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Georg Petschnigg: Product design and storytelling at The New York Times
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Georg Petschnigg: Product design and storytelling at The New York Times

Episode 78 of the Design Better Podcast

The New York Times has gone through many challenges and evolutions during its storied history. Founded in 1851—when it was called the New-York Daily Times—it faced draft riots during the Civil War, received the first telegraph transmission from a naval battle in 1904, and was involved in libel suits in the 1960’s that helped establish freedom of the press through the US Supreme Court

But it’s within the past 25 years or so that the “Newspaper of Record” has undergone some of its most radical transformations: shifting much of its focus away from the printed page to the web and app ecosystem, and expanding into food with NYT Cooking, consumer product reviews with The Wirecutter, and podcasts with The Daily.

Today we chat with Georg Petschnigg, SVP of Product Design at the New York Times, about what it takes to balance the tension between the rich legacy of the Times with a rapidly evolving digital landscape. We also talk about designing across products and platforms for a more unified experience, creating a tight coupling between design and engineering, and what the future holds for news products in a world where AI and ML can facilitate content creation but also manufacture deception.

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Bio

Georg Petschnigg is an executive, entrepreneur, and product leader. He feels most comfortable at the intersection of design, technology, and business. He currently serves as Head of Product Design at The New York Times.

Throughout his career, he’s created products that changed how people work, create, and see the world. He believes technology needs to serve the human need to create. 

Georg co-founded FiftyThree in 2011 and served as CEO until WeTransfer’s acquisition in 2018. FiftyThree are the makers of Paper®, the fast and beautiful productivity app for getting ideas down, Paste® the fastest way for teams to share and gather around their ideas, and Pencil, the award-winning stylus. Internationally recognized for design excellence and innovation, they’ve received awards from Apple, IDSA, Communication Arts, and IxDA. FiftyThree’s products reach more than 30 Million creative thinkers worldwide and defined mobile creativity. 

Before starting FiftyThree, he co-founded the Pioneer Studios, a design venture fund, where he led the incubation of new mobile devices such as the foldable tablet Courier, digital magazines and television services. He shipped graphic tools in PowerPoint, Word, Excel, and started a photo frame business with Samsung. While at Microsoft Research he published seminal work on computational photography. He was part of the first launch of a web-based version of Office, and the digital TV standard HDTV. 


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Links

Georg Petschnigg on Design Matters by Debbie Millman

Transcript

02:49.44

Aarron Walter

George Petschnigg, thanks so much for joining us on the Design Better Podcast.

03:03.23

Georg Petschnigg

It's so great to be here.

03:05.54

Aarron Walter

Georg, you are leading design at the New York Times which is it's a big task I mean it's ah it's a very influential institution and we want to dive into how that works what the teams like things that you're learning there. But. Could we start from the beginning like how did you find your way to The New York Times what were you doing before you joined the times.

03:27.70

Georg Petschnigg

Sure? Well I should be clear I I run the product design team the the small yet mighty product design team at the New York Times there're they're one of the things that's really exciting. We'll talk more about that is that a wide range of design keep like design disciplines are represented the times like from from. Of course video to motion to interactive pieces right? but you know product design is sort of where where you know the canvas and the the product making centered and so so that's anything that in many ways has a digital interface like the team works on but we can get into that I've I've my you know my big draw to.

To design has been that I and in software is that I think it's it's probably 1 of the clearest expressions of building architecture for the mind and my you know career over the last you know 20 to 25 years has been focused on on really sort of expanding human capabilities. Through through design different types of technologies. So I've worked on everything from productivity tools like the mainstream of productivity tools at at Microsoft office. Um I've worked on in new areas of computational digital imaging which was about sort of enabling how people could see. New dimensions and photos with stuff like hdr or or just how to make people look better in photos I've worked on creative technologies a lot of technologies that that enable human creativity here's a company founded called 53 that was very much dedicated towards towards. Um, looking and about how you could use technologies like tablets and ipads and sketching and writing and drawing to to make those really accessible to wide-r rangeed people enabled people to to to create and and design has been a mainsta in that and probably the first major intersection point. Happened with the the times was in two thousand and eight nine for me where was still at Microsoft creating a a new digital tablet device at that time was called courier or 2 wo-screen device and we started looking at the role of of content and information in in the creative process.

05:38.51

Georg Petschnigg

And it was one of those things where I started realizing that you know the way how a lot of information and and or news online is set up is that it still was very much anchored in a metaphor of being just a static impression rather than something that's feeding into a person's process for for making better decisions in their life. Or for business making a better determination of how how how how they make decisions simple actions like copy and paste when you think about this like even the metaphor copy and paste that is like as analog as a metaphor as can be um, you know.

06:14.71

Georg Petschnigg

It was really time to really start thinking a new and afresh around around some of those metaphors especially we were looking at at like the tablet tablet. What would become the tablet revolution in tooth around 2010 of how could like really content more flow into a person's creative process rather than being like just an impression.

06:16.28

Aarron Walter

It.

06:33.00

Aarron Walter

And what was like prototyping like for for those products because if if everything's very analog I don't know you're probably thinking about this in a different way was there a different type of design process right.

