NYT chief creative officer describes challenges of ‘Designing the News’

Design is much more than how something looks. It is also concerned with how a thing functions, and how it mediates between people and understanding — this was the message delivered by Tom Bodkin, chief creative officer of The New York Times, at a Poynter Fellowship in Journalism lecture given on April 2 at the Yale School of Art Sculpture Building.

In his talk, titled “Designing the News,” Bodkin discussed his philosophy of news design, and shared examples of work produced by the 140 graphics editors, photographers, illustrators, programmers, and animators who are responsible for The New York Times’ iconic look and user experience in print and online.

Bodkin joined the Times in April 1980 as art director of the Home section, and in a career spanning over 30 years, he has been involved in the evolution of the visual language that has come to define the Times.

In his presentation, Bodkin underscored that good news design, regardless of the platform, must concern itself with qualities like hierarchy, emphasis, and flow. He said he is inspired by the very first Times front page, which had six unbroken rows of tightly-spaced text and no images (it was many years later that the newspaper would introduce improvements such as differentiated headlines and graphics). Bodkin praised the first front page’s “pure content” approach to presentation. In his own work, he told the audience, he aspires to minimal ornamentation, preferring a clean, structured aesthetic that reflects the clarity and balance of the quality journalism of New York Time reporters. An added benefit of structure and consistency is that it enables the Times’ content to appear properly on the many different devices that are produced every year, he noted.

Speaking about how technology has influenced news design, Bodkin emphasized the necessity of balancing the insight gleaned from metrics with a firm editorial stance. “There has to be a balance between art and commerce,” Bodkin advised. One challenge facing designers, he noted, is the difficulty of integrating advertising in a way that complements the online experience.

Bodkin closed the Poynter lecture with a discussion of how technology has opened up exciting new opportunities for storytelling. He shared examples of interactive infographics developed during the 2008 and 2012 U.S. presidential elections, animations that allowed viewers to understand the physics of Olympic sports, and an interactive fly-through which accompanied a Times gallery review. One of the most ambitious digital products the Times has produced to date is an article in the online Sunday magazine titled “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” Over 70 production artists and scientists collaborated on the project, which brings together text, photos, videos, and animation into one cohesive media experience. The final product — which was awarded both the American Society of News Editors’ Punch Sulzberger Award for Online Storytelling and a Peabody Award — was only possible due to the Times’ culture of risk-taking and experimentation said Bodkin.

The Poynter Fellowship was established by Nelson Poynter (Yale, M.A. 1927) to enable Yale to bring to its campus distinguished reporters, editors and others who have made important contributions to the media. See the schedule of upcoming lectures