Designer as Journalist: The Case for Creating Content

A young doctor with a goatee and small hoop earrings quickly ushered me into the examination room of a bustling clinic in Oakland. If it were not for the white coat and the stethoscope around his neck, he could have been any urban hipster who frequents the latest happening watering hole. There was barely enough room to focus my camera lens in the cramped yellow cubicle where he asked a middle aged woman questions about her personal health that made me blush. She clearly had a tough life. The deep lines etched into her face said more than words ever could.

In that moment, I realized I was no longer merely a designer. Documenting lives on the edges of our society, and the heroes who care for them, had put me squarely in the role of visual storyteller for a client who provides grants to community clinics. The experience touched me profoundly.

Photo shoot at Oakland clinic for Center for Care Innovations (CCI).

Winning the Story Wars, the new book by Free Range co-founder Jonah Sachs, has set the bar for our entire staff to be fluent in the language of archetypal storytelling. As strategic partners we help our clients craft coherent, values-based narratives, across media.

Historically, Free Rangers have always created original content in video work. From classics like The Meatrix or The Story of Stuff, to more recent endeavors like the Autodesk Sustainability Workshop, our animations have been a robust, often viral source of edutainment. Not surprisingly, when people are asked about our studio, these are the projects that easily roll off tongues.

Hundreds of successful online experiences that we have created are less well known. That is changing. The lines between media formats are blurring. Clients are increasingly requiring cross-disciplinary deliverables. Thinking about websites as graphic design applied to information architecture is yesterday's news.

To be sure, content structure, functionality and beautiful design with intention are still critical to the success of an online user experience. But until recently, many organizations found themselves populating a freshly re-imagined site with low-resolution snapshots, canned stock imagery and mediocre writing. Let's face it, no matter how well designed or technically brilliant, a website will be unmemorable and uninspiring if filled with weak assets. Users want and expect more, and won't spend long before looking for compelling content elsewhere.

Within the last few years I have witnessed a dramatic expansion in the skill set of designers. The creation of valuable, unique content to help our partners effectively communicate with their audiences is increasingly requested. Expertly crafted writing and images differentiate an outstanding online engagement from the rest of the pack. As the son of a photojournalist and with a lifelong love of documentaries and video creation, this has come as a welcome and invigorating development.

I have been an avid photographer for years and have had the privilege of employing it in my professional work at Free Range. I've documented emerging business leaders in Costa Rica, hidden in the brush to photograph stampeding bison in Yellowstone National Park, and captured the remarkably organized chaos of of community clinics. My colleague Kathi Bahr, who joined me in Yellowstone to shoot video, has photographed business leaders from the world's greatest workplaces as well as terminally ill hospice patients, as they received end of life care in the comfort of their homes. 

Kathi Bahr shooting photography and video in Yellowstone National Park.

As an added benefit, nothing could enlighten a designer more than this immersion into the world of our clients. A deep connection to and understanding of our partner's missions are critical as we help them tell their great stories.

As Jonah says in Winning the Story Wars, “memorable stories based on timeless themes build legions of eager evangelists.” As our Free Rangers continue to embrace our roles as content creators, these services will drive engagements, making them more meaningful and profound — and making our clients' stories irresistibly memorable, emotional, and immersive.