Behind the Scenes of a TNTP Report

One of the first questions we hear when we release a new report is, “Who designed this?” It’s true that we love beautiful design; at TNTP, “no clip art” is a rule to live by. But we also believe great design is critical to telling a story well—that’s why we’ve been teaming up with Cricket Design Works (CDW) in Madison, Wisconsin to design our reports since 2008. Today, we’re sitting down with founder Kristin “Cricket” Redman and Bethany Friedericks, the lead designer on The Mirage, to talk about how a TNTP report goes from a Word document and PowerPoint deck to a cohesive, designed whole.

Tell us a little about Cricket Design Works. What’s a day in the life like over there?

Cricket Redman: We’re a group of designers, writers, developers, and thinkers who love to learn, understand complex information, and design simple, easy-to-grasp messages. Our studio is open and friendly, with one or two dogs lounging in the main work area. With no walls or doors, it’s easy for people to rub elbows, look over each other’s shoulders and ask questions. Our best projects are those where many designers are involved to bounce ideas off each other and offer multiple solutions. 

We often hear “TNTP reports are SO pretty.” We love that, of course, but we also think the design is important to telling the story. How do you go from one of our big headlines (“we don’t know how to help teachers improve”) to a cohesive look and feel for a report? What happens behind the scenes?

Cricket: When we do a kickoff call with TNTP, we try to understand the narrative of the report. We’ll seek out themes that have a good visual element. Sometimes it’s bold and in your face, like Shortchanged, and sometimes it’s a little more nuanced and hidden, like the covers we did for Fast Start and The Mirage.

Bethany Friedericks: We have to nail the cover design first, because that drives a lot of the interior. Covers can either go really quickly, like with Shortchanged—I think we did about five tries for that cover—or not so quickly. I think The Mirage cover took something like 30 tries.  

Sorry about that. Can you walk us through the process of getting to the cover for The Mirage? Where did we start, and how did it evolve?

Cricket: When we started brainstorming about The Mirage, we were talking about that notion of a hazy destination or misunderstood expectations. We were trying to convey the idea of uncertain career growth.


Our initial design (left image) played with this idea of “shimmers” of color and abstract, refracted light. What we heard from you guys, though, was that these were missing something “under the shimmer.” From there, we went with something (right image) inspired by abstract images you provided. Here, you get more of a sense of something concrete lurking beneath the abstract.

We thought that one was really pretty.

Cricket: We did, too. It’s a bit more unexpected than the earlier version because of the use of different textures and colors. But the feedback from you was that although it was pretty, it wasn’t quite on-brand for TNTP.

You also suggested we try something with identifiable figures—something that played with this notion of “marching in place,” which was important to the report. But nobody was really happy with this direction (left image). It felt too much like a stock cover.

Then you asked us to try something with smaller figures in the distance (lost in the desert, perhaps?), and lighter colors that bring back some of the shimmer. I call this version (right image) “the Twilight Zone cover.” You liked the horizon concept and the brighter, warmer colors. But you wanted to see something that conveyed that sense of bent light that makes it hard to assess the true distance left to travel.

Bethany: At this point, we ditched everything and started with a completely new concept. I found a photo that had vibrant colors and a sense of solidity. It’s also a desert scene, fit for a mirage.

Cricket: From there, we got to our winner. The final cover has the refracted light element, with a hint at something in the background, and it includes a plateau, which is also a theme in the report. The triangular grid gives the feeling of marching in place.


And it’s so pretty! After the cover, you said you turn to the infographics. How do you approach the process of presenting complex data in a way regular people can understand?

Bethany: Infographics are fun because they’re like putting together a puzzle. When I get data from you, I’ll sketch out two or three different ways we could make it as readable as possible. The goal is always—if I come at this without knowing anything about the content, will I end up taking away the main point?

Cricket: There’s also a lot of restraint required in making an effective infographic. TNTP has always done a great job sharing the take-home messages they want the data to convey, and from that we can use design to help the data tell the story clearly. At best, I think a graphic should tell one main idea. Here’s an example of a figure from The Mirage that does that really well:

You’ve been designing TNTP’s reports for a long time, and their look and feel has evolved a lot. How much of that is a result of your own aesthetics evolving and how much is coming from us?

Bethany: I think it’s probably evolved with you guys trusting us a little more, as our collaborative relationship has evolved. The more a client trusts the designers, the more freedom we have to explore.

Cricket: I also think the TNTP team consistently pushes to do better and better, both with the reports and the design aesthetic. So there is always the challenge to one-up our last effort. We love that.

And I think sometimes you’ve challenged us to think about what big messages or data points are coming through or getting lost. Sometimes you see things through the design process that we haven’t seen, and that’s great. It’s a collaborative process. That said: Truth time. Are we your craziest client?

Bethany: Not at all. You’re actually very organized!

Cricket: Only in your crazy commitment to what you do.

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About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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