06:45.37

Georg Petschnigg

Yeah, so at that point I mean this is going back way way back? Um, you know we we were prototyping. You know the hardware software and services experience and so that was one of the things that ah this was still back at at Microsoft in a place called pioneer studios which was a design venture fund that we had. Developed create ah to create new consumer experiences. There are the prototyping like deliberately was set out to to to think about sort of the the human experience across like hardware software and service enabled piece so that required a a particular type of prototyping process. Um something that um. You know we really leaned heavily into his understanding like how do we really get a clear brand story through that experience. How do we develop? um, almost like I mean we we leaned very heavily into film actually to to model out like the course of a day and um. And then another really big piece that happened at that particular point was also then sort of which was somewhat new for Microsoft really establishing very clear experiential metrics around. You know if we were to create a device or a new experience that is about sort of the free flow of ideas like what would it need. And would say had a much better shot at getting some of that stuff out later on I have to say it as through your own company. You have like much more control. Um, you don't have as many resources around you better have much more control in terms of shaping like product development processes around this but 1 of the some of the things that you saw saw us do like for example in 53 like like was very.

08:15.98

Georg Petschnigg

From the very get go. We would have a really tight coupling between design and engineering like where almost like design engineer engineers would work from the very very beginning building out, not just the design but also the prototyping environment for the design. Um the the tool making I'm the mold mold making I'm having a little bit of throwback now to my. Product design studies at at at Stanford there we're oftentimes just getting the right fixuring in place to manufacture or make something as as much even harder than designing the final product and and with digital products. There is actually a very similar piece where you have to think through sort of the system that actually produces then. Ah, particular digital interface but you know at 53 we had a great chance of of doing doing that um the transition then towards the times later on after I'd sold sort of 53 and um and hadn't integrated the work at at we transfer came it came then to the times because I started just. Really realizing that? Um, how information in the news you know needs to work for us in this moment in time in this particular moment in in history I think there's been there's never been a greater need for great, high quality information to help people. Understand more about the world make better decisions around and I'll start realizing like like you know the technologies have never been as as readily available to us. Ah, which which then meant that like on the design side and that there's just such a.

09:45.90

Georg Petschnigg

Tremendous I call it like really like a golden Era of design right now for us to think through the types of user experience that you could create around the news and information service and so that's that's also like requiring a very specific prototyping and and development approach.

10:00.24

Eli Woolery

And so George your's your' comment about fixturing when you're when you're machine accepting. You know, brought back a lot of memories I started in physical product design and was traumatized several times by you know work flying out of the vice or the fixture when it wasn't properly fixtured. Um. But I'm curious. You know we were talking earlier before we we started recording um about paper I'm I'm a huge fan of that I've spent a lot of time. My daughter like making comics on it and it's just a beautiful product and you mentioned you brought some design principles in that you learned specifically from a professor named ral fasti and maybe you could talk a little bit about that.

10:35.56

Georg Petschnigg

Yeah, sure so you know, um Ralph Fasty who was one of the I believe when sort of the founding professors of the Stanford d school and one of his strong beliefs was that ah you know that.

10:52.50

Georg Petschnigg

For any type of problem. You know, sort of problem solving one of the great skills is to really that one of the like you want to nurture really diverse sort of tool set ah to to tackle any type of problem and and he he introduced a class called ambidextrous thinking specifically with that idea in mind. Um, you know we're usually and sort of you know the education or public education systems like you'll come through and you'll be great at like reading writing arithmetic a lot of sort of skills that that can easily be sort of measured and track. But but really taking on creative thinking and divergent thinking techniques. And and and and and seeing them as as a learnable and and and and a conquerable and and a skill that you can just get better over time is something that really he brought to the fore and a very universal technique in that is just getting people comfortable with sketching and visualizing an idea like. You know words can be quite deceiving when you hear something like the word tree like you know with any number of people in the room. Every person has now a different idea of what that tree could be but even just a few rough contours of a sketch of a tree could could show the difference between a pine tree and a palm tree and and ah and a growing tree or a ginormous tree right? I Mean. Like a sketch can be incredibly powerful in terms of solidifying you know different ideas and so it was actually a really interesting piece that he set up a class to to really help students develop creative confidence through sketching and visual articulation of their ideas.

12:24.13

Georg Petschnigg

It's something that then over the course of my career. You know had the great fortune of working with like scientists and researchers and um, you know some of the quote of smartest people of the world right? but that would many ways freeze up when you would ask them to just sketch out a quick image like I remember teaching a computer. Game development class at at at Stanford and 1 of the basic assignments was to sketch out the user interface all right? and so many students would make up excuses um and apologies for their sketching classes for their sketching skills and. I was was struck by that because like oftentimes their sketches were actually much better than sort of the the lengthy wordy descriptions of what ultimately would be a very visceral experience for for someone playing a game or or looking at a computer graphics project right? So um, it was so ral fast. You really broke down a set of. Ah, very learnable steps and skills on how to visually articulate an idea I'll just share a couple 1 of them one is like to draw an emphasis on idea you might want to highlight it and outline it so you would take ah a quick say pencil sketch but then to really draw attention to. Sort of a main element in a graphic um or in a sketch you want to of course draw an outline around it and when I look at the paper tool like the way how we ended up balancing for example, a pencil and and the outlining tools. They were actually optimized to do exactly that. So the user didn't have to change any settings and you could go from something like.

13:53.21

Georg Petschnigg

Just feeling out a shape to then you know locking it onto the page with outline tool and that's why like in many ways. Outline tool is even called outline tool to even suggest someone who was like untrained that you could be using this to to outline one of your final choices so principles like you know tiger lines and outlining um and just. Even how color would work together. Um, these are a lot of the sort of lessons that Ralf would emphasize and and the last pieces and that's like something if you you met him as a person he tried to also exude a tremendous amount of joy in the work and that's also something we really hope to express in and paper um that that. Anyone who creates in paper should just feel a deep sense of joy in that where it was just really rewarding from the get-go because like at the very beginning like most age ideas are just really really fragile and you can be your harshest critics so to get over that creating environment. That's just you know, pleasant, enjoyable and fun is is is. You know one of those techniques of just getting you to create more.

