Where Are All the Ed-Ex Designers?

There’s a small but meaningful number of really, really good user experience designers in the world. I’m talking about the sort of individuals who can create a highly effective, truly immersive architecture around the way real users interact with software — and who have the skills and wherewithal to roll up their sleeves and get it done. Those types are not abundant, but they’re not uncommon either.

There’s also a reasonable number of really, really good editorial designers in the world, thanks to decades of publishing tradition and best practices. I’m talking about designers who know how to enhance and even maximize an audience’s understanding of published content. They’re comfortable working with writers and editors to help shape what we read, and they create unique value out of the combination of the written word and graphic language. Even given recent difficulties in the publishing industry, there are still lots of these people out there.

But there are very few designers who have both of these skill sets.


One or the Other

I would guess that there are less than a few dozen people in the world who can create superb software for editorial products, who can combine the holistic, systems-level thinking of UX with the incisive storytelling instincts of editorial design. I’m not even talking about a designer who can ‘do both,’ who can create a great digital publication one day and then create a great print publication another day. There are almost assuredly even fewer of those in the world, if any.

Instead, I’m talking about the kind of person who can build a great digital product out of great editorial content, a difficult enough challenge on its own. For lack of a better term, I call them editorial experience (or ‘ed-ex’) designers. A few of them include Marcos Weskamp from Flipboard, Oliver Reichenstein from iA, Ian Adelman from NYTimes.com, and the now-independent Mark Porter, formerly of The Guardian. There are more names than just these of course, but not very many.

Help Wanted

And yet, the demand for this singular combination of talents is high. Magazines may be on the decline, but in the digital world there’s more publishing going on than ever, both from newer independent sources and well-established publications. At least three job openings — two at brand name publishers, one at a new startup — have been mentioned to me in just the past week by employers looking for referrals to possible candidates. And it wasn’t all that unusual a week, to be honest. Everyone is looking for good editorial experience designers, but there are very few qualified people that I can name, much less recommend.

I’ve been doing a little thinking about why this is. In the past I’ve written and lectured about the idea that we’re leaving an era where design operates in the narrative mode, in which its fundamental purpose is to create canonical, highly controlled visual stories. We’re now in an era — the digital era — where the new paradigm is designing for behavior: creating stateful systems that are responsive to user inputs and environmental inputs, where presentation is not just separated from content, but where presentation is volatile and continually changing by nature.

These two modes of thinking are so different and even so in conflict with one another that to find a nexus between them is very difficult. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” and that, more or less, is what’s required to be a great editorial experience designer. You must understand users and their expectations, and you must also understand authors and their expectations, and somehow, by hook or by crook, you must reconcile these wildly divergent worldviews into a single, coherent whole that looks and feels effortless.

This requirement that one should possess a kind of harmonized schizophrenia is also the reason why we can’t easily turn many editorial designers out there into editorial experience designers, as convenient as that might be. We tried this on several occasions while I was at The New York Times, and the results were dissatisfying at best. The levels of both technical understanding and user empathy required to create software made for too big of a hill to climb for those accustomed to the print designer’s prerogative of unilaterally deciding what a user gets to see or do. It was fun for no one involved.

The Children Are Our Future

There has to be a solution here, though, because the need for editorial experience designers is not going down, it’s going up, and the law of markets dictates that such a vacuum is unsustainable. These job openings will be filled soon, whether or not the people hired are truly good ed-ex designers. We’ve already seen plenty of bad ed-ex design in the form of the current crop of magazine apps for the iPad, and we’ll probably see even more as the drought in this kind of talent continues.

So where will we find truly superb editorial experience designers to fill these positions, both today and in the future? In spite of my lackluster experiences in the past trying to convert print designers to digital, I still hold out some hope for finding some great digital talent among great editorial designers in print. It would be phenomenal to see what kind of digital experiences a young print designer like Francesco Franchi could create, for instance, if he fully embraced the new paradigm. In any event youth is most likely the key. Young designers who possess an open mind, a respect for the best traditions of both user experience design and editorial design, and a healthy disregard for the dogmas of both are the ones most likely to succeed in editorial experience design. Those who think of publications as digital things first have the advantage over those who think of publications as print things that merely get translated into digital things. It may just take a while before there are enough of the former to go around.

+

26 Comments

  1. Ed-ex! That’s a great term for a skill set that has been relatively intangible in the past. I’m glad I heard it from you. I’ll likely irritate my friends and co-workers for weeks now using it.

