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The ‘South China Morning Post’ reimagined visual storytelling to cover the Hong Kong protests

The 2020 Innovation by Design honoree utilized superior graphic design to capture this historic event.

The ‘South China Morning Post’ reimagined visual storytelling to cover the Hong Kong protests
[Image: South China Morning Post]

Following the passage of a bill that would allow extradition to mainland China in June 2019, a typically peaceful Hong Kong became the setting of massive pro-democracy protests. Plumes of smoke and tear gas obfuscated neon lights. Police clad in paramilitary gear clashed with protestors in T-shirts, shorts, and makeshift protective gear. The effect was a series of remarkable contrasts. “It was a story made to be told visually,” says Darren Long, head of graphics and magazine design for the South China Morning Post. And yet it was unlike any story his team had told before.

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That story, the constant barrage of breaking news, also changed how Long’s team approached news coverage. SCMP’s visual coverage of the Hong Kong protests was incredibly robust, ranging from explainer infographics to in-depth timelines. But when you look at the scope of the SCMP’s graphics as a whole, they offer a big-picture view of the historic protests—and were only possible because the team adopted new ways of working and was able to pivot on the fly. It’s this groundbreaking coverage that won our Innovation by Design Award for Graphic Design.

[Image: South China Morning Post]
SCMP’s coverage of the Hong Kong protests was a learning opportunity for the team, according to Long, and helped prepare them to cover the coronavirus pandemic (just one story of many in this year’s news onslaught, which deputy creative director Adolfo Arranz described as “a rolling storm”). “There wasn’t time to take a breath and look at our projects,” Arranz says, adding that the team didn’t have a cohesive strategy in the very beginning.

Initially, they spent time on the ground, but Long says the time it took for his team to cover the events with infographics—creating illustrations, charts, and graphs, and writing code for digital animations—meant that “events kept on running away from us . . . We were constantly playing catch-up.” Long decided to shift their tactic to look 90 days ahead. The team plotted important data along the way, almost like chapters in a larger story, so when 90 days hit they could give a thorough wrap-up of what happened. In doing so, Long says his team embraced the chaos, and rather than trying to produce graphics that encompassed each day’s breaking news, they were able to build out focused and incredibly in-depth retrospective visual analyses over months.

[Image: South China Morning Post]
The team’s approach to breaking news evolved too. They started developing visuals that could be added to and expanded as the story progressed, as they did with their coverage of protests at the Hong Kong airport. Arranz released an infographic the same day, and then reframed it as a developing story and added new data as it became available the following day. “The use of time becomes an intrinsic part of [visual storytelling],” Long says. “You don’t need to tell the story immediately.”

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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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