How El Colombiano uses its design thinking ECOlab to innovate

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, United States

El Colombiano created an internal strategy and innovation lab called ECOLab (its Spanish acronym) to take a design thinking approach for strategic growth and problem-solving. In a live, in-depth Webinar on Wednesday, Editor Martha Ortiz  shared how ECOLab has expanded the Colombian media company’s creative culture, solving issues like a Web site redesign and creation of a magazine business unit.

The concept behind ECOLab is based on design thinking methods from Bruno Munari, industrial design thinking, and El Colombiano’s own concepts. Yet how to use it as a creative tool can be applied at most media companies worldwide.

Ortiz began by explaining how ECOLab was born from asking  one simple question: Do we want to change our identity? If so, the answer came from this quote by John Paton, former CEO of Journal Register Company:

“You don’t transform from broken. You don’t tinker or tweak. You start again new.”

El Colombiano started anew with ECOLab. “We started at a small table at the last corner of the newsroom,” Ortiz said of the modest beginnings. “We had to find our place in the company and convince them it was a good idea to create this.”

The team at El Colombiano's ECOLab has grown from a small table in the corner of the newsroom.
The team at El Colombiano's ECOLab has grown from a small table in the corner of the newsroom.

To help answer the identity change question, they invited an anthropologist to work with them to teach what identity means. Identity consists of four things:

  • Who I am.
  • Who I believe I am.
  • Who I want to become.
  • What I refuse.

“First we decided what we wanted to become: a very clear definition,” Ortiz said. “We made an effort to be consistent, and then we taught the team that we to do this every single day.”

She explained that the reality was the environment outside was in constant motion — and will always be like that. “We needed a reality that matched that environment, and we created ECOLab to do that.”

The main word used to justify ECOLab was sustainability. El Colombiano believes creativity is a strategic tool to face challenges because it will bring sustainability, growth, and success into the business — and as a result, open minds and create new adventures farm from paradigms and bad results.

“Innovation was not only in ECOLab; the innovation had to be throughout the whole company,” Ortiz said.

They first looked at the objectives that ECOLab would serve, such as creating and maintaining business units, and developing products and services to increase the market share. Ortiz said that her team viewed everyone as a competitor — even if they aren’t in news media.

Next, they defined the indicators by which the company would measure ECOLab results, such as client satisfaction, traffic, etc. Every single project would not have to have all the elements, but must have at least some of them.

Design thinking

ECOLab centred around three core components: understand, design, and execute. The key things driving it, and which would result from it, included:

  • Change in demand.
  • Old product/service in trouble.
  • New opportunities.
  • New competitors.
  • Wonderful, unexpected inspiration.
The three-part model used to design El Colombiano's ECOLab.
The three-part model used to design El Colombiano's ECOLab.

“We are not working for the CEO; we are not there to make people happy,” Ortiz said of the leadership structure of ECOLab. “We are there to solve a problem. When we define a project, we try to make it very general without a solution goal, to really open our minds to any way to solve the problem. When we complete the project, we are not done forever. It’s an ongoing, changing thing.”

Ortiz explained how ECOLab could be defined in one line: a shared service to solve problems internally.

Ortiz shared several specific projects that ECOLab designed and executed:

El Colombiano Web site

In 2015, ECOLab set out to transform the company’s Web site, as a disruption of the product and to begin the integration with the newsroom.

“The goal was to create the best newspaper, and to address younger audiences,” Ortiz said. The new Web site has grown audience reach and engagement daily, and has been a base to explore and play with video, multi-media, photography, and more.

One of the first projects that ECOLab undertook was the redesign of the El Colombiano Web site.
One of the first projects that ECOLab undertook was the redesign of the El Colombiano Web site.

As an example, El Colombiano addressed the country’s upcoming vote on a complex agreement between the government and FARC guerrillas. The government had issued a very lengthy document, which was labourious and confusing to many citizens.

ECOLab distilled each of the six chapters in the document to help the audience navigate and understand it, creating print and digital pieces about the key points to help the audience make their choices. This project won the INMA Global Media Award.

ChamoColombiaTeQuiere campaign 

In 2015, the Venezuelan government displaced a Colombian citizen at the border. Emotions ran high about this incident, so El Colombiano decided to help, creating a hashtag, #chamocolombiatequiere, for people to share the news and their thoughts. It was a trending topic hashtag for two days in both countries, reaching more than 700,000 people on Facebook.