    I’d be curious to know what avenues you think a person who wants to move into this field might take. I’ve been very interested in it – passionate actually – for quite some time now but the conflict you mention is certainly a hurdle.

  2. Good read Khoi,

    Keeping that narrative mode on a digital platform is something I really work hard to embrace with the iPad. I think overall, the transition is rough even with the youth because a lot of design students are still being taught old ways, but that’s quickly changing. I mean I was in college not too long ago and there was a lot of emphasis on print design and little on digital. I wrote about my experience with transitions to the iPad for Gym Class Magazine recently: link

    I talk to a lot of designers that have great ideas for digital but all they know is InDesign and so they have a hard time figuring out interaction that way. The more people I get to convert to actually writing native apps, the more they seem to really understand interaction better which in part is why I started this Kickstarter campaign: link

    Sorry if it feels like I’m promoting, I really am not trying I just felt they fit in the conversation, feel free delete the links. Again great post as usual.

  3. I suggest shortening it to EdX. ;)

    Seriously, though. You’ve very concisely put into words the core reason why there are so many generally underwhelming news/magazine apps (or sites) available today.

    Yes, there was the problem of, as @gruber said, “location, location, location” and it has been solved with Newsstand on iOS 5.

    But aside from people not really knowing where to find/collect/store their digital issues of newspapers and magazines, we have yet to see a real piece of innovation in this domain. Some have tried.

    But it does start with the people who can envision and then produce a great editorial experience in the digital age.

    Enough said – I guess you can sum this up with: “I agree.”

  4. Thank you for expressing these thoughts, Khoi.

    I feel I am likely one of the few who fits exactly into your description in the final few sentences. Although, I don’t think I am doing superb work just yet (I certainly want to).

    While I work on a daily basis as a photographer for the newspaper’s recently launched weekly community publication, I also am taking the initiative to use my design experience to bring some fresh thinking to the newsroom. Even if it means working unpaid overtime.

    It is difficult working at a newspaper that is owned by a chain that has centralized our web design and development outside of the newsroom. We don’t have anyone dedicated to the web here (aside from those who publish content) – and the chain has a ‘digital first’ strategy!

    For instance, we are in the midst of a provincial election campaign and I put together a table of the various party platforms, using code shared by another paper in the chain. It is very useful to illustrate for our readers where each party stands on various issues. It can influence how they vote. Trying to get it online is a headache, with all the red-tape involved outside of the newsroom. The bureaucracy is not concerned enough with our reader’s interests.

    It is difficult to create meaningful ed-ex work in this sort of environment, which might make it difficult for me to move on to a publication that values meaningful ed-ex work.

    On the flip side, my editors here are very supportive in utilizing my knowledge, that as you say, is without dogma. I am writing (and illustrating) the digital strategy for our community publication, which will get our journalists more involved in the social media space where we can hopefully gain more control (yay, Tumblr) over publishing than with our actual website. We might even be able to generate additional revenue.

    The revolution starts at the bottom.

  5. Times have changed. A traditional web designer (if that exists) is probanly not the perefect candidate for redesigning a news Web site. And a print-focused is not, too.
    During university I was fully into dataviz and editorial design for print. But while working for a corporate publishing company for the last 2 years I switch to anything that works on screen. Maybe you perefctly described my job (sure, not on such a high level *humble*l) and I see a dramatic demand for specialists in the profession. Also and especially in the corporate area. Companies have been publishing their employee and customer magazines for years or even decades. But now, the try to find solutions that fit to peoples new media consumption behaviour.
    Exciting times and definitly a great chance for EdX professionals!

  6. I might consider that the demand is still really low, and when it inevitably increases, so will the crop of talent to supply it. I think a lot of us do possess the ed-ex talent, but that brief isn’t exactly coming across our desk yet. I wanted to immediately say this was an age thing, but then I quickly thought of all the “older” designers that I have high confidence could slay an ed-ex requirement.

  7. Take a step back from the iPad, in terms of editorial design for web, not many organizations do a great job of it.

    All these ESPN “E-Ticket” stories are wonderfully designed:
    http://search.espn.go.com/eticket/e-tickets/12

    Missouri University’s “Illumination” magazine is always a joy. The feature stories are crafted with care: http://illumination.missouri.edu/s10/
    (many more here: http://illumination.missouri.edu/archive)

    And this video, Jason Santamaria’s take on the state of editorial design is a worth a watch as well: http://vimeo.com/groups/11541/videos/4394152

    Great post.

