Teaching Examples

Behind the design at NY Times online
November 21, 2006, 1:37 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Interested in online news design? Then read this article about the design team at nytimes.com.

Khoi Vinh, the nytimes.com design director, shared his insights about learning to work together as a team to design a great online news experience:

“By and large, everyone at the Times wants the same thing: to continue to provide the best journalism anywhere, and to make it as useful and relevant to people as possible.” For his team specifically, their sub-vision is, “deliver the news in as useful a manner as possible,” and, “deliver the news with a maximum of elegance using a minimum of ornamentation.”

Khoi goes on to explain how they judge everything by those standards.

Vinh also discussed the transition last April to a “basically ninety-five percent table-free site” — which, in my opinion, is a move that’s long overdue for most other newspaper Web sites. I myself resisted CSS as long as I could (because I was frustrated by browser rendering inconsistencies), but there came a point — about four years ago — when resistence to CSS had become a bad and pigheaded act, counter-productive to usable Web design.

The author of the article, Garrett Dimon, writes:

At times, the creative professionals need to scale back their ideas or quality to meet deadlines. On the flip side, management needs to respect and trust their team’s advice that sometimes quality is more important than the deadline. In my experience, there are very few deadlines or resource plans that are truly inflexible, and just as few projects that couldn’t stand to launch sooner and perform some cleanup after the fact.

The point here is that reducing quality and re-evaluating deadlines are both fair options. Sometimes, the former is the correct choice, and other times it will be the latter.

How many times have you seen something rushed to print — or to air — or to the Web — because of a wholly arbitrary deadline? This is one of the most crazy-making things about journalism. Yes, there is such a thing as presstime, and cost overruns are almost always best avoided. And there are real breaking-news stories that cannot wait. But there are many, many stories that are pushed forward by a completely artificial sense of deadline urgency — and sometimes we get bad garbage as a result.

At the same time, I have been in the newsroom when some perfectionist nut-case is still fiddling with his weekly column 30 minutes after deadline, and you just want to scream: “Hit the Send button, for crying out loud! It’s not friggin’ War and Peace!” The same thing can happen with video editing, a slideshow, or a photo package.

An even more interesting observation is that the design team needs to work to avoid “specialization bias” — that is, a situation in which the technology people think a technology solution is required to fix any problem, but the design people think a design solution is required.

Khoi does his best to build a team as “specialists each with a generalist’s open-mindedness to getting the job done,” and management respects the team’s professional opinions enough to provide the right amount of time and resources to do things properly.

On any team, that kind of respect and trust isn’t innate. It’s earned and nurtured the same way as any other relationship. It takes time, sharing, listening, and compromise. For example, in meetings or at every opportunity, team members can take the time to explain the why. That is, team members, particularly across disciplines, should make an effort to explain not only what they’re working on, but why. Khoi does this with his team through weekly meetings, but taking the time to more thoroughly communicate decisions can happen anytime.

If you have never read Khoi Vinh’s design blog, Subtraction, you ought to take a look at it.

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