May 13, 2016

Working with product designers a few years ago changed the way I looked at news. As a web producer and writer, I’d been equipped with plenty of legacy writing tools to solve problems and tell stories: the well-worn editorial workflow, from pitch meeting to reporting to editing to publication to social media.

When I began working with some really talented designers, I saw a lot of brainstorming at the beginning of and throughout the cycle of designing a product. There were a ton of whiteboards. While I filled mine with lists and words, theirs contained sketches and simplified diagrams, occasionally with short questions. As a words person, I was fascinated and wanted to learn how to bring that back to the editorial team. Here’s how to put a sketching session together:

  • Identify one issue your team is facing, either tactically or existentially in the industry.
    We’ll get into a few prompts below, but the issue should be focused enough to think of one possible approach in a few minutes. Present it in an open-ended way to avoid either-or solutions.
  • Get everyone together.

    If the team is in the same office, find a room where everyone can have a seat at the table. Otherwise, corralling everyone on the video conferencing tool of your choice works. If it doesn’t feel like too many people, ask a few people who work in different teams to join — solutions from someone in sales, design or marketing will provide fairly different perspectives and could jumpstart better collaboration between teams.

  • Draw for five to 10 minutes.

    Ask the question, then set a timer for a short amount of time. It doesn’t need to be elaborate! It’s important to make clear that the purpose isn’t to create the best drawing, but to use sketching as a tool to think about new ideas.

Everyone shares with the room and observes. Each person around the room and video calls presents their sketch and explains their approach. One person should take notes on premises and themes where everyone else can see — maybe a whiteboard, Google doc or an easel pad.

Clarify the themes as they’re being written so nothing is assumed. At the end, ask everyone to take a minute to observe — not connect — the dots that were laid out. What emerged from this exercise? Are there vastly different ideas or fairly similar ones? This should kickstart a new, engaging discussion of what themes could be taken from that question, what people seem to agree on or have new ideas about.

Anyone who executes in the newsroom is bound to have trouble doing both big-picture strategy thinking and everyday work.

This is a great exercise to have once in awhile to step back and see what you and your team already think about where the organization is going and how you might think about the same issues in different ways.

Here are a few prompts to get an editorial, social or engagement sketching session started:

  • What will the way we receive news look like in five years?
    Many journalists are wondering how partnerships, new platforms and reader preferences will change in the next six months to a year. What do people who work in different teams think will be the way we get our news in five years?

    This is a great way to get everyone thinking about how important social programming and off-platform products are to the stories we create, and which best practices we have now that will still make sense no matter what the future looks like for news delivery.

  • What could stories look like if they weren’t on our primary platform?

    This could apply to a website, print edition or to whichever platform reporters or producers publish to first. The question is as much about unlearning as it is about tapping into our existing knowledge — what preconceived notions do I, as a writer, have about how we tell stories today and how could that change? How does that need to change to better serve our audience?

  • How might we make sharing our shortform content easier for readers?

    This is a revealing exercise to have with any product and social folks. What do others think about how to share stories as a whole with or without commentary, or pieces of stories (images, quotes, memes)? This is a tactical enough question that some good answers may inspire a new project or way of thinking.

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Elite Truong is on the Vox Products team. She writes monthly about innovation for Poynter.
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