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How the ‘New York Times’ is capturing the unprecedented impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 is upending everything. Including how the “New York Times” visualizes the news.

How the ‘New York Times’ is capturing the unprecedented impact of COVID-19
[Image: courtesy the New York Times]

We’re living through a historic time, as unemployment shatters records, retail spending craters, and death rates skyrocket. So it was only natural that the New York Times needed a new way to reflect that.

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Over the past month, the front page of the paper has broken its own rules of design as it attempts to accurately convey how unprecedented these news events are. It has had graphs take up columns normally reserved for stories, spread charts across the entire page, and extended visualizations into the New York Times logo. But the approach, says Tom Bodkin, the creative director and chief creative officer of the New York Times, “is all about the news. I don’t do crazy dramatic things on a regular basis, because I think when you do something unconventional, it should be proportionate to the actual news value.”

His golden rule? News design should reflect and not distort the importance of the news story it’s trying to tell. In that sense, coverage of the coronavirus crisis hasn’t been any different. It’s just amped up the treatment and put the front page design in completely new territory.

The typical New York Times front page has six stories and a main headline that spans two columns—or six columns for really significant news. But over the past few weeks, the Times has published a series of visually striking front pages that depart from that traditional layout. “It’s about reflecting the hierarchy of stories,” says Bodkin, who has been at the paper since 1980. “So when something like the coronavirus comes along, that’s a big story, I feel like I should play it big—and that applies to sizes of headlines, the artwork used, and sometimes breaking out of the traditions that we usually follow.”

There are two front pages in particular that broke the mold recently: March 27, which had unemployment claims climb up the right column, and April 8, where New York City’s death toll spiked through the “K” in the New York Times logo.

Friday, March 27, 2020. Click here for a larger version. [Image: courtesy the New York Times]
It’s unusual to know what a front page will look like days in advance. But when it came to the March 27 edition, Bodkin actually did. Even though he didn’t have the exact number of unemployment claims in advance, he knew it would be an extraordinary figure. So earlier that week, Bodkin sketched out a draft of the page on his trusty green notepad: the bar chart ran from left to right across the bottom of the page, and when the numbers soared to unprecedented levels, the chart also climbed into unprecedented space: the right column.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Click here for a larger version. [Image: courtesy the New York Times]
Initially, the layout was met with resistance—using the right column for a chart would mean only running five stories on the front page instead of six. But eventually, everyone agreed that giving up that valuable real estate was worth it to show the magnitude of the crisis: 3.3 million unemployment claims that week. (Previously, the highest weekly claim was 665,000, on March 28, 2009.) It’s not just unusual for the entire right-hand column to be occupied by a visual graphic; the Times had never done it before.

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Another design first happened on April 8. This front page was dominated by four U.S. maps showing the death toll of the coronavirus; to show New York City’s deaths compared to the rest of the country, a red bar rises above the map and pierces the New York Times logo at the top of the page.

It’s the first time that a graphic element crossed through the name plate. But again, it corresponded with the weight of the news itself. “I knew that we’d probably hit close to 10,000 deaths, so that seemed like a moment,” explained Bodkin. “This might be a good day to show the progression of deaths throughout the country over time.”

This presented logistical challenges because the paper has set margins that the printer can’t change. “When I was conceiving this in my mind, I wanted the red bar to extend above the logo,” Bodkin says. “But I know we can’t print above the logo.” So in order to make it happen, they dropped the Times logo 3/8 of an inch. In all, Bodkin estimated it took 20 people to make it happen. They were still able to coordinate the front-page design in a single day.

When it comes to visuals, Bodkin says he plays around with graphics more than photography. “The actual information lends itself to an unusual shape,” he says. “That’s how we ended up with a bar taking up the whole sixth column. That design was driven by the information.”

It seems more than anything, the last month has been an affirmation of Bodkin’s design process. He designed the front page after the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986, after 9/11, and as the aftermath of that story continued to unfold. So when the news calls for it, Bodkin and his team will continue to envision design that’s out of the ordinary. In fact, it’s tradition.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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