  8. Makes total sense. To make effective content, one needs to always maintain a sense of how the user moves through it.

    I work in the field of educational content, so the branding initially meant something else to me, but I’m with you.

  9. Thanks for this thoughtful piece Khoi, it really hit home for me. The industry is making so many decisions based upon fear and lack of funding – that the idea of actually reinventing a medium doesn’t become a part of the conversation. I just finished designing my third magazine app (coming from traditional print @ the Times I might add) and I can tell you that not one of the publications I have designed at gives a flying fig about good design, ONLY their bottom line and does it look exactly like the print magazine. Are there exceptions? I hope so…. I’ll keep looking.

  10. The shortage of talent who can span both worlds is, I’m sure, in part because a lot of people like myself were driven away from newspapers in the early days of the Internet. While my “new media” team at the paper I worked at was very supportive, we were definitely no more than a footnote to the paper itself.

    While I know it’s a much different landscape now than ten (or more) years ago, I found a lot more opportunity after switching to a purely digital environment for subsequent jobs. So while the young today are definitely the future, papers played quite a large part in discouraging yesterday’s young talent.

  11. Nice post, and a topic that I’ve fretted over for a long, long time now.

    A question for the sake of argument: Why not concentrate more on the current crop of “born digital” designers coming into the interactive field and train them in some of the elements of traditional print editorial after they fact? My experience both as a designer who started with pixels and as a design manager who had to bring staffers like this up to speed was that it was easier to start with the seemingly more elastic mindset and then intelligently (and selectively) familiarize it with the strictures of the older discipline.

  12. Your thoughts mirror the many that seem to be swirling amongst those of us working in this emerging area. But I think you’re mistaking the scales (my best Eames reference) at which different designers work as saying some don’t do it at all.

    To say that print editorial designers don’t design for behavior is, I think, selling the medium short. Magazines and newspapers have had over a century of iteration to reach something that most of us commonly accept: Table of Contents, Front Matter, Features, Back Matter—we know how these work in a magazine (I come from book publishing, so I apologize for butchering the real names of these sections in magazines). We skip to the middle if we are looking for the longform meat. We skip that layer of ad cruft in the beginning trying to find the TOC. Those behaviors are engrained—I somehow doubt they were naturally occurring.

    When a studio like Mark Porter or Pentagram redesigns a magazine, they work on that systems level. They reformat the TOC, they alter they restructure the front matter (sometimes branding, sometimes the usage). They rarely move outside the bounds of what previously existed (when they do, its either heralded or scoffed at).

    The designers that often craft the narrative designs aren’t the ones that do the behavioral, systems level design. The systems level designers might set up the grid or prepare the first issue with test examples, but its often handed over to an editorial team that then designs baed on context and content. Systems level designers need to understand both levels to make a magazine that works, but that’s not to say

    Right now us digital ed-exer’s are struggling because we’re lacking in all of the above. We don’t have an agreed upon solution. We don’t even have an agreed upon technical system—we likely won’t, ever.

    That means the systems level design is moving up and down the scales—we need someone who can think about the individual digital magazine/newspaper solution (flexible grid, expandable sections, perhaps including some interactions, etc.) but we also need people on the next level up (cloud-based services, social layers, creation platforms, high-level interactions) and down (we do, in fact *need* narrative designers—smart ones who can see where the context matters, and where the flexibility across reading devices should be emphasized). That’s very likely not just one person (Porter had to use both the Guardian and BERG to get the Guardian iPad app done) but perhaps three smart and collaborative people/companies that recognize how important each role is to the whole thing.

  13. Perhaps the reason that so few of these designers exist is because content companies are not training designers to do the job. How many of the companies looking to fill these slots are willing to hire a team of designers and pay for training and experimentation? UX design is a new field, and people who have had time to dedicate themselves to it probably have not had much time to dedicate to editorial design. Likewise, anyone doing well in today’s editorial design world probably has little spare time for UX projects. If content providers want the next generation of great designers in their offices, they need to start funding grad programs and design labs instead of expecting gurus to manifest.

    Peter Cappelli discussed this topic earlier this week with his Wall Street Journal article “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need”. Go over to WSJ and give it a read.

