DVXD Retrospective: Maria Ressa and Rappler
Jan 25, 2023 ·
8 min read
This is the first in a series of retrospectives shared by Derek Vaz and DVXD Design Directors on our partners and lessons learned working together.
Last week, Maria Ressa and Rappler News were acquitted of tax evasion charges in a landmark ruling in the Philippines Supreme Court. Thousands of miles away, I got a breaking news alert on my phone and immediately shared the story with my colleagues Silvia Gonzalez and Josiah Bilagot.
Through their replies, I could feel the collective sense of relief, joy and vindication. Justice had finally arrived for a woman and a news organization we are honoured to know and have worked with.
As a journalist and CEO of a news agency, Maria and her team stood up to a ruthless President and his government by simply reporting the facts and, in turn, speaking truth to power. Their fight for the principles of press freedom and democracy led to Maria and Rappler facing numerous criminal charges, all of which she has said were evidence of political pressure to silence them.
Maria’s story quickly became a beacon for journalists around the globe who, in the face of the rise of disinformation and harassment fueled through social media platforms, were facing real threats.
In 2021, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, along with Russian journalist, Dmitry Muratov, for their efforts to advocate for press freedom, no matter the cost.
Just a couple of years before then, Maria, myself and our Design Director Silvia Gonzalez were sitting in the Rappler offices, preparing to kick off an initiative to redesign Rappler as a platform to connect news and civic engagement.
Below, Silvia reflects on our time working together and what we learned working together with Rappler and Maria.
What was the main goal of our work with Maria Ressa and Rappler?
Our main goal with this project was to embolden “communities of action”, as Maria called them. The main issue was that readers were reading about all these injustices but had no path to action. Rappler was engaging the public and activists on the ground through their civic engagement arm MovePH but their work was siloed from Rappler’s newsroom. Our work was to really help Rappler build a framework and create a foundation to bring these groups together.
What were the key design aspects of the project?
When we first started this project we thought we would be building a standalone product that would work in parallel with the main Rappler news site. But, it very quickly became a complete re-platforming of Rappler’s news site. This meant creating the design foundation for the complete Rappler experience. The Rappler team wanted the design to be something that was completely unique and moved away from traditional news site design. We took inspiration from movement design using bold colors and type to create a sense of urgency and action.
We knew that most readers came to the articles directly, bypassing the landing pages, so those became our focus. Knowing that we had a very short time to engage readers and move them toward action we designed a system that made it really easy for readers to understand various content types at a glance.
Orange (Rappler’s primary brand color) became the color of courage.
Talk more about that, how orange became a colour for courage?
Orange was reserved for moments of courage whether it was an action a reader was encouraged to take (like sign a petition) or an in-depth investigative piece. At the time, many readers were scared of becoming targets both online and offline. We wanted to encourage readers to take a small but courageous action, eventually progressing them towards bolder actions that required profound courage (like starting a movement).
At the heart of encouraging readers to take action were movements, the connective tissue behind news, community and action. We imagined movements as sites for collective learning, interrogation and organizing. Rappler, in partnership with organizers, would provide the infrastructure for these hubs and do what they do best, hold power to account with their journalism.
How did you go about the process of developing a platform for news and civic engagement?
We thought it was really important to workshop with Rappler in person. So we took a 16-hour flight to Manila and spent two days workshopping with Rappler staff and readers. Our workshops with readers helped us better understand how much fear and anxiety there was around taking action. Even sharing an article on social media, which to us seemed rather innocuous was a major source of anxiety. Based on the workshops with readers and Rappler staff we mapped out an idealized user journey that would take a casual reader through to a movement participant.
We then sketched out some initial concepts which we used as prompts to better understand readers' behaviours and what would ultimately drive action. We took some of these key ideas and concepts and then worked with a core Rappler team to define the MVP. Rappler had an ambitious timeline and wanted something launched quickly. Rooted in a content strategy focused on inspiring action, we partnered with Code Engine Studios and Rappler editors to define a fast, accessible design system called Phoenix.
We conducted a few rounds of user testing on the MVP and collected feedback from readers. After the MVP launched we worked with a core team at Rappler to continue to optimize and make improvements. In parallel, we worked with Rappler to create a long-term strategy and roadmap to fully realize Rappler’s vision for communities of action.
What are your thoughts on the impact of social media on democracy?
Oof, this is a big question and I would refer everyone to Maria’s book How to Stand Up to a Dictator she will do a much better job of explaining the insidious ways in which social media has destabilized democracies. I would also encourage everyone (especially those working in tech) to read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. There are so many layers to this question and I think it would be a disservice to try to simplify it into a short paragraph. I think this is one of the many ways in which social media has transformed us collectively. We expect complex questions to be reduced to simple “clean” answers but complex questions require deep messy analysis.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in creating the site?
When we started our work with Rappler we were a new design practice and co-creation was a new practice for us. Even though we did many workshops with both Rappler team members and staff, I wish we had involved both staff and readers more.
Another similar challenge we faced was building consensus early with the broader Rappler team. While we made every effort to include everyone in the design process, the reality of a newsroom under threat meant that our touch points were deprioritized. This resulted in decision churn that could have been avoided with asynchronous feedback and socialization efforts.
Finally, although we worked in an iterative agile model, critical ideas, concepts and features we designed have yet to be manifested because of shifting priorities. Working in an agile model with a small design team meant that we had to be adaptable and serve many different roles including content strategy, analytics, product strategy, and more.
What advice would you give to other professionals looking to use technology and design in a positive way?
I think the most important thing is to be constantly interrogating, learning and reflecting on your role/practice as a designer. Here are a few (of the many) questions to consider
- What does design in a positive way mean?
- Does this community want me to work on this project?
- Am I the appropriate person to work on this project?
- Can this really be “solved” with design?
- What are ways in which my involvement could cause harm?
- Do I understand my own privilege and the power imbalances created by systems of domination?
- How can I step back and facilitate the design of solutions by the community?
Today, a new administration led by the son of authoritarian leader Ferdinand Marcos is in place in the Philippines. And Maria still faces a slew of charges that will hopefully be thrown out.
Jamal Khashoggi. Shireen Abu Akleh. Ernesto Mendez. Arshad Sharif. Svetlana Babayeva.
Those are just some of the few journalists who have lost their lives and whose voices have been silenced. In fact, nearly 1,700 journalists have been killed in the last 20 years according to RSF
The fight for press freedom, and changing how we approach designing social technology, must continue.
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