Why you should do a news designathon

Nicole Zhu
Ideas: Journalism + Tech
5 min readFeb 12, 2016


SNDMakes is a series of prototyping events (with some lightning talks by smart folks thrown in) organized by the Society for News Design (SND) with a focus on digital media, design, and community. So far, I’ve been to three SNDMakes: the first one ever in Indianapolis in March 2014, one in Washington D.C. in April 2015, and the latest one that was held in Chicago this past weekend. There’s a reason I keep coming back: they’re awesome. If you’ve never been to an SNDMakes, here are a few reasons why you should seriously consider participating in one:

Each one has a unique focus

Every SNDMakes is framed around topics or questions facing news organizations and media companies. Each event is a deep dive into one particular area and clearly demonstrates the ever-increasing complexity and overlap that news and journalism has with other fields and industries. Past SNDMakes have addressed designing content creation and workflow, reimagining photo stories, and promoting community.

You’ll meet amazing people outside and within your industry

SNDMakes capitalizes on the intersections journalism and news has with other industries. The crop of attendees is always a mix of the writers, editors, designers, and developers that we’re often familiar with in the newsroom, but it also includes specialists and experts who work in those fields on which the event is focused. At the event in D.C. where the topic was photo stories, I worked with a National Geographic photo editor on my team. In Chicago where we tackled gaming, we had everyone from gamemakers to games journalists to intense and casual gamers. The different levels of nerdery and expertise, as well as peoples’ backgrounds and interests, makes projects more well-informed and more well-rounded. It’s really just 2–3 days of putting a bunch of smart people in a room and seeing what fantastic things come out at the end.

The atmosphere of collaboration rather than competition

SNDMakes is designed to be collaborative rather than competitive. There’s none of that Major League Hacking atmosphere going on at these events. The way they set up Slack is phenomenal — each team has its own public channel that anyone can hop into, organizers have a channel for announcements, and there are two channels called “i-am-available” and “i-am-looking-for” where people can either volunteer their time or put out an open call for help (these usually get used for user testing). There are regular team updates and report backs, and other teams are encouraged to give feedback to each other throughout the conference. And people are just super constructive and really helpful, even if they’re not on your team. Because we’re collectively designing and prototyping solutions in different areas under the same umbrella issue, the vibe is so intensely supportive and everyone is feeding off of each other’s energy.

Team Printer’s Row at #SNDMakesChi talking to a user

An emphasis on design

I love that SNDMakes is really all about addressing real problems. It’s a design challenge that’s always phrased as a “how might we” statement: “how might we better tell picture stories?” or “how might we better design the story form?”. Even though you only have a weekend to work on a project, it’s still really important to make sure you’re solving a genuine need. The design process is embedded into the event — brainstorming takes place early on (sometimes even before the conference on Slack), each team is asked to give mid-weekend reports and receive/give feedback, and you walk away being able to answer the following questions in three sentences or less:

  • What is your idea?
  • What problem are you solving?
  • Why is this problem worth solving?

There aren’t any restrictions on the deliverables

Because SNDMakes is a prototyping event, the deliverables by the end of the weekend can really be anything from a fully functioning tool to a proof of concept. You can work on something more technical or you can focus on scaffolding out new interfaces or interactions. At SNDMakesChi, where the focus was on games, gamemakers, and their fans, teams presented websites, physical games, online games, frameworks, findings from a secret research project, and data. There’s a lot of free range for creativity and that often translates to thought-provoking presentations and prototypes.

You’ll leave feeling energized rather than exhausted

Miranda Mulligan, SND board member and SNDMakes co-director, emphasizes that SNDMakes is not a hackathon. Hackathons imply competition and copious amounts of caffeine and limited sleep. I like hackathons, but I like sleeping more. With SNDMakes, the days are long and productive (and you definitely need copious amounts of caffeine), but the schedule has specific start and end times for each day so that you don’t burn out and have the opportunity to hang out with fellow participants outside the event. I especially liked how Miranda phrased it this past weekend: “we want you to feel energized, not exhausted.”

It’s always changing

No two SNDMakes are the same! In addition to building up a community, SNDMakes also brings in a certain percentage of new folks every time. Gracious sponsors and locations change. The design challenge will always be different. The SNDMakes team always asks for feedback after every event, and they’re always doing interesting things to respond to that feedback or experiment with something new.

FOR STUDENTS: a great learning experience where your contributions are valued

I’ve gone to every SNDMakes as a student. The first one I went to, I barely knew how to use GitHub and only vaguely knew what “human-centered design” was. I was mostly an observer because I didn’t feel super confident in my own abilities, but my additions to brainstorming and prototyping were always welcome and valued by my teammates. The latest one I attended (almost two years later), I was the one setting up the GitHub repo and helping others clone it on their laptops. For students of all skill levels and from all backgrounds, SNDMakes is a learning environment that’s supportive and not remotely intimidating (ok, it’s kind of intimidating because of all the cool people that attend but hey, you’re one of them!). It’s great exposure to cross-sections of the industry and to see what amazing things people do for a living (career options that might interest you one day perhaps?). Especially for those who have wanted to try a hackthon-type event but never felt they had the skills, SNDMakes will surprise you. You have valuable contributions and you’ll learn so much. It’s totally worth making up a weekend worth of schoolwork for!



Nicole Zhu
Ideas: Journalism + Tech

engineer, writer, cohost @sweetandsourfm