  14. Stunning post Khoi.

    I have been walking in the direction you describe, and having a name to go by and annoy the classic UX people will be great.

    Like Derrick I think you may be selling the print medium short or what I perceive as true designers short. I believe that any kind of communication has to be read and understood and simply reflecting upon those concepts can yield a base to enter into UX, of course, then there are also the technical and economics constraints to add in the mix.

    Digital communication tends to propitiate digital narratives, and this concept may be key to demystifying the entire role. First narrative has been a part of lexical of digital agencies and secondly, just on rare occasions has editorial design been seen as a narrative/dialogue with the user.

    I guess my point is that the market/workplace needs to change so that more ed-ex may rise to the occasion.
    And saying the market needs to change, also includes the way UX is working right now. The impression I have of it is of an octopus ever expanding on traditional design thinking by offering user research and analysis as a clear path for the client to commit on.

    My knowledge on these matters may be still shortsighted — having four years of marketplace in a sideline country — but I think the market and designers need to change for the time of ed-ex to come.

  15. I think Derrick has a point. The last project I did was an app for Port Magazine and it was really just three of us working on it. The magazine did what they needed to get the print version done, then the three of us took that content and rethought it for the iPad. The duties split up into one focused on content, the other on design, and I focused on interaction and coded it. I would say looking forward that was a perfect way to work on an app. We had the support of the magazine but the freedom to think up new ideas.

  16. Thanks for bringing this up. Could not agree more with you that the demand will soon be rised, yet the supply is still very low.

    Btw, have you tried Our Choice (Al Gore) for iPad, published by Pushpoppress.com? Not a perfect example (the multimedia somehow distracting the reading flow), but it’s already on the right track.

  17. The reason in my humble opinion is very simple; most designers want to be celebrated for their creativity (or become the next sagmeister or Lee Clow / they didn’t get into the industry to think about user flows and what the user wants, they want to make cool looking shit and get drunk *abit of a generalization but I think it’s a realistic one*) and advance their careers by winning awards. Those who want to become digital creative directors (where the ‘assured financial gains’ are) don’t want to be labelled with the stigma of being a ‘information designer’ as that is often relegated as ‘production work’. They want to be at the center of the action pertaining to pitching and winning awards and becoming famous, thus here are some factors why it is unlikely for most creatives to pursue this path:

    1) Good visual sense:

    Enough to create mock-ups that do not move. Because well, let’s face it, with thinning budgets most of the ‘coding’ work is farmed out to small digital sweatshops both locally and abroad. Clients pay for the ‘big idea’ and ‘lead agency of reference fees’, and agency management promptly sees where they can reduce costs. Spending on quality coding or staffing that can help make that happen is not exactly a priority. Let’s face it if a coder were that good they’ve be working at facebook, google or some top gaming company where they will be celebrated. The risk of spending a significant portion of your life trial and testing an app that might fail is of little appeal to the majority.

    1) Networking and presentation skills

    People who are ambitious won’t stay long enough in a single agency or design studio to sweat it out in the trenches of ‘studying new applications’. They will focus on winning the biggest campaign driven work. The entire industry has been built upon the concept of rising to the top ASAP, and you do that by moving through a string of brand name agencies and jumping 45 degrees up whenever possible. Understand user experience? bah! that’s for the content engineers and code monkeys, I just want my next piece of metal!

    3) ED-EX is actually two jobs

    nobody wants to do double the work, for a single pay cheque, they they could be an interactive art director… so part of it could be for financial reasons, and part of it is just because people are just too damn streetsmart…

    just my 2 cents overall…

  18. The age old adage of the right language for the right idea comes to mind with this post.

    Printed editorial content is already shaped into a well known predefined format. Text and pictures slotted onto a grid (flexible placement or rigid). This form of language is the most natural for condensing a lot of info into a handy printed publication.

    The tablet is a complete departure from this format and is going to take time before the common user starts to build expectations of what they can do with it. Thus digital editorial content has to be spoken and translated by those new expectations. The language has to fit those expectations, and many questions must now be asked about how the idea of a feature can be translated to a socially interactive form.

    Does a digital magazine have to use words? The tablet lends itself more to video than pages. Narratives should be animated, so it seems more sense to me to engage with film production units, directors, producers etc and tap into their principles rather than traditional editorial designers who have been trained to think in terms of static dictated hierarchy.

