Visual Journalism, DDJ, Best Practice

Interdisciplinary Storytelling: Five Tips for Better Results

Assembling designers, developers, journalists, and project managers to form an interdisciplinary storytelling unit (like DW's visual journalism team) can be a beautiful and rewarding process–if you manage to find common ground, foster motivation, and keep everybody happy. Here's a couple of tips on how to go about it.

1 Make sure there's skin in the game.

If you're the team leader, make sure everybody feels they're vital to the project's success. You can do that by either making every major decision a group decision–or by assigning certain responsibilities to every team member. Either way, don't forget to frequently highlight how everybody's contribution helps the project move forward.

2 Put technology first.

Collaborating across different locations can be difficult–so take time to think about what technological infrastructure is beneficial. What are your teams needs? How do you write a collective storyboard? How do you store and exchange big files? How do you communicate throughout the day? Are your tools accessible to everyone and from everywhere?

When looking for solutions, make sure to align with your workplace's standards on data privacy and security–in our case that ruled out any Google solutions. Maybe there isn't one tool that fulfills all your needs at once. Don't forget to discuss any option with the least tech-savvy team member to check whether the tool is intuitive enough. Tech solutions should make your work easier, not harder.

3 Find your flow.

Does everyone need to work on the project at the same time? Should some team members start ahead of the others? Will sprint production work? Always think of the dependencies your team members have with other units in your company: Are they staffers that work on a project basis? Or freelancers on rotating shifts? There probably isn't a one-fits-all solution.

At DW, we had to do some trial and error runs. In the first six months we experimented with "block production": For two to three weeks, all team members would work together on the project, ideally moving it over the "finish" line. The team for the next block would then consist of entirely different people. Our learnings: On the upside, more people got to work on a project and gather experiences. On the downside, an unfinished project had to be handed off to people who were new to the topic and didn't know about the decisions that had been made.

For the second half of the year, we agreed to shift from block production to a different, mandate-driven approach: for each story we would assign one person from a specific desk (motion design, data journalism, infographics) who would then be responsible for all decisions regarding their area of expertise from start to finish–irrespective of the duration of the project. The result: We ended up saving a lot of time (as we didn't have to get new people up to speed anymore) and also increased the agency of all team members (see #1).

4 Speak each other's language.

Building an interdisciplinary team does not only take organizational skills, it also takes a huge bucket of empathy. In our case, having a team of 15 people meant dealing with 15 individuals and their respective strengths, weaknesses, feelings, hopes, and worries.

It's important to make time to figure out how each person "ticks". It will help teams to get through stressful times more easily, as team members' needs can be read and addressed more adequately.
In a team not only combining different skills, but also different generations and cultural backgrounds, it helps to agree on a common language. For us it was developing a "lost index", ranging from "I totally lost track of where this project is going" to "I totally understand the bigger picture and my part, and I'm confident to help others back on track".

5 Structure, structure, structure.

Working with new colleagues on new tasks in a new manner has the beauty of a blank slate, but it can also be haunting It took us five projects to figure out how to set up something sustainable.

Setting up a good production platform (in our case: Confluence) is equally important as putting together a good production team. Our template setup includes:

  • A main page: This is the place to get up to speed. The page contains the story line, the working title, open questions, and–last, but not least–the heart of it all: our storyboard. We usually start out with an empty four column table that is filled up in the production process. The first column contains the topic of the respective story section, the second one defines its media type, the third one contains specific content details (e.g. you'd put your text elements here), the fourth one holds the draft visual elements.
    (For each and every element we ask ourselves: How does it help develop, tell, make audiences understand the story?)
  • A research page. This is where we document all of our research in a Q&A fashion.
  • A visual concept page. This is where we outline the visual language (mood board, colors, visual representation ideas).
  • An infographics and motion design page. This is where we showcase inspirational pieces and–later one–drafts of our own.
  • An experts and status page. This is where we list: names, areas of expertise, who reached out to whom, questions asked and answers received

Hopefully, this post will help you when it comes to setting up or rebuilding your own visual journalism team–or a similar unit. If you have tips for us or would simply like to share your experiences with interdisciplinary digital storytelling, don't hesitate to get in touch.

Gianna Grün

(Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash)

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