Rebranding online news with Vox Media’s in-house design team

Anyone with an Internet connection and even a passing interest in news has probably heard of the 21st century leader Vox Media. The parent company of eight diverse channels including fashion-focused Racked, real estate guide Curbed, and foodie favorite Eater, Vox Media is redefining online news with dynamic infographics, engaging platforms, and infinitely clickable content. Cedrick Funches, executive design director of Vox Media’s design program, is the man who brings the channels all together, overseeing brand identity. The various in-house design teams at Vox Media are composed of more than 50 designers working across its verticals. “We’re more of a collective than anything, scaling design across so many responsibilities for the company,” says Funches. “We service not only the entire Vox Media brand, but also the brands underneath our brands.”

To achieve this balancing act, Funches takes a systematic approach, installing a system of best practices that work across the larger Vox Media brand and sub-channels. The system forms the backbone of an education system that helps in-house designers, new team members, and freelancers stay consistent. “The idea is to really make sure that the brands we’re working with are familiar with what their brand identity actually is, and you break that down to their vision, the meaning, and authenticity,” says Funches. “Coherence, flexibility, and value are the building blocks of teaching brands how to create for themselves, from brand mark to letter fonts, app track marks, emblems, and dynamic characters. We break all of those down so that the brand themselves can take a look at what the landscape is, see what fits them, and see what can work—not only in their narrative, but their system as a whole.”

Design at Vox Media is broken down into phases, often informed by sales and marketing efforts—which Funches emphasizes is important for designers to get involved with in order to form a deeper understanding of brand goals and timelines—as well as the timing of events or launches. Starting with research, the team strategizes and creates design identity, eventually moving the visual system onto other platforms like social media or live events. The final step is a visual QA and asset management system to allow different teams to manage their own materials moving forward. This process was recently put to the test for the relaunch of sports channel SB Nation, a vertical drawing from 320 athletic sites that had languished several years without a refresh. For Funches, one of the goals was to create a look for SB Nation that would be visually recognizable as Vox Media’s network. “A lot of our content was being disassociated from the actual flagship site,” he says. “We worked tirelessly on the research side, identifying who SB Nation really was, and then what the editorial component should be, which pretty much informed the way we set it up. It’s been a very strong showing from an advertising standpoint, as well as being able to help SB Nation as a company really unite their voice and say ‘this is who we are and this is what we stand for.’”

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One unique consideration for designers in a media company is how to translate different kinds of stories into presentations that engage readers and optimize the content. For example, Vox Media’s news videos are immensely popular (Funches points to a video explainer of the Syrian civil war as an example), but that approach doesn’t necessarily translate to Curbed, which focuses on architecture and real estate. “I think some people think it’s all the same, that you can just do the exact same thing in any channel. But that’s really where it goes back to those basic principles of your identity, understanding what your meaning is, and why your audience is there.” Like all good design, Funches says user experience and Internet habits are key to shaping Vox Media’s design.

Scrolling through the ever-changing content on each of Vox Media’s verticals is a reminder on how quick and agile the company’s designers need to be. “There’s not a lot of time on your hands when you’re dealing with people’s attention spans on the Internet; I would say six seconds max,” says Funches. Yet the Vox Media in-house design team must constantly draw viewers in with new and intelligently packaged content, held together by a consistent brand image—a 21st century challenge for the 21st century creative.

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