Matt Callahan is an Art Director at The Washington Post. I sat down with him recently to talk about how he has used his work in the design department to modernize The Post digitally, and use different approaches with big stories. Matt has recently worked on pieces about the Galapagos, the slow death of the electric guitar, and an interactive approach to the National Parks’s 100th anniversary.
Some of the answers have been shortened for both length and clarity.
Would you describe yourself as a coder, art director, or journalist? Or a mix of them all?
I’d describe myself as an art director foremost. My greatest strength I find is conceptualizing ideas and finding the most effective manner of communicating an idea. What I find most exciting about web development is being able to carry out these ideas and concepts in new and different ways. Furthermore, you get to communicate with people with an immediacy that is unlike print. You can reach them on their phone, computer, tablet and do it all instantaneously.
When did you start coding?
My first class in computer programming was in high school in 2007. I took a course in C++ as a misguided attempt to learn Photoshop (the person I knew who was most skilled in Photoshop had just taken that class, so…). That said I didn’t use coding in any real capacity outside of class or personal websites until I worked at The Post — end of 2014.
What’s more important, good storytelling skills or coding skills, when taking on a custom project?
Good storytelling skills are imminently more important. You can always pick up the actual programmatic skills. Understanding how animation works and what function it provides, versus images, versus video versus audio is something you can learn from watching and listening, but it is hard and takes practice. If you understand how it works you can communicate ideas and work with others to help create an overall vision. If you just understand the tools you’re at the mercy of someone else’s idea.
What’s the most valuable thing you know when it comes to coding?
Sketches and rapid prototyping. Never get too near and dear to your first idea or version. Honestly, don’t spend much time working on it — do a sketch with pencil. Envision it. Think how someone will approach it. Then do a quick wireframe. Then an unstyled HTML doc. Don’t worry about how it actually looks until it works right — because people actually need to read it and use it. Otherwise it’s design for the sake of design — which is neither functional nor useful.
Let’s move on to more specific projects you’ve worked on recently. Which enterprise template were you most proud of?
The Marine story was probably one of the pieces I’m most proud of. It was an opportunity to explore so many different modes of storytelling all within the same story. I was able to be so close to the project because I was brought in just as the story was being rewritten. I had almost-daily meetings with the reporter, John Cox. We talked about what shape the story was taking — and he understood that I cared about telling this story every bit as much as he did. When the reporters know that you care and how much you care, you can have conversations and arguments, discussions, and it’s okay because you’re all playing for the same team.
With the Galapagos template, how long did that take to construct?
The Galapagos story was probably about two months or longer in total planning time. Though not all of that time was spent actively working on it, and it wasn’t my only project (I was designing travel on a weekly basis as well). Most of the time was spent trying to just get our heads around what this story would be. Then some time on how to conceptualize how to tell this story — whether it would be map based or story based, and how to navigate from video to video. Later we ran into the technical limitations of 360 video, which included probably a week of just last minute bug squashing and changing out a video player just a few days before publication.
And finally, were you surprised that the national park “find your park” interactives were so popular?
Certainly — though gratified might be a better word. This one in particular was a very long term project. We started brainstorming ideas for this at the end of 2015 and it didn’t run until summer 2016. We’ve talked about it since and we could and Alexa, Nicole and I don’t remember who came up with the idea of checking in or logging which parks you’ve been to, but we all loved the idea — especially because national park lovers are very devoted and very passionate. This was also great fun because I got to help shape the length of content and what type of content we wanted alongside Nicole, which made it a truly great experience.