Art direction on the web?

On Tuesday morning, while Malarkey was furiously getting himself uninvited to Håkon Lie‘s Christmas parties, and oneself was busy publishing the latest issue of A List Apart, and the jungle drums spoke of nothing but Firefox 3, Jason Santa Maria quietly slipped a torpedo into the harbor.

Jason didn’t just redesign his website, he issued a call to arms. And what he called for was real art direction on the web.

Now, over the years, plenty of others have called for art direction on the web, and some have achieved it. Quite famously, starting in September 1996, Derek Powazek achieved it with the original {fray}, an independent, non-commercial, personal storytelling site featuring the finest writers and illustrators on the web, not a few of whom {fray} discovered and launched. Stories like Lance Arthur’s A Little Black Death, Molly Steenson’s Pulling a Geographic (now sadly stuck in a loop), and Rebecca Eisenberg’s Mugged weren’t just compellingly written; they were compellingly written and art directed. The drama of viewing and wondering what the next page held was part of the reading experience, as it is in visually leading print magazines like Seed and Wired.

{fray} was a magnificent achievement and still is, and if design officialdom didn’t recognize it at the time, and hasn’t recognized it since, the fault lies with officialdom.

But {fray} was not only a labor of love, it was also a labor of labor—each page lovingly hand crafted in the browser-centric HTML of the time. And today we are modern and streamlined, not only in our markup, but in our means of production. We’re all about blogs and zines, templates and CMS platforms. Nobody but weird Unibomber-like hermits and Tantek hand-codes individual pages anymore.

And it is to that environment—to our environment—that Jason’s redesign speaks, calling for real art direction in the context of template-and-CMS-based publications.

Well, here is my experiment: a very simple setup for fast design and art direction around content. I’m approaching this is much the same way one would approach the design of a magazine: a system for the way content gets handled, but every layout and story can take on a look of their own within that system.

It’s just a blog, like any blog, although better looking than most. Housed on what is essentially a beefed-up open source blogging platform. Beefed up just enough to allow the writer/designer to change colors, typefaces, and the position and shape of copy blocks on a per-post basis as needed.

Speaking of beef, where is it? Where are all these posts with unique layouts within an overarching and unifying system of design? They have yet to be written and produced. But I’ve seen the comps and know some of what is coming, and it is going to be a lovely, drawn-out feast.

And even if it were not half as lovely as it will be—if Jason, instead of being one of our leading web designers, were a visual illiterate—the idea would still matter, and this proof of concept would still merit our gratitude.

[tags]artdirection, webdesign, jasonsantamaria, derekpowazek,{fray}[/tags]

37 thoughts on “Art direction on the web?

  1. Kudos to Jason for taking this step – I checked out the site on Tuesday, and like many others I can’t wait to see what he does with it.

    If this marks the beginning of a return to turn-of-the-century integration of content (visual, narrative, interactive) which can still respect everything we’ve learnt since then (web standards, semantics, etc.) then that can only be a good thing.

  2. It’s an uphill ride. Without any proven values or business results (i.e. $$), page-by-page art direction on the Web doesn’t stand a chance outside of our personal sites. It takes time and an understanding which most businesses haven’t budgeted for (yet).

  3. Ah, the web was a different place in 1966, it was mainly telephone based and involved an operator describing a web page to you, in a similar way to the screen readers of today.

  4. hehe, I spotted that too Ralph.

    I read Jason’s article yesterday, and it sure does put a different spin on things. I’d been thinking of similar things for my own blog, but realised that it’s impractical for most of my own posts, and I susspect for most posts on most blgos. A lot of content simply doesn’t need art directing; unless you’re going to do a big post about a well focused topic then ‘art direction’ can be too time consuming and not actually add much value. On the other hand, it’s a brilliant strategy for making those ‘bigger’ posts have more impact and gravitas.

    I think the reason art direction on the web hasn’t taken off yet is because the web is primarily about content, and the web *today* is primarily about self-published content. Where magazines have art departments to give visual consideration to the content, many solo writers don’t have the knowledge, or ability, to art-direct their own stuff.

    Art direction is never going to be big on the web; but it sure will make those that use it stand out.

  5. I’m super excited about this new “wave” of trying to make pages unique again. I’ve discussed this with a few web people of late and it seems to be a direction designers want to take.

    It may not be appropriate for some sites but for things that lean towards editorial content, it’s just about perfect. Mimicking magazines (where I actually get a lot of inspiration from these days) that are art directed well, shaping the supporting imagery elevates the content and vice versa.

