“Kill your darlings” isn’t only good advice for print journalism. Developing a successful digital project requires ruthless editing, no matter how attached you may be to that perfect paragraph or clever piece of code. Our recent Loaded with lead series, on the dangerous contamination found at gun ranges throughout the country, is a perfect example. While the final design is striking, bold, and distinctly digital, we threw away a lot of work to reach that point. Today I’d like to show how we moved through various iterations of the project until we found something right for the piece.

When we first started putting together our online plans for “Loaded with lead,” we didn’t yet have a final version of the story, or a solid headline photo to serve as inspiration. I began by experimenting with a James Bond-like screen wipe, blooming out from a gun or target to reveal the headline. Even as rough prototypes, these concepts were underwhelming.

Click the background to play the animation

Once we had the photo that would be used for the story in print, I tried another approach. Using WebGL and a handmade depth map, I set up a shifting perspective effect, changing the viewpoint in response to the mouse position to let readers look down the contaminated shooting range. It was a neat trick, but it didn’t really have any relationship to the reporting, or the problem of lead contamination, so we dropped it.

Move the mouse to see the depth effect in browsers that support WebGL

At this point, art director Susan Jouflas and I started on a new concept for the design. One of the dangers of lead in gun ranges is that it’s ejected from the gun as airborne dust: from there, it’s inhaled by shooters, settles on nearby surfaces, and gets absorbed into clothing. How could we portray this pervasive contamination to readers in the browser? We spent a lot of time looking at the ways that dust is shown in film, such as the Emmy-winning title sequence for the BBC’s Great Expectations:

To produce a similar effect, I built a multi-layered particle system in WebGL. We spawned the particles from behind the headline, as though the words “loaded with lead” were themselves emitting poisonous dust. A canvas-based fallback meant that browsers without WebGL would still get a similar–if far less elaborate–display. By tweaking the balance of sizes and directions for the particles, we found ourselves with a pretty convincing simulation to place over the image. Alongside the airborne dust, we added a smear of grime that would accompany the user’s cursor (or finger, on a touchscreen), and created a treatment for the article’s pullquotes in which grime would accumulate in the corners of the quote box as the reader scrolled past.

Click to play the “grime” animation

In general, we liked the dust and grime, but it didn’t provoke the strong reaction we were hoping for, and some people who saw it were annoyed by the contrast between the white floating particles and the black accumulation. The only design element that our test readers really loved was the dirty fingerprints left on touchscreens, which gave the piece a gritty feel in keeping with the reporting.

With that in mind, I decided to try one more idea that had been kicking around in our discussions. Susan used chalk and watercolor to create a texture made of heavy, black dust, which would be swiped “onto” the screen in response to touch or cursor movements. As if in a wax-resist painting, the user’s trail of contamination would reveal the white headline text against the previously white background. Immediately, we knew we had something special. Testers loved the effect, and it had a strong visual identity that we could use throughout the story.

Lead web producer Katrina Barlow, who did much of the design and layout on this piece, ran with the concept and integrated the black texture into the pull quotes, replacing the accumulation effect. From there, it was natural to allow the quotes to respond to a user the same way that the title did, although we made sure that they started with the top line or so already revealed. The effect was strong enough that we even dropped the cursor smudge effects, although we kept the fingerprints on large touchscreens.

Throwing away those earlier prototypes was hard to do, but we wouldn’t have been nearly as happy with the final result if we hadn’t. This is a hard lesson to learn, especially for beginning developers, who are still learning their craft and are (rightly) attached to their hard-won code, but it’s ultimately just as important as tooling and experience. When building news apps, be willing to kill your darlings: you’ll be glad you did.