Launching TheTrace.org

How we were able to design, build and launch a new site about guns in America just as it was needed


Earlier this year James Burnett, formerly of the New Republic, approached our team at Upstatement with a unique proposition: Can we brand, design and build a new publication from scratch in ten weeks? James was building his team in New York, and they needed a partner get the site off the ground.

TheTrace.org is a new site covering guns in America. While many of the major news organizations cover gun violence, there was no dedicated source of news and investigative reporting on America’s gun obsession.

Fast forward to this past Thursday. I woke up with a missed call and a bunch of Slack messages from James, all from around 1 a.m. We have pretty tight relationships with our clients, so I’m used to cell phone calls and such, but this seemed a little unusual. The Trace was close to a launch, but we were spending some more time polishing it and knocking out some remaining GitHub issues.

That’s when I heard about the Charleston shooting for the first time.

James asked:
“We need to cover what’s going on in Charleston. Can we launch the site?”

We had it live by the end of the day.

Organizing the project

We’ve been experimenting with agile processes in a number of different situations and projects over the past couple of years, but this was a chance to really see what we could do in an all-agile project environment. The idea was to get to a launchable site as quickly as possible, and build up from there with enhancements, additions, bells and whistles. James signed on to this methodology, and we were off and running.

It starts with a brand

James wanted The Trace to be human and honest, smart, dogged and American. We started with these brand attributes and developed from there, trying different takes on the nameplate and associated imagery.

Some early sketches for the branding and design elements

We went through a couple sprints of sketching work to narrow in on an aesthetic and get a lot of ideas out there. The first sprint got us to about eight workable versions, and then we narrowed it down from there. The next sprint saw us cut it to two, and with some approvals we had a winner.

The final Trace branding uses imagery and overlays derived from what we called the “x ray” concept; the idea of looking inside the issue and figuring out what made it tick. This combined with bold, straightforward type and a simple shape that could overlay these images gave the Trace its identity.

The design started in a simple place, but really built up to complexity and nuance in an organic way.

Letting the development guide the design

While branding and preliminary design was going on, our team set up the WordPress environment and laid the groundwork for the site. We wanted the WP / Timber environment to inform the design and work in a cyclical way. Instead of the lavishing attention on the design and then handing over comps full of enhancements and possible upgrades, we started small. Within the first couple of weeks we had the WP site satisfying the basic user stories, and the design just built on top of that.

The commit-curve for the project from GitHub.

Our dev team set up the site to output the correct data or pages and supply the editor interfaces so our designers could do front-end work to design and style them. Using Timber made it even easier to work in this workflow (thanks Jared!).

Within just a few weeks we had a site that was materially ready for launch. It was basic, but it was there. We then spent the rest of the timeline really polishing the design, tweaking the branding and testing the site while James’ team worked on content and learned the ropes of the admin interface.

We identified important features with James, and built each in a modular way that ensured the rest of the site could go live at any time. Nothing was half-built. Once the feature was finished it could be rolled out everywhere. This approach to incremental feature development helped us add to the site in a progressive way, without any of the components becoming a blocker to launch.

We were even able to get things on the site that seemed like “pie-in-the-sky” ideas when we first talked. Features like the gun violence tracker, which uses data from the Gun Violence Archive to display a running tally of gun violence incidents.

A timely launch

Back to James’ call last Thursday. Was the site ready for prime-time?

If we had followed a waterfall approach, the answer to James’ question would be a definitive “No.” But in fact the site was deployed to a server, tested, and ready to roll. We just needed to turn off the password protection and check a few other launch boxes.

Our team was able to turn the site live that day, and the Trace could hit the ground running with a stable, feature-rich launch. Then they could focus on the important stuff: their coverage.

Check out their work at TheTrace.org, and keep watching in the weeks ahead as the site gets even better.

The homepage features a grid layout the Trace can use to curate different stories and features.
An example of brand integration: One of the Twitter cards The Trace has used in their coverage.
The Spotter, a feature on the homepage that links to coverage from around the Web. This was one of the features we were able to develop and get in for launch.