Executive Summary

It seems rare, these days, to encounter a conversation about the future of journalism that does not make some reference to the cluster of concepts known variously as design thinking, design practice, or human-centered design. Innovative news organizations, for example, are successfully deploying versions of this philosophy to develop journalism products with remarkably high user engagement. But there is much confusion over what design and design thinking really mean, especially in a journalistic context—never mind how the philosophy might actually be implemented with successful results.

This report first proposes a clearer definition of design—as a practice based on a set of processes and a mindset. It then suggests moving away from the phrase “design thinking,” which has become closely identified with a specific five-step process that could actually be limiting to news organizations. The report also identifies those types of problems, known as “wicked problems,” which could benefit most from the design process, arguing that many of the severe challenges journalism faces today belong to this category. Drawing on interviews with designers and journalists, and four in-depth studies of design in use—at BuzzFeed, The New York Times, National Public Radio, and AL.com—the report next explores concrete ways in which others might use these processes as a foundation for news innovation.

The research in this paper identifies several key benefits of design philosophy in creating new possibilities for journalism, including the ability to rapidly prototype and modify new products before major resources have been committed; to improve journalism by deeply understanding its role in the real lives of those who consume it; and to work directly with the communities in which news organizations are embedded to generate coverage and tell stories of direct relevance.

The report also sounds some cautionary notes. First, we must avoid seeking to fix the definition of design too rigidly into a specific sequence of steps that need always be followed, otherwise we risk undermining the very flexibility and responsiveness to context that are central benefits of the approach. Second, while embracing design’s emphasis on paying close attention to the needs and preferences of users, as journalists we must retain a commitment to reporting in the public interest, rather than making editorial decisions solely in favor of stories and products that bring the most success in financial terms.

Key Observations

This report specifies the following eight aspects as central to design in the context of journalism:

  • Thinking in systems; understanding news stories and news organizations as existing in a wide variety of larger informational, social, and organizational ecosystems.

  • Centering innovation on humans, not technology; serving audiences while resisting the assumption that an innovation is worthwhile just because new technology makes it possible.

  • Identifying the true problem, thereby avoiding the many pitfalls of simply assuming you know what it is.

  • Deep listening and other tools to empathize in profound ways with the realities of users’ lives so as to meet their needs more effectively.

  • Open ideation; a democratic and transparent set of approaches for generating ideas (in which brainstorming is only a first step).

  • Synthesizing and interrogating ideas, a process distinct from initial ideation, to winnow the best ideas from the rest and combine related ideas into coherent wholes.

  • Prototyping and iterating, or “the learning that happens through doing”—the process of making and using versions of the product from the earliest stages to reach understandings that could not be achieved through thinking alone.

  • Testing, part of the prototyping and iterating cycle wherein designers observe people engaging with what they’ve made to see how it’s actually used—not how they assumed it would be used.

    The report also identifies several primary applications of design in journalistic contexts, offering detailed suggestions for implementation in each case:

  • Testing and adapting new product ideas before they absorb vast organizational resources, to rapidly and affordably identify the most promising avenues for innovation.

  • As a tool for directly interacting with news audiences to better understand how they really use news organizations’ products.

  • As a way to reconceptualize each instance of journalism as belonging to a wider journalistic system, so that stories and other elements can be created to exist and reach users in a wide variety of forms and on a variety of platforms.

  • To facilitate civic journalism—drawing directly upon the experiences of news consumers as a primary source of stories—and solutions-focused journalism, exploring not only the problems of the communities served by news organizations, but also ways to address them.

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