Visual journalism: Explaining the complicated

Kategori: English-articles

One of the NRK’s many illustration from the US presidential election Illustration: Marco Vaglieri / NRK

See how the Norwegian Broadcasting and other international media brands work with videos and articles that explains the complicated stories.

  • What is it with the brits and EU?
  • How did USA end up with these two presidential candidates?
  • And why did Trump win?
  • Is the world really less peaceful now?
  • Why did a village in Norway say no to receiving asylum seekers?

Questions like these are brilliant raw material for so called explainers.

Drowning in an endless stream of headlines, posts, snaps and tweets, containing more or less verifiable facts, we all have a need for making sense of the world.

An explainer can be a short video explaining visually a case or a story, it can be an interactive visual module or an online news article with active use of graphics, photographs or illustrations. All of them is visual journalism making the complicated easier to understand, giving background insight.

You might have seen some of these explainer videos published during 2016:

What is the deal with the brits and the EU? [Norwegian]

The British referendum on staying or leaving EU left many confused. NRK Urix (foreign affairs) explains the history leading up to the event some time before it happened. Designers: Marius Lübbe og Christoffer Holm.

Why red and blue in the American election-video? [Norwegian]

Why are the Democrats blue and the Republicans red? And what is it with the donkey and the elephant? NRK Urix explains. Designer: Ellen Ulriksen


Recently, NRK Graphic Design hosted the BIG conference (Broadcast Information Graphics), with participants and contributors from SVT, DR, BBC, Vox Media, Roll Call, NRK and Grafill.

The agenda was set for Social Media and explainers, with graphic designers sharing experiences and insights about explaining the complicated.

The future is off platform

”Complicated” is a word pretty much describing the political landscape after the American Presidential Election, and both Yuri Victor and Kris Viesselman starting the BIG conference with a workshop on visual journalism seemed a bit daunted by the recent event.

Yuri Victor is an information graphics designer, engineer and journalist in Vox Media, and Kris Viesselman is Vice President and top editor in Roll Call, a political newspaper located a couple of blocks from Capitol Hill in Washington.

Participants from BBC, SVT, DR, NRK and Grafill worked intensely in the facilities of Grafill (the Norwegian Graphic designers’ and Illustrators’ organization) for a day. Yuri and Kris stressed the need for treating content with a good eye sight for multi platform and multi functional publishing. – Good storytelling can happen everywhere: across all brands and plattforms.

In Vox Media, designers, journalists, engineers, developers and product managers are working across all the Vox Media’ brands. They listen to their audience, improve their stories, tools and brands, and now they have become one of the largest political sites in the US.

All without spending any money on marketing: living proof that the best marketing is good storytelling.

Yuri Victor fra Vox Media setter i gang BIG workshop med idédrodling.
Yuri Victor from Vox Media starts off the BIG workshop.

Visual journalism gives Roll Call an advantage

Kris Viesselman stresses the importance of knowing your brand and sticking to it. At Roll Call they have visual journalism and design thinking at the core of all they do.

According to Kris this give them an advantage in a crowded media market; allowing them to create meaningful stories that engage their users and strengthen their brand.

Kris Viesselman snakker om Roll Call og visuell journalistikk.
Kris Viesselmann talking about Roll Call and visual journalism.

Kris shared her own story with Roll Call, showing just how powerful a mix of design and journalism can be. Roll Call used to be a text heavy home page with no interaction.

Kris took on changing this by redesigning their web site into a dynamic site with moveable and scalable components; each case having a powerful visual piece. During the process she happened to become their top editor and Vice President.

One key change they have done, is creating a data reporting team and also a video team. The workflow and quality is taken care of by a staff of photographers, graphic designers and videographers. They also have a political cartoonist when they want to add a sting to their stories.

From pie charts to storytelling

Public broadcasters theses days are also familiar with change. The foreign affairs desk at NRK, Urix, was in the process of changing their broadcast format when a graphic designer turned up at the beginning of 2016.

Data showed that younger audiences discarded traditional linear TV, so Project Manager Tore Moland knew he had to adjust. Believing graphic designers mostly make pie charts, Tore was in for a surprise when designer Marius Lübbe created an explainer video for a themed broadcast on hunger. It was a success as a promotional piece, and it communicated really well in social media.

Watch this powerful exploration into why so many people in the world die of hunger – one of the most popular explainers from the NRK to date. Designer: Marius Lübbe.

Encouraged by the same data showing that younger audiences prefer quick and visual explanations, they put more energy into developing these explainers.

By the end of the summer they had a new product: ”Urix explains” (foreign affairs explained) and a new work flow with several teams of journalists, designers and photographers/editors collaborating. After a two week period they came up with 31 ideas, where 30 were produced. The one left out was the story about the first female American president being elected…

The designers now work directly on content building stories; thinking and working as journalists. The explainer videos also found their way into linear broadcasts as well as working as promotional spots.

How does Vladimir Putin perceive the world? NRK Urix explains how it would be if we saw the world from a Russian perspective. Designer: Marius Lübbe

The designers from NRK, SVT, DR and BBC all describe a shift from graphic designers being an intake desk to graphic designers playing an equal role with journalists, developers and videographers in developing stories in teams.

In BBC’s Broadcasting House centrally in London, the Graphics department has become part of the visual journalism team.

– The visual journalism structure has allowed more cooperation and sharing of resources between TV and online, motion designer Zoe Bartholomew and editorial designer Salim Qurashi says, sharing their transitional journey

New formats needs new look and a strong brand

The need for treating the mother broadcaster brand in a coherent way on digital platforms is common for all the participating broadcasters at the BIG conference.

