Why Design?

The historical moment in which we live could well be defined as an era of constant change. John Seely Brown, co-author of the book Design Unbound and former chief scientist of the Xerox Corporation and director of Xerox PARC, said, “We have transitioned into an era of constant transitioning.” Rapid change is certainly a hallmark of today’s journalism industry. The mass exodus from physical media to digital media destroyed the business models of traditional news organization and altered consumer behavior beyond recognition. By the time the industry started to seriously acknowledge digital, “digital” had already fractured into an ever-expanding number of platforms and possible opportunities. In this environment, a willingness to experiment and innovate is paramount, as is the ability to think systemically.

In this faster-paced and competitive digital environment, the model of news organization as a hub of important information to which people come has shifted toward a model of news organization as a provider of information pushed out in search of readers to digest and share it. “The user is at the center of the diagram, not the content,” Liz Danzico, creative director of NPR, said. Reconsidering the nature of the relationship between news organizations and audiences is an enormous paradigm shift, requiring a different kind of thinking on the part of editors, reporters, and news executives. A design practice may be extremely useful in this new world, because fundamental to good design is the question: Who are you designing for and why? Designers today talk about designing alongside stakeholders.

Legacy newsroom cultures as we know them today emerged to create a product—the newspaper—that is no longer the industry’s focus. Cultures, however, are notoriously difficult to change. So what happens when your culture no longer suits your end goal? If we believe that news organizations must become more creative and nimble, and that journalists should reconsider their relationships with “the people formerly known as the audience,” then the issue of culture change is central.1 I recently asked Aron Pilhofer, interim chief of digital at The Guardian, what he saw as the long-term strategy for the industry. He said: “The cure for the future of journalism is to build cultures where the cure to the future of journalism will emerge.” As we shall see, the model of a design practice, with its democratizing and collaborative bent, may be an important one for journalism to consider.

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