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Content design at its best

By Melissa

The New York Times’ 24 May front page is an example of great content design, published when readers needed it most.

On Sunday 24 May The New York Times’ front page was simple and sombre – no articles, graphics or photos; instead a list of the names of people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic.

This was clever content design at its best – a clear demonstration that, as the US Covid-19 death toll approached 100,000 people, the NYTimes editorial team understood what their audience wanted, and timed and presented content to meet their expectations.

Content design – what is it

In her book Content Design, Sarah Richards noted that content design is:

“…about using data and evidence to give the audience what they need, at the time they need it and in a way they expect.”

We think that the NYT team of researchers, graphics experts and editors have achieved exactly that.

Know your audience using data and research

With the 100,000-deaths milestone approaching, the team knew that people were trying to reckon with that number. They also knew that their readers were suffering from ‘data fatigue’ – a growing aversion to the infection curve, deaths data and depicting the deaths of real people as anonymous statistics.

The aim was to somehow pay tribute to individuals while acknowledging a major collective milestone and what it means for the USA as a country.

Choose the right words – speak their language

Using the language of the reader when you are creating content will help your audience – the audience that really values it - find it.

Finding the right words to talk about someone who has died is never easy. The NYTimes team decided they would use the words of the people who were closest to the person who died. Their researcher looked through hundreds of different newspapers and sources for obituaries and death notices that mentioned Covid-19. They then took that obituary content, as written by a friend or family member, and chose phrases that summed up each life. The short descriptions are as diverse as the people they describe:
The descriptions also confirmed that Covid-19 does not discriminate.

  • ‘nurse planning for retirement’
  • ‘pilot still teaching people to fly at 88’
  • ‘loyal and generous friend to many’
  • ‘could make anything grow’
  • ‘jazz pianist and patriarch of a family of musicians’.

Creating consistent content across channels

Readers expect ‘anytime access’ to content and tend to use more than one channel (newspaper at breakfast, mobile on the train, desktop in your lunchbreak, social media whenever). Creating consistent messages across these channels is important – it helps users to understand and follow a thread e.g. from a social media post to a longer article on a website.

The NYT team created the 100,000-deaths milestone content for print, website and social media channels, adapting it to each platform. While the print version was a text-only list, the digital version of the list was interactive. Users scrolled down a timeline that plotted a person’s name on the date they died. Tiny graphic figures gave a sense of scale to the numbers. And an accompanying essay pondered the enormity of what was happening and how confused people were feeling about the virus making us revise everything that we understood about being social creatures, helping others, death and mourning.

Investing in quality content

So if we as content creators do all of this, how do we know if that content will be effective? It depends on your goal. When you become clear about the ‘why’ of your content you can set yourself targets and track your data to see if you meet those goals. Do you want to sell more papers? Move more product? Attract people to use your services? Being strategic about the content you choose to create and publish makes all the difference.

Talk to us about how we can work with you to bring content design principles to your content creation. Better still, hire us as your content design experts!

See it for yourself: An incalculable loss 24 May nytimes