14:52.91

Aarron Walter

George you you just tossed out a gem and we passed right over it and I wanted to rewind you said software design is the closest thing to building architecture for the mind. Can you unpack that for us.

15:04.12

Georg Petschnigg

Sure the I you know I grew up and on I you know I grew up and with and many walks with my my grandfather who was an architect in in in Germany and you know did a lot of his work at. After world war ii in Germany where where architecture in many ways was used to to shape sort of a modern society There was a big opportunity actually also rethink and get Germany to think differently about what what it it should should be. And you know I can say that now now have much better understanding of some of these like very very lofty ambitions that that he was trying to articulate but just growing up like I started developing sort of very intuitive I would say like childlight wonder and childlight sense for space and and. Or physical ah surroundings and you know when I think about also like my you know my my like my mother. My parents came more from the hospitality world and what it means to create a great experience for people where they would enjoy themselves and I'm more of like the age of you know technology I came. Came to be with pcs and the internet and in the information like the information age where where like you know our connections more and more and more like um, you know our limbs almost touch and feel into like this ether like this broader space where.

16:27.95

Georg Petschnigg

Where bits information images people connect and a lot of the rules and the governance of that like ultimately so comes from like our understanding of a physical world. We just oftentimes sort of forgot that it isn't all that different right? The the. The internet and the digital space oftentimes feels just so expansive and infinite but it that it isn't right because the the amount of space that you can actually design and and is somewhat limited and the amount of space that you can sort of touch on and so when I think about sort of. Like you know we've created this incredible space digitally online where sort of our information. Our ideas can connect right and we need to tend to them with a great care that we would tend to like physical spaces as well, right? And so. You know this is sort of 1 of the things that I just came to understand and see more and more and more over over the years there was like sort of this mad rush of of getting everything online connecting medium building mediums for medium sakes this idea of like engagement like these are these are. All these very very interesting digital sort of ideas. But at the end of the day like you know how does the human field. How do we get oriented I feel like sort of you know architecture provides just a lot of great guidance and metaphors for that and and sometimes even applying some of those constraints.

17:49.86

Georg Petschnigg

Of of like the very physicaltraints through the digital word. It is quite helpful and to provide to provide. Um, you know a better user experience and ultimately the mind needs to feel at ease and that needs to feel empowered and needs to feel like.

18:05.84

Georg Petschnigg

And that's when I think about digital experience So many of them actually unfold in the head right? and that's sort of where where where we need to you know, really think about oftentimes software and and our user interfaces architecture for the mind.

18:17.97

Eli Woolery

You spoke earlier too about your experience at paper and this tight coupling between design and engineering what are your thoughts? What does this happen more in most organizations.

18:29.58

Georg Petschnigg

I hope it is happening. It's happening much more these days than it did in in you know the the you know the the 90 s or the early two thousand s and again like when it comes to digital design that stuff is really really new like relatively new and comparisones to like architecture and other fields like. Um, but it was like I would say the remarkable shift happened like in the late 90 s to early like two thousand s there was a clear shift that happened from when it comes to like software and digital products. Anyone who would just get it to work. You could win sort of a market by just making this. Software work. But the 2000 were very much marked around making software actually start to work make make software work really really really well like where aesthetics the user experience motion animation. Like with the launch of the iphone. It was. This was such a breakthrough and pivotal moment where it became clear that you can craft exceptional experiences here. Um, and and you know, um, yeah, and and to a certain extent like just making it work would not cut it. You'd had to to to go further and you'd had to delight and where all the sudden you're able to actually concern yourself with I think some of them much more important and really really not more important but really important questions of like hey what's the impact sort of the design should have could have um you know? ah.

19:58.15

Georg Petschnigg

What are some of the valleys that are being communicated through this like what what is sort of this this design really doing and um, that's sort of where that that partnership between design and engineering. Um, you know the the merge of the art and the science comes into play right? becomes really critical as an unlock right? because it's It's just not.. It's no longer good enough to just make things work. It becomes really more but so much more about like you know how well can we make them work are they doing the right thing is this saying the right thing we want to say about our product is this really how we want to like show up in the world and that's kind of where sort of that that interplay between you know, design and engineering is just so crucial because like engineering ultimately opens up.

20:21.78

Aarron Walter

Next.

20:37.19

Georg Petschnigg

Possibilities and in the the the relationship between the designer and the engineer is is is then just really powerful of sort of shaping what that future could be in making it. Um, and yeah.

20:45.40

Aarron Walter

Um.

20:52.46

Georg Petschnigg

So so in case, that's sort of where I would say like that this is it's still to to this day I think one of the most powerful sort of unlocks. Any organization can have is really sort of get the left and the right brain the proverbial left and right brain working together and and by the way I don't want to like.

21:03.60

Aarron Walter

Totally agree with that.

21:08.57

Georg Petschnigg

Sometimes like engineers can be great designers. Great. Designers can be great engineers right? at some point like what really happens is like teams teams teams become like in many ways become 1 in the work and it's an incredible thing to see.

21:09.91

Aarron Walter

Um, sure.

