Off the Hoof

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Running with the Watchdogs: Redesigning ProPublica

Click to see the old ProPublica site
Click to see the new ProPublica site

We love good journalism and hate unchecked abuses of power, so we were excited and honored to collaborate with ProPublica on their website redesign.

In the absence of accountability, the powerful can exploit the weak, betray the public trust, and cause great harm that never comes to light. Although many people catch Bieber Fever sooner than they seek out investigative reporting, we live in a better world because reporters dig through heaps of data and pursue stories to their end, bringing wrongdoing to light.

The traditional newspaper business is in decline, all forms of publishing are in transition, so journalism needs new models and new forms.

ProPublica is one of those new forms—an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. They started in just 2008, and earlier this year they won a Pulitzer Prize, the first online-only source to do so.

The stated goals of the redesign were common to many of our projects: improve the overall experience, guide a diverse group of readers through the information, create a flexible structure for all of the different types of content, engage visitors in the mission.

The site had grown organically over its two year history, driven by traditional investigations and the development of innovative news applications. New visitors might come from anywhere and land on any page with no context and no knowledge of ProPublica. Our challenge lay in comprehending the operations of the organization, their vision for the future, and all of the myriad interwoven forms accountability journalism could take online. Establishing credibility and creating contextual paths were paramount.

The Process

We began our work in New York City on the coldest, shortest days of the year. We interviewed the leadership, the reporters, and many of the staff. We attended their holiday pizza party. We sat down with the core redesign team and analyzed every aspect of ProPublica’s website and workings. We took a deep look at other organizations tackling traditional and new models of publishing and reporting. We spoke with representative readers, including policy advisors and community journalists.

We tried to extract everything ProPublica had learned through their work and we interrogated every decision they’d made, certain they would return the favor during later phases of the work.

Designers don’t talk about this much—possibly because we like to take all the credit when things go well—but we’ve found again and again that the level of commitment and focus a client team brings to a project has a defining impact on the quality of the design work.

Everyone likes to talk about the iterative, collaborative process, producing ever better artifacts. To achieve this we need thoughtful input and feedback at every step. This is a lot of work, especially when you also have a day job. The ProPublica team was fully committed in this regard. We were privileged to have the highest level of engagement throughout the project, from people who also had a top-notch, totally innovative news organization to run.

Working closely with the ProPublica team, we identified the key story types and their constituent parts. In doing so, we unearthed a lot of complexity. Content types were defined as much by their relationship to one another as by their core elements. We defined a set of navigation systems based on context rather than hierarchy to orient readers in the stories, create the right expectations, and present opportunities for exploration.

Over the course of the project, we had a lot of the best sorts of arguments—the arguments that arise when everyone wants to make sure we are moving towards the very best balance of business goals, audience needs, and aesthetic choices.

We looked at how investigations evolved, whether they started with an assertion or a dataset, so that we could create containers and paths that maintained contextual relationships for readers no matter at what point they first encountered the story. We moved away from broad topics that failed to reflect the true publishing priorities of the organization, despite their naive appeal as an organizing principle. We worked towards a more data-driven future, creating a home for interactive tools and infographics. This offers another way for concerned citizens and policy makers to explore evolving stories and a starting point for journalists and community members researching their own.

From a visual branding perspective, we knew that ProPublica wanted to stay with some key identity elements, the magnifying glass and the color blue. Working from these, we created a more sophisticated visual system that reflected the quality of the journalism, and that the ProPublica team could continue to apply and extend given their anticipated resources.

Typography is perhaps no more critical anywhere than in the publication of news, so we were very pleased that TypeKit had come along. The ProPublica site features Meta Serif.

Finally, we got down into the details, looking at every possible case, to ensure we were truly defining a system that would serve ProPublica long after our daily involvement concluded, rather than a series of appealing one-offs. Our work continued through the implementation, working with ProPublica’s immensely talented internal technical team, and the excellent developers at Solspace.

In sum, the project was a complete pleasure and we are excited to see where ProPublica takes it from here.

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