A Golden Age of journalism? The era of News Design!

Newspapers are crumbling, for journalism and graphic design it’s an exciting time. A clever merge of these two professions, propels us right into the new golden age of Journalism News Design.

It’s the mantra of hope for many journalists: that the best is yet to come, that they should be happy with the hard times, for it’s the dawn of the Golden age of Journalism.

But it’s not. What has begun is a Golden Age of News Design. An era where the news is characterised by how it’s presented. Co-productions of journalism and design that stand out, beautiful yet functional. News in a way we never experienced before. It’s an era of news gamification, rich journalism, visual storytelling, and all achieved by brands that understand the coming tide.

Dare I say it?
In the Netherlands, where I live, I have seen many fresh collaborations between designers and journalists. There even is a certain coherence in the Dutch style. Minimalist, quirky, humorous, and enriched with elegant infographics, videos and images.

Dare I say it? Yes I do. I believe that what we see is Dutch news Design.

Why is that bold? In the world of product design the brand Dutch Design is kind of untouchable.

Alright then, a bit more about Dutch Design
Dutch Design expresses a style by designers from the Netherlands. It is described as practical, powerful and at the same time humorous, innovative, quirky, and minimalist. That’s according to a group of lecturers from the Netherlands who tried to explain what Dutch Design is at the Tokyo Designers Week in Japan, in 2008. Apparently they hit the nail on the head. Their definition has been cited (and rephrased) many times. The journalist Tracy Metz, compared on that glorious day the way the Dutch shape their country, with their design style: simple and functional. If you ever flew to Amsterdam, you know what she means.

Of course there was Dutch debate, back home. It’s not just an artistic trend, argued Marc Vlemmings, editor of the Dutch Design Magazine ‘Item’. He said: ‘rather than a style, Dutch Design is a mentality, in which the urge to experiment is often combined with independence, pragmatism and a propensity for being headstrong.’

Anyway. To put it more simple and functional: What Heineken is to beer, is what Dutch Design is to product design. And just like the beer, Dutch Design is, in its field, a famous export-products from the Netherlands (BNO).

News Design is something else. (Let’s say it’s Amstel, ever heard of that beer? My point exactly). Despite that Dutch graphic designers of news media study at the same academia as the product designers, they aren’t nearly as world famous in their field.

A Golden age of journalism? More a golden age of painting

What Vermeer is to painting is Dutch Design to product design. But have you ever heard of Fabritius? My point exactly.

 

And now I am going to make my point.

The qualities of Dutch graphic designers in the news sector is neglected for a long time. In days bygone the newsroom was a hectic, vibrant place. Journalists and designers both had their own separate departments in the Dutch newsrooms. And – from my experience – the journalists were paid better. They were more decisive an higher on the companies ladder. Graphic designers usually obeyed the journalist. Not only when asked to spend their valuable designing time on editing an article. But also when journalists ‘advised’ on what visuals to use and how to use them. The power imbalance led to dreadful visual decisions. I am not making this up – seen it first hand.

Fortunately things changed. Maybe due to newspaper circulation droppings. Maybe caused by designers and journalists where influenced by what their global colleagues produced. Maybe just because the newsrooms where shrinking and the designers all of a sudden sat at the same desk as the journalists.

Or maybe it was the chief editor who watched this brilliant Ted Talk by Jacek Utko. Suddenly he believed that design could save his newspaper…

Whatever the cause may be (interesting for future research), things changed in the Netherlands. With results. In 2012 the Dutch newspaper Trouw won the prestigious European Newspaper Award. A year later their counterpart De Volkskrant won the award. (The jury praised the design as modern and with a sense of humour. They obviously didn’t understand the language.)

That’s not the only trend. Designers and journalists work closer together on many interesting start ups. For example De Correspondent, an online magazine that raised over one million euros from 15,000 donors by crowdfunding . Or Newspaper – a news company that combines journalism and design with technology to promote their innovative storytelling. Both excellent examples of visual storytelling and experiment.

The American journalist Tom Engelhardt thinks we are in a time for journalism experiments. “Are we in a new golden age of journalism?”, he asks in the headline of his article in the US Magazine Mother Jones. Yes, but it’s mainly a golden age for the readers, according to Engelhardt. For traditional reporters “it is the age from hell (…) working double-time, online and off”.

A golden age of journalism?
I don’t believe in a golden age of journalism. I think it’s a golden age for news design. Not in terms of crumbling news organisations. Maybe not even in terms of experimental reporting, hyper local journalism or data journalism. That’s all relevant and interesting, but it’s basically just journalism with different tools).

I think the blended qualities of graphic designers and journalists – the News Designers –  is what shapes this golden age. In the new found love between journalists and designers the most beautiful, functional and accurate stories are born.

That’s what is happening all over the world. For me, I will follow the the rise of the Dutch news designers with the greatest interest. Even if their urge to experiment is with a propensity for being headstrong.

    Stijn Postema

    Stijn Postema is a journalism lecturer and freelance reporter from the Netherlands. He has a background in journalism, arts and design.

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