21:21.73

Aarron Walter

Yeah, you, you categorized this moment right now as a golden era of design. Could you explain a little bit more like what makes this a special moment and you know we're a quarter of the way into the twenty first century there's a lot of big things happening right now. So what makes now a special moment and what do you see coming soon.

21:45.00

Georg Petschnigg

Yeah I mean specific for design at the times right? It should be clear. That's sort of like um, the like when I look at sort of you know you know when I look at sort of the New York Times as an organization where it stands it has an incredible business model. Right? It's it's where we're sort of the like you need to look at sort of you know design business technology like they they're all connected like I would say on on the business side. It is so clear that like. You know building an essential subscription having a subscription relationship with a reporting organization. It makes so much sense. This is the the right relationship that you you know you want to have with with a newsroom right? That's out reporting on your behalf from now until you know every year to come right? this is this is what this organization does they report and and so it also maps to a really really phenomenal. Um, business model with you know subscriptions and advertising on the technology side right? I mean we're really, ah, there's been. You know it's such an explosion of of of recording capabilities technical capabilities graphics capabilities I mean you know I had my start in tech trying to get like Hdtv off the ground so working on M P Mpeg 2 and Mpthree s and all of this just getting anything to stream over any meaningful distance postage stamp size was a major feat.

23:08.70

Georg Petschnigg

And today people like on their phones are recording like four k videos 8 k videos right and mean we don't even know what to do with our pixels anymore and we have so many of them and even alexa device has like I don't know what 16 microphones in it like when you think about sort of the technical abundance that we live in right now. It's it's it's it's fascinating right? And then. Um, and then when we look at sort of the richness the rich and the richness and the wealth of information that is now online trying to make sense of that and having sort of information serve us. Um you know and fuel our minds like Stoker desires help us like understand more of the world. I feel that's kind of where we have sort of the biggest the biggest opportunity right now. Um there. There are days I mean this is going you know back even 10 years I felt like with with ah the the advents of of um. Cell phones and and online devices like more and more information was being created but not necessarily in a form or in a shape that was um, that was well. That that would calm us down. It was very anxiety inducing and and I think it's even more so the case like scraling endless feeds I mean there was a there was like a proliferation of endless feeds which you're just sc scrollwling through and we're starting to see some of like I mean not starting to see but there've been like.

24:29.13

Georg Petschnigg

Really stark affects this I had on on people's psychology and their behaviors on online that to me sort of rethinking just from the fundamental principles of how should information work and how should it work for people to me is a phenomenal design challenge right? and and when you're looking at some of the oldest art form or 1 of the oldest human. Arts is storytelling right? and really thinking about how does storytelling unfold at a story to phenomenal storytelling organization like the New York Times I think it's just a truly golden opportunity right? because many ways the technical capabilities are there. The business model is there? well. We've gotten like we've got some really really rich design problems to work through that's that's why like to me like this is when I look at sort of that triangle I was like that. That's that's a golden opportunity.

25:16.00

Eli Woolery

You know as as well as there being an opportunity there I imagine there's maybe a little bit of tension sometimes because the New York Times has this rich legacy. It's a paper of record the gray lady. It's been around for you know, many decades and I'm curious how your team kind of navigates that that. Maybe the inevitable tension that comes up between you know, designing for the business designing for the user and and the technology available and I'm sure you know there there are a lot of discussions around that curious if you could speak to some of them.

25:47.86

Georg Petschnigg

Um, yeah, so I should probably. It's true that the New York Times is is is is like a very well establishlished organization with a tremendous history and I think it is actually important. It's a very important thing to to design for and understand right that a lot of the. Like from the subscription and the subscript and the product relationships that we're creating need to be fought through with the thing in mind that they're they're probably going to outlast any of the designer working on the team. it's it's it's not every day you can design for a product that is actually going to last people a lifetime There are very very few organizations that can do that and it's not just a lifetime it is when you look at sort of the the leadership of The New York Times and history of the New York Times like this is a multi-generational product experience right? and that is so's there is there's that's a really important thing to understand and it goes. Deep to sort of the belief of like how do you create sort of a trusted and dependable relationship with with an audience over the long time. So so um, that's not so so that's something like you know I would say the design team is really really. Very much aware of and understand sort of how importance it is to to maintain that right? that sort of gets into the the element of of of trust the second thing I should say is that the New York Times um this will probably surprise people I actually found to be an extremely agile organization. Um it it and I mean I'll just.

27:17.88

Georg Petschnigg

Point to sort of a few sort of when it comes to sort of the rate of innovation that needs to happen around storytelling. There's been like some some really really big events that happened around say say covid um, the the type of reporting the type of work that was necessary to cover something like covid um, really. Led the organization to build up. You know, data and and store like data storytelling capabilities. Unlike you know any other um, you know it led to innovations in terms into um, what's called like your storylines. Ah, navigation part that allowed people to explore a topic that is as complex as as covid at multiple levels. Um, you know from from a global from a world map view to a local map view to all the way down to like you know specific guidance that you want to give to. To an individual person how they can contextualize and personalize sort of a report like a story like covid that then like led to the development of our our our live blog infrastructure right? That started really pulling together different types of data feeds and storytelling feeds that that you're actually seeing in the coverage of the Ukraine. So. It's it's it's ah its it's it's fascinating that at some parts like the New York Times yes is is obviously like a storied organization. But um, the the the newsbeat is relentless in the type of stories that we need to cover today. Ah they they require the organization. Be.

