Seven months ago, Tim Lane landed the role of Buzzfeed’s first art director outside the US, to develop the overall visual output of the UK site as well as many other territories around the world. Since then, he’s been working with his team to define a new aesthetic that maintains the irreverent image Buzzfeed is known for, with some refinement.
“My main goal when I got this job was to raise the design standards of Buzzfeed and on top of that, give the UK its own visual style,” he explains. “Personally coming from a print background, I’m trying to give the high-quality principals of typography, layout, graphics, photography, illustration… everything I learned in print, to mobile and desktop. Designing mobile-first makes us different from our competitors.”
Tim’s team includes in-house illustrators and animators Rebecca Hendin and Sian Butcher, and an in-house photographer Laura Gallant, plus he works closely with a CMS team who he says “are our real advantage”. The illustrators produce around 1000 illustrations a year between them, while the rest is commissioned.
For long-reads, Tim’s approach has been to give them “the feel of a glossy magazine. I try to make the headers look and feel special and thought-through”. For one story about anger in the workplace, illustrator Nate Kitsch was commissioned, and his punk-inspired photomontage style ended up influencing the whole piece. “The way we treated the header, typography, dividers, quotes, and photography had an umbrella visual style of punk. That kind of top-to-bottom visual takeover is what I’m trying to bring to all the long-reads,” says Tim.
In another long-read, about a man wrongly accused of being a paedophile due to a police typo, Tim’s team used a strong, typographic set of visuals based around a keyboard. The lead image was a gif, that was hugely popular on social media. “When the imagery looks really good, it can be a reason for it doing really well on social and leading people to the story.” Another, Shell Shocks, has a similarly strong identity.
“I tried to make a really graphic, colourful, bright but still hard-hitting visual. It’s about keeping the visual aspects that made Buzzfeed famous, but taking it a step further so they feel more serious.”
For Buzzfeed’s coverage of Article 50 being triggered, Tim worked closely with the CMS team to develop a full comic about Nigel Farage, in which the illustrations would animate as you scrolled down the story. “Instead of doing what our competitors would probably do, which is to just illustrate the header and then have the story, we made it into a proper comic, using the amazing CMS/tech guys we have here, who are leading the way in terms of what we can do.
“What I find really exciting about working here is the possibilities, making things that move and animate, and seeing people respond to it. I think we’re leading the way on that side.”
Photography-wise, Tim and Laura Gallant have been pushing the envelope, trying to deliver shoots on the level of a broadsheet newspaper. With the new approach and equipment, Tim comments that they’re “getting bigger celebrities, and they’re letting us do more creative things,” – see their shoots with James McAvoy and Helen Mirren.
For the quick-fire news stories that are often published too quickly for art team support, Tim has developed a chart-building tool. “I noticed the journalists were using a lot of screengrabbed charts often made in Excel. You got a lot of dodgy looking charts! So I worked with the CMS guys and designed a chart builder, so now they have a choice of six charts and a set of colours to choose from to make their own. It’s just about tightening up the visual style, so the charts are consistent and Buzzfeed-y, and they use them in the US and elsewhere now.”
For the recent UK election, Tim worked on his first live show at the platform, which applied his same ethos. “I wanted to give everything we did a strong visual style that transcended the illustrations, the staging, the graphics… it all came from the initial logo – a ballot box with a simple shape in four colours.
“It looked professional compared with past events, but more importantly it just didn’t look like anyone else could have done it. It didn’t look like the BBC or Channel 4, or Sky News, it looked like Buzzfeed. Colourful, bright, irreverent, but considered. I think it’s important not to lose the qualities that made it such a success in the first place, keeping its personality but taking it to that next stage, and trying to compete with our rivals.”
Animations by Sian Butcher and Rebecca Hendin / Buzzfeed.