With the Panama Papers, The Guardian created visual storytelling rules ready for breaking news

Unlike the journalists who were in on the investigation, designers at The Guardian didn't have a year to prepare their stories about the Panama Papers. Because of the sensitive nature of the work, they only had a week to create a design language for the far-reaching investigative series.

"Without knowing with certainty how the story would break over the forthcoming days, we set about producing a set of design rules, color and tonal theory that would underpin our visual storytelling," said Chris Clarke, deputy creative director for Guardian News and Media. "Having these robust sets of principles allowed us to react quickly to the demands of the breaking news."

Clarke spoke with Poynter via email about how The Guardian told the story of the Panama Papers in print and online, how the visual storytelling was carried out and how readers have responded.

In print, this series has a very specific look: neon yellow, big black and white images, big numbers. Can you tell us about the choices behind that?

The design language for the stories evolved from a prescribed design language. We knew the Panama Papers story was fast-moving, so planning anything ahead seemed a little tricky! With regards to the design decisions, the yellow was chosen as a striking juxtaposition to our grey special investigations tone — something that is already familiar within our Guardian brand color palette and woven into the fabric of our website. We made the decision to use yellow to deliberately contrast the stark black and white portraits of some of the people implicated in the story.

We also knew the importance of telling what could be seen as a "tax story" in engaging and exciting ways. It was imperative to us that the resulting design helped to decipher quite complex information simply — so infographics and data driven pieces became essential to help readers navigate the story.

Unlike typical treatments, we knew this was as much a branding exercise as well as a storytelling one. At the Guardian we strive to create uniformity across platforms so, wherever and whatever you read the Guardian on, there is a consistent and coherent look and feel.

Online, that theme is carried through more subtly overall but again boldly in the videos. Did the same designers work on both platforms?

The art direction was very collaborative across all disciplines. Each creative head of department understood the design rhetoric and worked tirelessly to make sure it was enforced. The collaborative and transparent means of design development meant designers and editors had a shared and uniform vision of exactly how the story would be told across all platforms and disciplines.

What were the design challenges with telling this massive story online?

The design language also stretched to a tonal language — we knew we wouldn't be able to react as quickly with design treatments as the news would dictate so we had clear rules around when to apply design.

The site editors also clearly understood the need for a variety of approaches digitally. A saturation of yellow treated imagery would be overwhelming and also would feel too similar — so balance was key when crafting the front pages and how these stories sat together.

Can you tell us anything about engagement or analytics?

We broke the story on Sunday evening along with our global partners, and on 4th April (Monday) we had 10.4 million uniques and 35 million page views to our site.

We have had over 20 million page views collectively for our Panama Papers coverage to date.

A link to all the content we have published to date on the Panama Papers is here.

Has The Guardian devoted so much front page space to a story like this before?

We have — but not often. We tend to be restrained in our saturation of one story unless we feel it warrants the attention. In recent times we dedicated our front pages to the HSBC files and more recently our this is the NHS series.

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