28:42.41

Georg Petschnigg

Rather nimble and and fast acting and you see sort of see that that that play out and I would say so one of the design challenges actually to sort of think at what timescale are we doing the development and the design of this work. You know the brand narrative obviously will play out over you know, multiple years. Um, being responsive when it comes to our storytelling formats. They need to adjust within days if not weeks right? and then there is broader systems in between right? You know what do we do about our publishing infrastructure. How does that evolve versus like an app like so. Interesting thing with the New York Times is really also understanding at what rate and what call clip are we really really designing from from what I would say is just relentlessly fast and punishing the newsbeat all the way towards sort of the um, ah ah more you know, irregular. Standard product lifecycle that can unfold over recorders or or or you know halves.

29:39.36

Aarron Walter

1 thing that's fascinating to me is you know what? you just described at this is 17172 year old organization. Um, and there's certain aspects that inherently have to be nimble like the the new you know to to move with the news cycle but also. The business model seems to be evolving very quickly and intelligently like very very thoughtfully over the past you know, let's say fifteen ish years transitioning away from ads or less less ad revenue reliance more on subscription. And then broadening the touch points with subscribers that you know for you know one hundred and seventy years people have had 1 type of relationship with the New York Times and now The New York Times is recipes it's how we we cook our meals. It's the games that we play. It's the wire cutter and the product recommendations we get. It's the sporting news that we get. It's um, you know podcasts like 1 of the most popular podcasts out there. It's just it's like all these different touch points in in the curious life. Um. Could you talk a little bit about that philosophy. How that's unfolding and then how design and technology is supporting that.

30:56.42

Georg Petschnigg

Yeah, so I think like um first I mean we want to talk about like you know the business model. You know the you know I mean the big shift really happened with the launch of of sort of the subscription business I think like 2014 15 right? and and and now like the company is very much focused on on. You know the design the development of the essential subscription advertising plays a really key role in that as well. Um, as as a way because like I mean we don't think as advertising as this other thing it is it is part of the user experience. Um, and and and we want to have like the most. You know premium advertising experience as as well. I mean these 2 things should not be in conflict and then in fact, they they aren't when when when we do when we do our work right? The the. But. You know the journey that sort of the times is on right now is is in many ways with essential subscription is is is and and in areas like cooking and games and the wire cutter is is really providing sort of high quality premium information and and and and lifestyles. Life services to to our readers as part of you know the essential the essential subscription there is like 1 of the things that really like sets sort of a New York Times reader apart more than anything else is that they're lifelong learners and that they're inherently and deeply curious right? and you see sort of a deep.

32:22.70

Georg Petschnigg

Interest in travel to see a deep interest in sort of the news about the world but you also see people like seeking for high quality information around other areas of their life. Um, like like like like shopping like cooking like games and and. You know one of the beautiful things that we get to do at the times is craft exactly those types of experiences and show sort of like well what would sort of 1 of the highest quality expressions of like a cooking product look like or a games product look like and and and and that is in many ways. What? what? the? um the times and my design team is looking at. Building I can I can talk a great deal about each one of those different areas because it's it's um I because I but actually I'll share share in really really interesting piece and why this will go back to why this is such a golden opportunity for design right now. Most.

33:00.14

Aarron Walter

Um, and how do you are? yeah.

33:18.40

Georg Petschnigg

Most organizations will say like okay, we just do video or we're going to do just games or we're just going to do like 1 expression and that is not in many ways. How human life works like human life is a fundamentally multimedia experience and and one of the things that the times does.

33:29.25

Aarron Walter

Are.

33:35.71

Georg Petschnigg

Even says our report is going to be fully multimedia like you know there's some folks in the newsroom that you will even say is like our job is to figure out. Well what is the form. The story deserves right? It's not like we need to. We need to record a podcast or we need to do this like we need to write an article. No It starts like what is it? What is sort of The. Topic at choice that we need to like cover right Now. What's the best format for for that and so if it ends up being a um you know documentary or a video piece then that's what it becomes. And and it is or if it needs is if it is an article then that's that if it's an interactive piece or if it's a new app experience right? The times is willing to then go the distance and invest in that in the right expression and that is a very.

34:18.14

Aarron Walter

Are.

34:21.43

Georg Petschnigg

Like I would say it's a very very unique place I'm saying this having worked on multimedia authoring tools like powerpoint and other areas. The New York Times is so special in its pursuit of trying to figure out how to tell the right story independent in many ways of sort of like what is given and I think that is ah.

34:36.61

Aarron Walter

Um.

34:40.46

Georg Petschnigg

Huge innovation unlock for for for the times you know there are huge topics that are coming like when you think about again that nimbleness I think was allowed the times to cover something like covid you're you're seeing even the Ukraine coverage right now like. Times trying out different formats in different ways to to convey sort of like you know? Ah, what is happening in a conflict size complex as this when you think about like sort of the intercepttion of of um cell phone calls from from um soldiers back home that analysis or the overlay of satellite photography and underground footage.

35:11.44

Aarron Walter

Are.

35:15.86

Georg Petschnigg

Um, the combination with like you know, straight up like article from from Washington Views there you're starting to piece together a very very rich view of of um you know a complex topic or when we're looking at future areas like you know climate coverage like these are jet like. You know there won't just be 1 medium that will allow you to sort of tell a complete picture of of something like climate. It will acquire multiple dimensions and I like that one of the things that that people will know and come to the times for that they'll understand that you know the times will try and design sort of a.

35:38.56

Aarron Walter

Um.

35:40.73

Aarron Walter

Are.

