Interactive Storytelling and Future Plans

An interview with Daan Louter about his experiences at The Guardian

On a busy afternoon on the newsfloor, Daan Louter managed to find a quiet corner at The Guardian headquarters in London for a Skype conversation. In 2013 the talented alumni from Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences became the youngest member of The Guardian’s interactive team. After 4 years working as an Interactive Designer, we talked with Daan about the current situation at The Guardian, the development of interactive narratives and his upcoming plans.



Can you tell us more about your current role at The Guardian?

I am part of The Guardian Visuals team, which is a team that works at the newsroom together with journalists, focusing on the development of new forms of story telling. In developing those journalistic productions we often work with large data sets, visual and video materials.



How do you work practically?

This really depends on type of project, and the vision of the team. Usually my boss goes to a planning meeting and following he delegate specific tasks to me. Though, in other cases it is much more a collaborative process, especially with the larger features or multimedia stories, we work as a close team of different expertises towards the realization of a project. The productions that I enjoyed the most came from a spontaneous or casual conversation. This often results in collaborative processes, where mutual interest or curiosity form the motor.



How are you internally organized?

When I started working there, the team was called ‘The Interactive Team’ and was more like a practical service desk. It was quite segregated from other developments at The Guardian. Journalists initiated and wrote their stories and then came to us with a request for technical and creative realisation.

Following, in the past two years, there has been a major internal reorganization. The name of the team was changed from ‘The Interactive Team’ to ‘The Visuals Team’ and a lot of new people were hired. The Visuals Team, ‘The Graphics Department’ and the ‘Picture Desk’ were merged in that period. The idea was that our team should be able to work more autonomously and also be able to produce stories themselves, instead of being 'just' a service desk. All in all, I'm not sure if this move really worked.



Why do you think this setup did not work?

As we’re not a traditional news desk, it’s sometimes difficult to get enough space and publicity for quite time consuming projects. Also, designers and developers, while working in a journalistic environment, still have a different mindset than that of a journalist or researcher. Although, I feel that both fields are aware of this and probably - in the long run - slowly will merge more. In the future, designers may have developed more 'subject-based' and journalists will be slightly more visually oriented.



Do you see differences in Dutch and British journalism design?

I think the type of work we develop here, does not really happen in The Netherlands. Actually, I often see quite poorly imitated initiatives of what we do at The Guardian or what happens at The New York Times. I have the impression that Dutch media organizations often wait, watch and then follow.

I develop interactive projects, though that is such a unhandy word to describe what I am actually doing, since most of my work is not even interactive. For example projects like Fire Storm, are actually just ‘fancy’ multimedia scrolling pages, not interactive at all. We really need some new terms to describe our field in a nuanced way.

In general, I think it is the interactivity that makes my work interesting. By incorporating interactivity it is possible to communicate news stories more powerfully toward an audience. And involving that audience. I believe that this is still not happening enough.



Are you interested in making subjective work? So by adopting a more artistic attitude?

Not really actually. I studied journalism for a year and constantly was mentioned that it is impossible to be objective in this sector, but that it should be our goal to aim for a form of objectivity.

Once I did a project about a garment factory in Bangladesh, which was a very emotive story. So I aimed to present the urgency as strong as possible. I think that’s the closest that I can get in subjectively influencing a subject.

There is always an ongoing discussion on the manipulative nature of data visualization, while my work is often just a reflection of the data or information that I have gathered. Headings on top of my productions such as 'The most unfair elections in the world' communicate mainly that subjective opinion.



What are your future plans?

I am leaving The Guardian very soon actually. I would like to be able to explore more about what interactivity can add to stories. Right now in my current position at The Guardian, it does not fully allow that.

The plan is to start as a designer and developer at KILN, a startup, who used to work for among others The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph and Google. At KILN, I will work on Flourish, a new product and initiative that they are planning to launch soon. Flourish is a tool to create data visualizations. No modest pie charts or bar charts, but rich interactive stories that can be made via different accessible templates. So, it seems that KILN and I does have a similar interest and aim, namely making interactive design more accessible, outside The Guardian as well.

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