Digital Storytelling: A Marriage Between Journalism and Design

Mario Garcia
March 21, 2017

The journalism industry is undergoing yet another disruptive period in which the role of design and visual storytelling is more essential than ever. In a recent column that I wrote for CJR, I argued that the Trump presidency has given news designers the opportunity to change the way we tell stories.  

In the old days of print layouts, a news designer’s role was secondary – that’s no longer true.  The readers went from print a decade ago to desktop, to tablet, to mobile.  They have less time to read a 1,500 word investigative piece and have an insatiable appetite for visuals, a dynamic that forces journalists to consider the role of design in a story much earlier in the reporting process; those who don’t run the risk of alienating some of the tech-savvy audiences they covet.

To that end, news designers are an important fixture of every modern newsroom. It used to be that stories for newspapers and magazine layouts were crafted in a way that allowed for the free flow of text. The story would be paired with a cluster of photos either before or at the end of the story.

Designers of a certain age may remember editors arguing against even the placement of a long display quote in the middle of text, to avoid 'interrupting the flow' of copy. But now we see designers working with journalists during the earlier stages of the investigative process, asking for pictures, maps, or video to package the story. And, in best-case scenarios, the journalist is his or her own best designer.

I like to refer to this as the revival of the marriage between journalism and design a true renewal of the nuptials between writing, editing and design (WED), in which the designer returns to his/her journalist roots, because after all, great writing will always be at the core of a good story. This new epoch of the journalist/designer hybrid is informed by her or his craft as a writer as well as a designer’s philosophy to guarantee the best reader experience.

Today, stories are produced as a linear narrative with video, infographics and other visual elements that create a tangible experience for the reader. Through this method we transport readers to the heart of the story, be it a walk through the streets of a war-torn city or the site of a massive fire in midtown. Whatever the scene, a successful application of WED not only makes it easier for the reader's eyes to move from the top to the bottom of the screen to follow the story, as we normally do when we use our phones and tablets, it also creates a sort of virtual experience.

News organizations like The New York Times, Vox, and The Washington Post, among others, are exceptionally good at this. The New York Time’s reporter Anne Barnard provides a great example of linear storytelling with her piece about Aleppo.  For instance, she writes, “As you enter western Aleppo, everything seems so normal.” This sentence is followed by a photo that amplifies that idea. Barnard clearly understands the WED method. 

So it’s an exciting time for journalists with a design inclination, because we are witnessing a fusion of news and creative design that will help audiences understand the nuances and facts of a story in a way that previous generations couldn’t have.

Mario Garcia is a Senior Adviser on News Design/Adjunct Professor at the Columbia Journalism School who teaches Multiplatform Design & Storytelling. He is the CEO/Founder of Garcia Media, a global consulting firm, and the author of 13 books about visual journalism. 

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