35:51.83

Georg Petschnigg

As complete and is a rich story around a particular topic and then follow it over the long time period right? to to take it to get you know to get the story across.

36:01.58

Aarron Walter

Yeah, if we could just dig into this a little bit more the the multiproduct situation. 1 thing that I I know is having worked in companies that have been kind of singular product companies to multi-product companies.

36:09.12

Georg Petschnigg

Um, yeah.

36:20.40

Aarron Walter

Um, it's easy to come up with great ideas for new products and to build new products. What's hard is to support all of those and connect them. So how how does your team think about that this is that this is an ecosystem. Not.

36:28.61

Georg Petschnigg

Yeah.

36:35.24

Georg Petschnigg

Yeah, yeah, that's that's a great question. So for us like the center of the product experience is is our core news app or or the core news right? and the news and this is something that's again, unique to to to the times.

36:37.83

Aarron Walter

Verticals but an ecosystem of products.

36:54.48

Georg Petschnigg

The the news is incredible because it's always Fresh. It's always new and it's you know so it's it's It's almost like you know sometimes lightning it to the sun has this gravitational pull right? and we can use in many ways then use to then? um you know, bring people in on on you know, sort of some of the. The most important stories of a particular day right? and that that is sort of where the news plays sort of a central role from that there are then sub-brands and I would say deeper experiences and verticals and that's where you see sort of an experience like cooking games and wire cutter come into play that then feed off of of the news and then. They're building out like sort of strong destinations in their own right? So There is like by the way in terms of like the curation and the shaping of the broader sort of product ecosystem. Um, you know that is going to evolve over over the years right? and you know when when when does a new product get added when is something more of an app. Those are things that that in many ways ways. Um you know, ah will continues to be worked on but that relationship between sort of the the news as the mainstay and then moving into um then and then moving readers into like ah you know calling deeper.

38:09.60

Georg Petschnigg

Deeper subbrand experiences is sort of the flow that in many ways like we're designing and you can see that for example in the news app we have like a games tab in there. Um, you know we're we're working on an audio experience in that area and and that's sort of a metaphor. We're going to start expanding and and and. Some of my team is then essentially starting to work about sort of the next the next generation of the crossapp navigation model. Um like at some point we're going to run out of tabs right? So we need to start thinking about okay well what is it of that next structure so you have like team. That's that's that's looking into into into those There's a set of teams that are essentially then working on the the the. You know the various subbrands like a team focused on cooking and they are. They're incentivized and motivated to actually create sort of the best cooking product at its own right? and then you connect that then through you know you know either through promotional mechanisms or editorial mechanisms or ux mechanisms. To to do the main product which is which is the news I mean that's sort of just in rough contours Aaron like we could spend a lot of time talking about exactly how we're sort of architecting that system. But um, you know we we talk a little bit outside of our planetary system where you have sort of the gravitational of the news at the center.

39:10.68

Aarron Walter

Um, sure.

39:21.92

Georg Petschnigg

And then we bring in sort of those all those destinations and and for us like 1 of the things that's exciting right now is like thinking about sort of that then the navigational canvas that brings all the different product experience together.

39:33.65

Eli Woolery

George is a designer and a technologist I'm curious. You know, ah artificial intelligence machine learning are kind of top of a lot of mind a top of many minds right now for people who are curious about that and and there's been these huge strides lately and I'm sort of curious on 2 fronts 1 is. What are your thoughts on how it's going to sort of either augment us or potentially displace some of us as as designers and and developers and programmers and then also specifically for the times. There's obviously this huge potential for creating things like deepfakes and news. That's not. That's not real and I'm sure there's ah a human element. To fact, checking that. But there are also a technological or design approach there.

40:15.72

Georg Petschnigg

Yeah I mean I am I am so so so excited personally about sort of the breakthroughs and advances in in Ai and and language models have have happened because like you know text. And I'm saying this like when you think about sort of what the word processor enabled for people being able to move paragraphs around and arrange things like language transform models allow us to like reason and and shape a large corpus of text like with the ease of a word processor. But. Do do some really sophisticated things such as like you know, hey present this information table form compare and compress. These 2 elements like hey summarize you know ten ten articles pull out particular points that might be relevant to to to topic of interest like that's just just like. Incredible that we're at this this moment of time where we have like like ah like a higher level word process who can work on our behalf across like corpus of text that no one could even read in in in their lifetime right? That's like that's it's unbelievable, unbelievable. And so um. That in many ways is like that's sort of the language model and transform model that exists on the flip side. There is still something and I don't think that that got any easier or simpler to do there is the knowledge model which still requires like someone doing the actual work.

41:40.67

Georg Petschnigg

Like talking to people doing the reporting doing the fact checking doing the refining like we Ai didn't make that any easier you still got to you know, put on your shoes walk to places check things out if you want to generate like new dependable information like not. Like I don't see I don't see sort of a 10 x improvement of how that caught easier all of the sudden. Um, so like you know if to to be able to attribute a specific sentence and quote to a person Jack you need to be there hear. The person say that and know the person and and. And fact, check all of that stuff right? So that stuff didn getting easier but I would say there's a tremendous opportunity now to to look at the marriage of sort of knowledge bases and and language models right? and that's sort of where where where we are and I you know I I hope the times are going to play but a role in that I mean I'm sure the time is going to play a role in that. But it's. Um, how this I mean this is so Nas and all I all I think it's like in my lifetime is is one of the most exciting technology like I think it is fair to say this is one of the biggest technological revolutions that we're seeing and if we do it in the right way. Um, this could be incredibly empowering like. You know when I look at some you know I would say simpler but very very useful and and important cases like for example, when you know, um, you know the the overturning of roe v wade the news broke around that like the times was doing a tremendous amount of reporting.

