Sarah Sampsel and David Sleight have essentially “traded places.”

Sampsel left her job in the journalism world — she was Director of Digital Strategy and Design at The Washington Post — become the Design Director for Work & Co., a digital product design studio in New York City. Sleight went the other direction — he left the agency world to become the first design director for ProPublica.

Sarah Sampsel discusses her transition from the Washington Post to Work & Co.
Sarah Sampsel discusses her transition from the Washington Post to Work & Co.

“I just left news. I don’t know if this is appropriate,” Sampsel said as she kicked off the presentation describing how she felt when asked to speak at SNDSF.

Sleight and Sampsel planned out a “pro-con” presentation about the agency world versus the journalism world. But it quickly became just pro: so far, Sampsel doesn’t have any cons about her new position.

One thing she likes better about her new world? There is more time to really plan things out.

“If I were back at the Washington Post now, I would tell people to leave the designers alone so they can focus,” Sampsel said, reinforcing the importance of time and attention to detail that her new position allows.

She explained after he session that Work & Co. presents an opportunity for she and others to work through the minute details to ensure the product is the best it can be for the user. It is a stark contrast to journalism, where details can be overlooked for the sake of meeting harsh deadlines.

Sampsel described the design process for Work & Co., which looks a little like this:

1. Concepting and design

Creating as many as 30 mock-ups is not out of the ordinary for her team; some are interactive to understand the user experience.

2. Ease off the requirements

Sometimes the demands the client has can get in the way of the design. It is important to make the product the best that it can be.

3. Don’t settle.

4. Design is the output. Push it further.

5. Sell it

Sleight talks about his transition from the agency world to the journalism world and his position at ProPublica.
Sleight talks about his transition from the agency world to the journalism world and his position at ProPublica.

Sleight began his portion with a metaphor about armor. Yes, the chunky metal protective wear from the 15th century. He used an example of a weapon that was combination gun, knife and calendar.

The idea behind it? This multitool had a lot of parts, but isn’t that functional as a whole.

That is how Sleight felt journalism and design used to be — a desperate attempt to combine the new with the old, which ultimately ended up being a pile of parts instead of a unified and cohesive whole.

Finding a way back to a less-weird pile was the reason Sleight got back into journalism. His goal was to focus on the content and relate the design back to the mission and purpose of the story.

A few “pro” points Sleight made about the journalism world were the abilities to:

1. Dig deep

2. Know the organization well

3. Follow through with the work

In contrast to Sampsel’s preference for having time to plan and focus, Sleight agreed with Rodrigo Sanchez’s comment in his presentation Friday night that some of the best work comes from an extreme time constraint.

Sleight noted that shouldn’t be the case all the time, and that designers should have “the patience of a saint” when dealing with other departments. He advised attendees to “plan on a gradient” when it comes to large projects, but also embracing that deadline and not allowing it to hinder the work.

Words of advice from the speakers?

Sampsel: “Know what you’re passionate about. Try to learn what you’re good at and what you’re interested in, and pursue the hell out of it.”

Sleight: “Take on personal projects. Instead of picking up a coding book, identify what you want to do and find a solution. Make it do XYZ.”