Pope’s chat

For the Pope’s visit to Bogota, the newspaper undertook all the typical coverage they would usually do, but ECOLab also decided to take it one step further by employing WhatsApp, a very popular platform in Colombia. They created a special chat to share information about the Pope’s visit to their audience. Results included 200 contacts in four days, and Ortiz said that they are now expanding this with software to cover the 2018 World Cup and this year’s presidential election.


ECOLab created a virtual college student of journalism, Malala, who is committed to help citizens. She has “WhatsApp powers” of influence over government. This creative and interactive approach is meant to reach the younger audience of the newspaper.

Another initiative to reach the younger audience was One For You, a competition for students of art, design, and architecture. The prize for this contest was giving away the closing page of the newspaper to a different foundation once every three months.


INMA: Is this strictly for editorial or is it for advertising as well? Do you go outside the company at all?

Ortiz: It looks very editorial because it’s very now. We work with the engineers, the production department, and we’ve also hired people outside the company.  There is some demand for outsiders and we are open to do that.

INMA: Were there any in the organisation who were resistant?

Ortiz: Most everyone wanted to be part of this. However, when we took ECOLab into the newsroom, there were people who found it hard to change. We addressed emotions, making them excited about it; but also appealed to the rational, explaining the reasons behind it. It took a year of training, talking about it, etc.

INMA: Do you have all the human resources necessary to deliver the project, or do you commission tasks?

Ortiz: We do commission, but when we do the person has to work inside the lab. They have to physically be there, 100% on the project.

INMA: How do you determine what problems the lab will take on?

Ortiz: We recognise problems because someone asks us to address it. We do a quick research at that point.

INMA: Can you share any examples of ideas or projects that were rejected or sent back for more work?

Ortiz: One time the CEO came to us about a free neighbourhood newspaper, concerned about the name and colours in it. When we did the research and talked to production people, we realised the paper he was looking at was old and therefore faded. So, of course, we explained what the issue was and why it didn’t require change.

INMA: Was the culture change all handled in-house?

Ortiz: Yes. We used to contract people from outside, but that is very expensive. Keeping it inside has been a plus for us. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk to and learn from people outside the lab, but there is a feeling of ownership. You fight very hard when you feel it’s your own.

INMA: How do you measure success long-term?

Ortiz: We look at the numbers, following the audience with subscription numbers, surveys, Google Analytics, and other tools.

INMA: Were you able to turn any failures into success?

Ortiz: Sure, because that’s the beauty of problems. A problem is just the difference between what you have and what you want to have. Everything is a challenge, and we always keep trying different things and create different alternatives.

We try to always have at least three concepts: the most obvious, a modern (more risky) one, and an artistic one that pushes the envelope all the way. Usually the final answer is a mix of all of these.

INMA: Have you ever encountered situations where ECOLab ideas were rejected or met resistance, and how did you overcome that?

Ortiz: ECOLab needs seniority, which is why I’m here. If you don’t have seniority, people don’t pay attention to you. We usually look for the people who will love the project and fight for it. When people know I’m behind the project and it has my support, that makes a difference.

INMA: If you did not have ECOLab, looking back over five-plus years, would some of these projects not have happened?

Ortiz: I would say most would not have happened. People are so busy in the day to day aspects of their work that they are not allowed time to think. We are pushing our teams so hard to deliver day by day. With ECOLab we are allowed the time to think about these solutions.

INMA: Does real-time data analytics have any role within the lab?

Ortiz: No, not for us. Not because I don’t think it’s important, but because we are not there yet. We are small and just not ready for it yet. We will get there.

INMA: How did you approach a 10-year-younger audience?

Ortiz: The change of the print and Website editions; we changed the experience.

INMA: What’s the role of the external creative agency in the future?

Ortiz: There’s a huge potential. We are great at creating content, photography, and telling stories. This is something that is a service we can provide to others in the future and create an income for our company. I see a demand in Colombia for that, and I’m pretty sure there would be a demand everywhere.

In closing, Ortiz said, “I knew the only way I could disrupt the culture was to create ECOLab. If I had people at the top questioning it all the time, I would get no results. If I had people with me, an A-team, in our own separate space, we could make it happen. The ECOLab was a way to protect change, and also to protect the persuasion to do so.”

About Shelley Seale

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