Paula Thompson, Design Director of BBC Visual Journalism states that digital ready content needs a digital ready brand.

Designretningslinjer og maler for det vertikale videoformatet skal styrke BBC News merkevaren i sosiale medier. Illustrasjon: BBC
Design guidelines and templates for the BBC vertical video format, strengthening the BBC News brand in social media news feeds. Illustration: BBC

Digital video teams are popping up across BBC News. There has up until now been free experimentation with branding treatment, text effects, fonts and colours, making it difficult to distinguish a BBC News video in social media news feeds.

This has presented an opportunity of standardizing a visual language for digital videos for BBC News. It has resulted in design for an easy-to-consume and engaging vertical format ”videos of the day” service. The vertical format will also shape the BBC Stories due to being released these days, presenting current affairs with a more personal and immersive touch.

Both in depth serious and fast and funny

In his session during the BIG conference, Yuri states that there has been a shift during the last four years. Information graphics used to be complex and difficult to grasp. – You had to be a trained designer to understand it. These days both explainer videos and visual, digital stories are much more intuitive and user friendly.

NRK Graphic Design has initiated work on explainer videos for the past five years, mainly for elections and climate change issues. Kristin Tryti, responsible for motion information graphics in NRK Graphic Design and Project Manager for BIG, says that the designers’ frame of mind is brilliant when complicated matters need explaining.
The drive to understand matched with finely tuned skills in pacing, rhythm, transitions, use of colour, motion and composition is a good match with the storytelling skills of the journalists and photographers/videographers.

Where explainer videos are short moving stories for fast insight, the conference participants also create stories for in depth insight. This is NRK’s Digital Story Development team’s main focus. Kristin Breivik and Mari Grafsrønningen describe how they work closely with journalists on each story, making sure the overall user experience is good, and that infograhipcs are used to enhance the stories and underline main points in the storyline.

The digital story developers create interactive modules, infographics, quizzes and other tools for two main formats: news articles and feature articles. In addition to this, they develop new story formats, like the visual cardstacks.

De digitale historiefortellerne I NRK skapte en vertikal historiefortellingsmodul til historien om bygda som sa nei til å ha et asylmottak. Se historien her. Design og utvikling: Kari Anne G. Andersen, Marius Lundgård, Vidar Kvien.
The digital story developers in NRK created a vertical storytelling module for the story about a village coming to terms with having a reception centre for asylum seekers. See the story in english here. Design og development: Kari Anne G. Andersen, Marius Lundgård, Vidar Kvien.

The first story in the visual cardstack format was The village that said no. This is a prize winning story about villagers saying no to receiving asylum seekers, a ground breaker in visual journalism in NRK, using vertical image and video format for the first time.

The story relies on powerful photographs and videos with focused text, working on all platforms, but mainly on mobile phones. The story reached a wide audience and was a big eye opener for journalists in NRK.

DR regularly publish stories in their web documentary format.

Webdok teamet i DR bruker både video, GIF-animationer, bilder, grafikk og tekst i webdok-formatet. Se historien her. Foto, tekst og video: Betina Garcia.
The webdoc team in DR uses both video, GIF-animations, photos, graphics and text for their webdoc format. See the full story here. Photo, text and video: Betina Garcia.

The web documentary is a long format story/experience based on current events.

DR discovered that these stories create three to five times as long engagement as ordinary online articles, and people love them, says Christian Kromann, editor of Web and Mobile.

Kristin and Mari at the NRK states that user satisfaction went through the roof when slow TV met the farm house in ”Cow watching week”, with the most popular content being the ”shit cam” – the camera attached to the floor mopping robot.

NRK quizen ”Kunne du vært president i USA” var kjempepopulær. Designer: Marco Vaglieri.
The NRK’s ”Could you be the US president-quiz” was a huge success. Designer: Marco Vaglieri.

Focusing on humour always create good shareability. Humour was an important ingredient in their quiz ”Should you be a president?”, where they monitored user data and changed content in order to maximize shareability.

In the danish public broadcaster DR, they created a story about the American presidential race where they in addition to humour used the looks of a computer game to explain the emergence of the two presidential candidates.

I DR fortalte de historien om de to amerikanske presidentkandidatene på en ny måte. Design: Mads Rafte Hein.
In DR, they told the story about the two American presidential candidates in a less predictable way. Design: Mads Rafte Hein.

The recently started SVT News Video desk are no stranger to humour as a storytelling tool either. Team leader Tove Hanell and graphic artist Kalle Fürst say that finding the right tone of voice and visual expression for the explainer video format is an all-consuming process, and there has been a lot of research and experimentation.

Her er den svenske arverekkefølgen forklart på en fargerik måte. Designer: Kalle Fürst.
Here is the swedish royal hereditary succession explained, in a colourful way. Designer: Kalle Fürst.

Burn out alone or sparkle together!

Two days conference and one day workshop with designers sharing experiences on explaining the complicated can be concluded in a very simple phrase:

Launch cool stuff with cool people!

Yuri Victor fra Vox Media med et budskap om å skape kule visuelle historier sammen.
Yuri Victor from Vox Media with a message of creating desireable visual stories together.

Yuri Victor from Vox Media continues:

– Get close to your audience and stories and create brands that people love, he says.

– Let important activity come from cross discipline teams having fun, building shared experiences; collaborate from inside out.

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