  19. I think this largely relates to how we’re wired. A dichotomy between how visual thinkers and verbal thinkers process information might explain why so few can successfully combine both skillsets required for such a role. For more details, refer to Gerald Grow’s article on the subject : link

    Not to say impossible, but I believe this difference in preferred mode of thought in such a fundamental way certainly contributes to the gap you’re drawing attention to.

    But I also think a plea needs to be made for a better understanding of the thinking processess that produce these sort of gaps in order to adapt future methodologies to adress the mindset needed for a ed-ex role. Would you agree ?

  20. Sounds like you’re looking for an ‘elite’ of UX (or Ed-eX) design that doesn’t, as yet, exist. I think it’s for the best that there are no UX superstars (that we know by name at least). A UX designer is someone who needs to truly empathize with a user so they can first understand the tendencies and then take them to a better place. IMHO I think UI designers who have this trait tend not to be the hyped or glamorized ones. UI designers are more on the art side and there is a kind of taste and subjectivity that often will distinguish many into ‘stars’ when they strike the right note. What I’m saying is that it’s possible that “designer” is a word that alienates many without a design background who have the potential to be great at UX or Ed-EX.

    Another counterpoint I’d add is to look in small places for these UX pros. In my own experience working for myself with a partner of our small design studio I can testify that deep UX happened when it needed to happen. Not because we had the ‘stars’ but simply because it needed to happen for certain clients and we rose to that challenge. So I’m just advocating that you could probably find what you’re looking for in small studios that are used to wearing numerous hats and have intimate understanding of the UX/UI/Design and Development process because of sheer necessity. I think in larger organizations people go into their silos and growth doesn’t happen as fast.

  21. The dialectic here, which Khoi nailed, is between the “authored, master story” vs the “interactive system”.

    First, it’s worth noting that that conflict plays out beyond the realm of print vs. digital; Donahue app is a perfect example of it with presentations.

    Second, different kinds of content are going to warrant different levels of authorial control. That’s why I agree with Derrick that modern day narrative designers need to know not only how to create a good story/context but also when that’s worth doing, as it will often come at the expense of user control and flexibility.

    Finally, I don’t think these two things are completely in conflict when it comes to handling environmental inputs (e.g. in responsive design); with better tools, I think it will be possible to craft a great story for every environment, without having to do exponentially more work…but that’s another discussion.

  22. I’m thrilled to see this on the radar, but it’s a two-way street. If you were someone with both a UX and editorial design background, where would you even begin to look?

  23. Indeed, it is very difficult to find someone with that skill set and I am saying this based on personal experience of trying to build my own digital magazine. http://www.fivefootway.com

    I think web editorial hasn’t been explored enough and I’m a firm believer that html5 & better browsers will open up a whole world for a new breed of digital publications. These won’t be blogs as we know it today, nor are they apps, just good,well designed websites focusing on content. And like you said, the demand for these “ed-ex” will rise.

    Yes, there is a vacumm and at the moment, my editorial meetings comprise of me, the editor-in-chief with the overall vision and an appreciation for “Ed-Ex” to direct discussions, one editor who focuses on the content, one editorial designer to suggest ways to enhance story-telling and a coder/developer to explore the technical possibilities. Now consider the possibilities of having this Ed-Ex person in the team. Boom! we could be going a lot of new places with the magazine.

    At the moment we try to design every article specific to the story that needs to be told (a nod to jasonsantamaria’s experiments on his blog) but with tight datelines and even tighter budgets, it is truly a challenge to get to that level.

    Lastly, if anyone knows of this elusive Ed-Ex person, please tell me. I need that person in my team.

  24. Great post – and I think Derrick Schultz‘s comment describes much of my experience of working in this area.

    I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated on a recent project about the deficiencies in ‘traditional’ UX process when it comes to this form of design. UX processes are successfully proven at rationalising abstract OS-level interactions, but with tablets & smartphones we’ve suddenly swapped to a model of directly interacting with content. User testing visible header hierarchies and button orders are important, but they’re totally peripheral to the main design concern of how to make the actual content inviting and compelling.

    From my perspective, the ‘Ed-Ex’ role looks more like a re-appropriation of the term ‘Information Architect’ away from technical library science and back to the Kenya Hara/Oliver Reichenstein usage of the term – combining systems-thinking with a strict awareness and management of the ‘tactility’ of the information experience.