When I first mentioned to a friend that I had decided to pursue the next stage in my career, her initial reaction was to assume that I’m embarking on a new startup to build perhaps “something Ajax-y and Web 2.0-y.” It’s a reasonable guess given the current trend of designers turning into online entrepreneurs, but I’m actually doing something that you might say runs completely contrary to that: going on-staff inside a huge company whose roots reach back into the 19th century.
In a few weeks, I’ll be starting work at The New York Times as the Design Director for NYTimes.com. I’ll be heading up their staff of Web designers, helping to bring new improvements and features to the Gray Lady’s formidable online presence, and also working to define the role that design will play in the paper’s increasingly digital future.
The Long Goodbye
It’s a huge change from Behavior, obviously, and in truth, it’s not something I proactively sought. Through the grapevine of design professionals, I had been vaguely aware that the Times had been looking to fill this position for quite some time, but I had never seriously considered going out for the job. For four years, I’ve been focused intently on making Behavior a success, and so any opportunity that didn’t expressly support that drive never registered particularly strongly on my radar.
But, through a network of professional connections, I was put in touch with the design and editorial management team at the Times this past October, and we began a series of conversations in which I felt duty-bound — by the uniqueness of the fact that the paper of record was actually interested in talking with me — to engage. There were lots of discussions with lots of people, with me asking as many questions as I was being asked, and over time I began to form at least an academic idea of how I might fit into their organization. Those talks eventually led to an offer of employment, as well to lots of soul searching on my part.
Cue Reference to a “Godfather” Offer
Ultimately I made up my mind that, for me at least, this was a golden opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. It’s certainly over-simplifying the story of how far Behavior has come to say this, but in my estimation, those events — while full of singular circumstances, extraordinary participation from my colleagues and tremendous strokes of good luck — are something I’ll be able to re-create at some point in the future if I ever want to return to the life of a design studio. On the other hand, the chance to help shape the design language at what remains, for all its imperfections, the most well-respected news organization in the world… that’s not something that falls into one’s lap with anything close to regularity.
What’s more, as much as I’m humbled by the opportunity, I also feel like I’ve been working up to this particular challenge for some time now. Taken at face value, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a certain visual affinity that the designs I’ve been producing have in common with the design challenges facing The New York Times (at least as I perceive them now, at the outset). At the very least, what I’ve been working on is somewhere in the same ballpark as what the Times has been working on, if not nearly at the same scale: the optimal display of complex narrative, output from varied workflows. In less florid terms, I’m talking about lots of text, presented in as elegant a manner as possible and with a minimum of ornamentation.
Things to Do
For me, as a provider of design consulting to clients on a limited basis, the difficult part of this work has been affecting change on the workflows, finding the opportunity to integrate the design solutions I’ve produced fully enough that the expressions are as aesthetically pleasing as the platforms. In short, I’ve been able to design, but I haven’t been able to art direct, and that’s one of the things that I hope I get the opportunity to tackle during my tenure at the Times.
It’s just one of the things on my list, though… I have grand visions of what can be done as the Design Director of The New York Times Online, but I also have a pragmatic view of what needs to be done in order to realize those visions: to make design work, especially in this position, will require dedicated labor, genuine diplomacy, judicious management and earning the respect of peers and colleagues.
There’s lots more to say about this, but insofar as I’ve revealed what I’m doing and why, I think I’ve said enough for now. At least in the first few months of my tenure, I’ll probably remain fairly tight-lipped about how things are going at the new job. I’ll continue publishing posts here about other subjects, of course, but not much about what’s happening at the Times unless it’s about matters generally available to the public. Blogging has its place, but there’s a time to get things done first, too.