Trend spotting: the best and worst of ‘Snowfall’ design

In the startup world, we hear a lot of talk about the Web and digital media “disrupting” traditional business models in a positive sense. But one rather important old-school industry, journalism, has found its lot in the digital frontier to be a pretty unhappy one. Newspaper subscription rates have plummeted, and only a select few publications have managed to successfully monetize their online content.

Many people have proclaimed  multimedia to be the solution to this issue. The logic is that, if you could seamlessly integrate beautiful photographs, graphics, audio and even video into your articles, then you’d have yourself a truly viable product for digital natives.

So it became a design problem. And, in late December of 2012, The New York Times may have solved it.

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The New York Times “Snow Fall” article begins with a full-screen cinemagraph to set the mood

On this date, the media giant published “Snow Fall: the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” a story about a particularly nasty avalanche. The article would win a Pulitzer Prize for its reportage and capture the attention of the design community with its unprecedentedly elegant integration of multimedia. Using a coding structure that the Times developed internally (at great expense), the article uses a “curtain” effect to reveal stunning cinemagraphs, video and other graphics as the reader scrolls.

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Scrolling through “Snow Fall,” a reader unveils a variety of videos such as this rendering, which traces a mountain trail

Since then, everyone from Pitchfork to The White House has been jumping to “snowfall” its content (Medium has created an open Google doc for listing all the examples, which now exceed 100).

Of course, as with any popular phenomenon, snowfalling has its nay-sayers. Most of its critics point out that often, snowfalling does not actually enhance the content of an article, but merely distracts the reader with fancy but empty graphics. Another criticism is that snowfalling isn’t worth the bandwidth. Indeed, reading a snowfallen article requires nothing short of a stellar internet connection and ideally a large-screen device, effectively alienating readers with more modest connections or who may be trying to read on their mobile phones.

Having read many a snowfallen article, we’ve compiled 5 examples that we think are awesome, and 5 that probably would have been better off the old-fashioned way. Happy reading:

Good Snowfalls

1. “Cycling’s Road Forward”The Washington Post

This article about the sport of cycling, which recently has been fraught with issues surrounding performance enhancing drugs, makes excellent use of beautiful, cinematic photographs to grab the reader’s attention, as well as illuminating data in the form of maps, graphs and charts.

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2. “Automatic for the People”; The Telegraph

A feature on gun control laws in the United States (or the lack thereof), specifically focusing on the disturbing growth in popularity of semi-automatic weapons. As you scroll through the article, about a dozen beautifully designed infographics appear at left, complementing the writing itself without interrupting it.

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3. “India 2.0″The Telegraph

Another beautifully executed snowfall by Britain’s The Telegraph. This article explores the rise of the IT economy in India over the past few decades, generously using photographs of places and people to bring the subject matter to life, while also throwing in some well-presented statistics.

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4. “Das neue Leben der Stalinallee”Zeit

This article from the German magazine Zeit is about an East Berlin neighborhood that has exceeded its Socialist roots to take on a new character. It opens with a clever cinemagraph and then allows a panel of locals to guide you through the neighborhood, using photo carousels and infographic presentations.

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5. “All this Light”Pitchfork 

This bastion of music journalism, which has been online-only from the start, has strong ties with the graphic design industry, and has shown a fondness for snowfalling since even before the Times published its watershed piece. This feature on the artist Cat Power is one of Pitchfork’s more restrained and, thus, successful implementations of the style. Bathing the photographs in a spectrum of color gives the images visual appeal, while abstracting them somewhat beyond your run-of-the-mill photo shoot.

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Bad snowfalls

1. “Glitter in the Dark”Pitchfork

This article includes several seemingly full photo shoots that cycle through as the reader scrolls. Cute as Natasha Khan, a.k.a Bat for Lashes, may be, this is definite overkill — an abuse of the snowfall effect that adds little apart from distraction.

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2. “NSA Files: Decoded”The Guardian

Published after Edward Snowden’s revelation about the U.S. government spying on its own citizens, this article uses interviews with a variety of politicians, officials and experts to hash out what this surveillance means for ordinary people. Rather than embed each speaker’s testimony in a single video, however, it breaks them up into many short fragments which play automatically as a reader scrolls, distributing them evenly throughout the article. Multimedia at its most interruptive.

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3. “Wrappers Delight”The Telegraph

Granted, this article about Tunnock’s,  the Scottish candy company, is beautifully illustrated and gave us a serious hankering for chocolate. But that’s sort of the issue. The article was a puff piece to begin with. Now outfitted with a cascade of large photographs (and some Twitter love for the brand …), it becomes decidedly advertorial. If this is the future of “journalism,” we’re in real trouble.

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4. “A Deadly Triangle”; The Brookings Institute 

This article analyzes the present relations of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and projects an uncertain future. Erudite as the writing may be, however,  the design is a nightmare — full of corny, Arabic-mimicking fonts, gaudy ornamental motifs and awkward image placement. Even the most elegant of snowfalls couldn’t make up for that.

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5. “The Jockey”The New York Times

This piece about a legendary Bay Area jockey not only contains a good article, but also a number of impressive, well narrated videos offering a glimpse into the world of horse racing. Like The Guardian‘s NSA story, though, they are unfortunately distributed throughout the piece in an interruptive manner that requires as much bandwidth as it does patience. It leaves a reader longing for the days when a documentary was a documentary, an article was an article, and the two did not feel the need to interbreed.

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What do you think: is snowfalling here to stay, or just a trend? Please share in the comments!

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Alex Bigman is liaison to 99designs' awesome community of graphic designers. He is a recent grad of UC Berkeley, where he studied history of art and cognitive science.
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