43:14.60

Georg Petschnigg

Um, that topic and and you know we're using some of them are are you know our? um you know some are investments and in machine learning there to also like there were so many stories being written at that time that depending on how like.

43:24.85

Aarron Walter

Maybe.

43:28.22

Georg Petschnigg

We didn't know what a reader knew at this point when they were coming to sort of the New York Times so surfacing the right article to the reader given on what they had seen before isn't it very very useful application or even making adjustments to a headline for example and in the us we describe it as roe v wade. But for an international reader. You'd have to describe it as America's abortion law right? Those types of adjustments right? It's it's really really useful to sort of work with the machine in the the you know the right recommendation services. But again, those techniques are you know, relatively straightforward in comparison to some of the.

43:50.78

Aarron Walter

Um.

44:05.16

Georg Petschnigg

You know the the breakthroughs that we're currently seeing through through through the large language transform models like chat to be team others. So I don't know I mean this is like I wish if I had another lifetime I would have another copy of myself. Just.

44:09.72

Aarron Walter

A these are you know.

44:20.41

Georg Petschnigg

Starting entire team like working working on this area because it's just such a fundamental change of how we can deal with like a large corpus of text and other images I'm sure soon too in video soon too right? And that's it's exciting to think that that we're like going back to sort of that we're we're gonna. Get that type of cape that we're as a human species that we're going to gain this capability over the next couple of years.

44:46.18

Aarron Walter

It's interesting to hear you categorize. What's happening right now with with Ai and some of these breakthroughs. It's like this special moment. We heard the same thing from Matt Mullenweg just recently we talked to him this week founder of of wordpress and.

44:52.38

Georg Petschnigg

Are there? um.

44:55.30

Georg Petschnigg

I Yeah yeah.

45:02.59

Aarron Walter

Sees. He also like the rate of change in growth in technology right? now is much faster than anything that he has seen is what he was saying but um.

45:10.22

Georg Petschnigg

Yeah, yeah, and I'm just just 1 um Matt Magister reading on the you know and there's also something on the generative side I mean this is one of the pieces where I would say like you know we need to just be really clear like. There. There are some really useful applications of Generative Ai as well. But they all sort of are they hallucinate a lot of information right? and like sometimes it's okay to hallucinate the information. Um, you know if it's really not that critical. Ah, but like you need to be I think. There's some work to be done to be just much more transparent about when this is happening how this happening and I'm just I'm having like a little bit throwbacks here with sort of work that I got to do with felise frankel who was a scienceed photographer and back when I was working on computational digital photography like early like you know. These these ideas when you even look at an image representation like I think it is. It's totally fine and good to use these technologies but you got to be transparent about it right? it's it's you know at this point I mean you can see it. No one is fooled anymore by like a face-tune filter.

46:01.30

Aarron Walter

M.

46:08.93

Aarron Walter

Braden.

46:14.30

Georg Petschnigg

In fact, people already assumed that you used a face tune tilt filter right? There was a moment in life where people weren't even sure that it is ethically okay to use Facetune and today if you don't use facetune. You'd be like you know of course you got to make people look a certain way but all that said I think a good way around that is just to be very very transparent about what are sort of the processing steps and that's. Sort of some of the things going back to sort of the work some of the interesting challenges that team really has as we're working through even more publishing tools. How do you read? the logs sort of the transform of data and and and the evolution of it. Ah in in a way that that you know the times uphold sort of its mission to be that you know a paper of record.

47:10.46

Eli Woolery

You know legislatively at our government is is as as often very far behind the times in in europe they've already. They've already been working on legislation that Ai is not allowed to essentially impersonate a human being and I'm curious like what are what do you What are your thoughts around the role. Of of government and institutions around sort of protecting your average user from from misuse of Ai.

47:38.98

Georg Petschnigg

I You know I'm not a policy expert on that I I do like look'm just going to say do believe Governments has a role to play in a really important role to Play. You know this is a very it is obviously like this is um. You know? So I mean I believe obviously government has has a really really important role to play I mean when it comes to like even like like I'm just thinking about you questions around copyright and fair use. Um, think when I even think about like the like safe Harbor regulations around that like I mean. Like there. There are so many questions that that um there are even Attributions how does attribution work in in in in in these models like I think it's ah it's a really, it's It's a really interesting time like even if you just think about just.

48:17.19

Aarron Walter

But.

48:33.37

Georg Petschnigg

Fundamentals of copyright like you mean sampling has been around since ever. But we're really talking So like when it comes to large language Models. You're talking about sampling machines I can sample from everything everywhere at any given moment and I think um, you know there are some like you want to make sure that that that. That you know.

48:57.70

Georg Petschnigg

Like you know that that in many ways like that We don't like that We don't fall into the traps of like you know aggregation that that aggregators in many ways end up becoming like all powerful in in in this mix right? So There is something that I think Even. You know I I hope people will look at the last sort of 20 years and say like okay is has the internet evolved and developed in a way that that has has has has supported the widest range of creativity and the widest range of expression or or not and I think there is something to be learned. There.

