How Vice Is Challenging The Cable News Establishment–Through Design

Are viewers sick of the 24/7 cacophony of TV news? Vice News Tonight is betting on it.

Before cable news devolved into shouting matches between pundits, it was built on the trusted voices of anchors. Viewers welcomed the Gwen Ifills and the Walter Cronkites of the world into their homes to guide them through the day’s most important events and keep them informed. Vice News Tonight–a daily 30-minute news show on HBO that is celebrating its one-year anniversary today–is remixing that model for the modern era. But instead of one personality, the show uses a distinctive design language and identity to anchor its reporting.


Related: See all of the 2017 Innovation By Design honorees here.

“Design helps stitch all this journalism together,” Kenton Powell, head of design and graphics at Vice News Tonight, tells Co.Design. “The design language we employ is extremely functional, clear, honest, and authentic. It’s part of this idea that Vice News Tonight should be a show that feels contemporary and isn’t burdened by past approaches and efforts.” To create a design language that matched the editorial strategy of the show, Powell–who formerly worked at Bloomberg Businessweek and was an interactive editor at the Guardian U.S.–and his team mined a series of unlikely sources, from interaction design to video games.

Over the past two decades, the always-on 24-hour news cycle has wrought an endless stream of headline tickers, hosts that treat current events like infotainment, and misleading or sensational (or just wrong) graphics that look borrowed from a 1990s PowerPoint presentation. Cable news giants have turned to absurd graphic gimmicks, like holographic correspondents and giant iPads, in their quest to win ratings. When it comes to conveying the news, poor design can be irresponsible–just look at the New York Times‘s incorrect election forecasting needle, which gave Hillary Clinton a false positive in the presidential race.

Vice News Tonight‘s editorial approach seeks to be the opposite of the cacophony, providing clarity about current events and a tight edit on what news is most important. Instead of piling as much information as it can into an endless broadcast, the show picks only a few topics per night for its 30-minute episodes, like the Philippine drug war, the National Anthem protests, and the pharmaceutical industry. Some topics are told through illustrated motion graphics, some are quick-hit headlines, and some are video features. While there is opinion, it’s grounded in facts and data.

The show’s graphics follows suit, with clean, flat, and reduced visuals. The identity is black and white, and the typography is always from the Founders Grotesk font family. There is always a palette-cleansing illustrated transition between the stories that gives viewers a moment to digest what they saw and hit reset, and the infographics that often accompany the in-depth segments from field reporters are based on the same straightforward sensibility. For example, in a recent segment about the impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Powell and his team communicated the quantitative information in a series of animated bar graphs:

Powell believes that this “honest and authentic” approach helps the show communicate with its audience. The show doesn’t perform market research and doesn’t know its audience’s average age, but Powell says it’s “younger,” which aligns with Vice’s focus on youth culture.


Such minimalist identities are common among brands that are actively breaking with the past in their business models–think Warby Parker, Everlane, Brandless, Casper, and Zoc Doc. But Vice News Tonight goes a step beyond sans-serif fonts and ample blank space by also borrowing from the language of interaction design, especially in how graphics are introduced and transitioned during segments. It’s television inspired by interaction paradigms from the world of smartphones and computers, from swiping to flipping.

“It’s primarily gestural in how interaction design has influenced the show,” Powell explains. “We move very methodically from right to left with our stream of graphics. These are the same ways people flip though the apps they use. So it’s almost like you have the finger on the screen and are flipping and swiping to the next story. Visually, it feels like something that’s familiar to someone who has used a smartphone.”

One of the biggest design challenges for a show like Vice News Tonight is communicating dense amounts of information on TV–a medium that is necessarily simplistic due to screen size, legibility, and timing constraints. While magazine readers can pore over a printed infographic on a page and online readers can discover layers of information in an interactive feature online, television doesn’t allow the same level of control, and a show can only show so much information at once.

For Powell and his team–which is about 14 people strong–video games offered a crucial a-ha moment in developing their approach to complex data graphics. “Think of Guitar Hero graphics,” Powell says. “The song comes toward you over time and the density of information is really well moderated in time. I’m getting a graphic of the entire song, but not the the entire song at once–that would be too overwhelming.”

For Powell, design isn’t just packaging the way it might be at a cable news show; the design language of Vice News Tonight influences its storytelling language. And while it looks unlike anything on cable news, the design isn’t want you’ll remember. It’s meant to fade into the background, leaving you with a clearer grasp on the issues. “When we talk about the identity of the show, it provides a meaningful structure and a place where everything can live,” Powell says. “I like to think of the design as the face of the show and it gets out of the way.”


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.