Website design inspiration: Snowfall

28th May 2014

In December 2012 the New York Times published an epic story about a brutal avalanche entitled “Snow Fall: the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek”. It was a revolution in design because the online story fully integrated the text with cinematographic 3D pictures, audio and videos that brought the tale to life and took the reader on a compelling journey never before experienced with a newspaper story. It captured the attention of journalists, designers and audiences alike and won a Pulitzer Prize for its reportage.

Why was it different?

Snow Fall: the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek was laid out as a series of chapters with the multi-media elements embedded within the scrolling story, rather than just being sidebars or pull-out blocks that the reader went back to after reading the main story. It immersed the visual elements so that the reader became fully involved with 3D, moving, aural and visual content with precise effect, making other digital stories look plain and lacklustre. It was so unlike anything done before it coined the term ‘Snowfall design’. People started to wonder if this was the shape of journalism to come.

Sounds great – we should see this on every news story!

Whilst it was definitely a game changer, it hasn’t spawned a wholesale conversion – the majority of online news is still mainly text with some visual elements used to enliven the page rather than provide a full on special effects extravaganza. This is partly because the New York Times production team had to create a virtually brand new way of coding so that the huge data size didn’t derail the viewer’s experience by continually freezing, crashing or detracting from reading the text. The timing, size of the elements and the pace of page turning had to be precisely planned. This is expensive and laborious and not necessary for every news story - for some topics it would be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

So when is it useful?

It’s perfect for highly visual stories like that of a dramatic avalanche which requires viewers to understand the topography and chronology of weather patterns that led to the avalanche. It looks great on an iPad, which lends itself ideally to multi-media content and interactivity. It’s likely that websites will increasingly take inspiration from Snowfall design, providing a beautiful scene for visitors and advertisers alike but you need to guarantee a pretty sizeable Internet connection to make it a blessing and not a curse.