49:31.64

Aarron Walter

Your team has to design for some difficult Contexts including you know situations like Journalists who are in War zones and they have to upload photos or or file a story from from a war zone. How do you? I mean how do you design for those Situations. You know you don't want to put designers in in those situations so they yeah can do do their own sort of ethnographic research. But you know how do you think about those difficult design problems.

50:01.52

Georg Petschnigg

Yeah, So so when the newsroom is like is a formidable partner right? I mean this is kind of like where like I would say designing like our editorial tools or even publishing tools here like we're we're dealing with an expert user. In many ways you can talk to journalists right? and they're They're extremely articulate and they know about this so in many ways like this is sort of the difference of designing for like consumer products versus like pro tools. We're creating pro tools here like um, the need for speed the need for collaboration and and the the willingness to even customize tools to meet very specific.

50:18.33

Aarron Walter

Um.

50:37.46

Georg Petschnigg

Demands something again where where where the times will go above and beyond right? And that's exciting there there often days where I think um I would liken sort of our publishing tools sometimes like the developer division at Microsoft where like you know Microsoft would go at great lengths to enabling developer productivity like. The New York Times we want to go to create length enabling sort of the productivity and also like for us where we like the you know the safety of of of journalists in the field. Um, so for example, like make ah a metric like time to file making it easy for people to file a story or even a beginning of a story. Um. Mentioned like our live blogging infrastructure like we we would go and build like for example, like ah you know bots within slack where where journals could provide really really quick reporter updates right from within slack so within existing toolflow workflows that people are using or. Ah, team has built like extensions within something like Google docs ah to to to to be able to like support lots of collaborative flexibility around working but still allow a team to build like a rich interactive graphic on top of that. So depending on where you are within within sort of the. The flow like the team the the workflow I mean you have a team specifically devoted towards workflow they they will look at building sort of the right bespoke solution but time to file is a really important metric that sort of the team looks at so when it comes to like sort of the the ease and the speed and that's that that again is is a really.

52:11.33

Georg Petschnigg

Speaking about sort of the transformation of the times going from an organization that used to just print once or twice a day to to one that is now providing you know twenty four seven coverage and and and some of the um, that's sort of any.

52:24.51

Aarron Walter

Um.

52:28.58

Georg Petschnigg

Anywhere where every time like you see sort of live coverage on the New York Times that's a massive shift in breakthrough actually in terms of how the reporting team works the tooling that's necessary to support it and um. You know it's actually really exciting to see that that the New York Times on and on is is actually now sort of seen as one of the top destinations for live news which is you know, very very like. Face you'd be like wait hang on this newspaper place is where you go for live news and the answer is absolutely you and need some tremendous life coverage now from the New York Times and so and the tool and the tooling that the team's built to support that has been just really incredible effort.

53:05.93

Eli Woolery

Georg, you're surrounded by news and and other types of content associated with the New York Times but what are you reading or listening to or watching right now that's really inspiring you.

53:17.70

Georg Petschnigg

It's you know when I like I'm really enjoying again like a Vari variety of Podcasts. So but but but to be honest, like I am. I Always will draw sort of an intersection circle of something at the times is doing and then I want to sort of see what else is around there. So for example, like we're working on like our audio app and audio products and I'm like consuming everything audio related right now just to sort of do a good compare and contrast ah ah around around that So I've been certainly like.

53:46.67

Georg Petschnigg

Dipping into bunch of podcasts. Also when I can I really am enjoying sort of the speaking about other golden areas like I do believe sort of the the series on you know from call from Netflix to Hbo's like the the quality of of just video and film production that has happened It's just been astonishing. Um, I'm I'm a huge sort of I I have to say like I've been really really surprised how good the recommendation service have gotten on Soundcloud. Um, so so there's just a constant new like if you really want to hear like new sounds like Soundcloud has been been.

54:17.82

Aarron Walter

Um.

54:24.97

Georg Petschnigg

They've stepped up the game I don't know what happened but my recommendations on soundwiclined have been like phenomenal to listen to so and then in terms of the other inspiration I mean that's sort of ah it's a little different piece. But for me it is going back to sort of there's creating the architecture for the mind. UnkS also taking care of the body. So I've been just very much about just making sure that I like exercise get out get into like whether it's spiking or swimming connecting in nature that's been just ah um, just been just a really really, but just being able to feel and live and be in the body. Something. That's just so so True. Um, so I've been spending I always try to spend some time with that too and then and then and then look I I'd like to say I married the right person to keep me inspired. So So so my wife constantly has.

55:09.36

Aarron Walter

Fantastic.

55:20.30

Georg Petschnigg

Fresh ideas and different ideas. So So we just got back from our it took a while for us to do our honeymoon but but she was like we're going to go on a safari for our honeymoon I was like okay, let's go see animals. It just got to do that as Well. So that was super super inspiring Actually for someone who worked on Cameras photography. Now Sees likes that are these raw animals in an environment that is absolutely not built but ruled by the human ah by by the animal Kingdom that was like a really really great experience for me.

55:49.23

Aarron Walter

That's great George thank you so much for joining us on the show.

55:53.41

Georg Petschnigg

Um, it's so great. Having you to have let's do this over. It's It's been so great.

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Design Better
The Design Better Podcast
Design Better co-hosts Eli Woolery and Aarron Walter explore the intersection of design, technology, and the creative process through conversations with inspiring guests across many creative fields. Whether you’re design curious or a design pro, Design Better is guaranteed to inspire and inform. Episodes are released semi-weekly. Vanity Fair calls Design Better, “sharp, to the point, and full of incredibly valuable information for anyone looking to better understand how to build a more innovative world.”