    There’s a sense of gravitas that you can give things.

    Kudos all round.

  6. Art direction is never going to be big on the web; but it sure will make those that use it stand out.

    I’m not certain I agree with that sentiment. It may take awhile to catch on, but I think it can.

    Right now, the web seems to be a “cheap medium” (relatively speaking) for advertising one’s existence. As such, money isn’t really planned for in the website budget to include art direction — much like it wasn’t once included for copy writing and editing. Times changed in that arena and now there is more focus on well written copy. Who’s to say art direction isn’t next?

  7. I’ve been seeing/hearing a lot of this around the web as well and I’m super excited about it. This has me just as excited as when I found out about web standards. I feel like there’s a whole new world that needs to be explored and can’t wait to see what starts springing up.

  8. Art direction is never going to be big on the web&hellips;

    Neither will commerce, video, and wide-spread sharing of personal data and resources.

    Not that I’m offended, but, as a friend of mine used to be fond of saying, I *NEVER* make sweeping statements.


  9. thank you jason. thank you zeldman. in our earnest hurry to bring sanity to the multi-platform, multi-browser masses, we’ve lost touch with our humanity. technology is a wonderful thing, but it can be both crutch and handcuffs. let’s free ourselves. bring on the craft, bring on the content. let’s not be afraid to create again.

  10. Talk about food for thought. I am currently designing my own CMS to use on my personal site. The thought of begin able to change art direction on every page, post, or miscellaneous page is really interesting. It probably wouldn’t be hard to implement with the right vision.

    I am not much of a designer, or art director, my skills are in code, but it would be a fun experiment. Something different that doesn’t currently exist.

  11. “Nobody but weird Unibomber-like hermits and Tantek hand-codes individual pages anymore…”

    I’m strangely gratified to find myself lumped into this group.

    Thank you, Jeffrey.

  12. Mr. Z.,

    I always love your stuff. You’ve probably received a ton of e-mails on this already — but I wanted to let you know that you had 1966 on this page, , instead of September “1996.”


    Brandon King

  13. I think it’s a great step to bring design of pages into the forefront. I’ve often seen this as a problem, although moreso with informational and navigational pages rather than blog posts. Cookie cutter approaches make websites boring and often difficult to use.

    I do agre with others that this is often impractical, especially for self-publishers and other financially challenged sites. But we can still try and do our bit. Start with small changes and who knows where you can go.

  14. I really enjoy what Jason/Stan is going for. It seems that there is an ever-present urge to redesign your own blog. Now that Web 1.0 has been dead and gone for a while, I think we all are getting tired of templates and CMS’s in general. Mr. Storey wrote about this a while ago–how we’ve lost some of the fun and spontaneity of web design with the death of Web 1.0. Jason’s method of breaking away from the template with every post is a great way to quell the urge to re-do the whole thing. I’ve tried a variation of this for myself for the past six months. There are a couple obvious trade-offs:

    – I use custom CSS in the head of each page/post (looks like Jason does as well). This prevents displaying multiple posts on the same page.
    – Using a CMS isn’t as useful for these kind of posts. I have to create custom forms and post-specific CSS and HTML for each entry. It might have been just as simple as to work with the CSS and HTML itself, and skip the CMS altogether (I use TextPattern)
    – All of the custom page design is lost in RSS. Maybe this isn’t a trade-off but it has to be considered.

    So, yes, I am excited by the corner turned in Jason’s new approach to blogging. I hope more bloggers and designers copy this method and run with it. We need to shake up blahgs.

  15. Yeah, well it was a lot of work clearing his old highly stylized site way. It’s just a simple start but I’ll keep checking back to see what directions he takes. There is something in the air because I’ve read posts and articles eluding to this for a few months now. Jason has really broken way and in doing so has got me thinking on these same lines of thought. Maybe it’s the start of a new design revival.

  16. Art direction got trampled by automation (CMS), the same way vinyl got trampled on by miniaturization (8-track, Tape). Not intentionally, but faster, better, more, was (is) the mantra of our society.

    To give that mantra the finger is a daring move, but one that we all need to take (albeit in varying steps). We should always do more with less, instead it seems we’ve been settling for less with more.

    Jason has in a way called us all out saying “define the medium!!! don’t let it define you!!!” – except he says it quite eloquently.

    I’ve tried to take the middle route and automate the art direction (a tad) (as has many others) by sampling colors from photos wtihin a post. Such is the Monotone theme ( for (

    And don’t forget Jeffrey, you were a Unibomber-like hermit up until just a year or two ago!!! ;)

  17. Nobody but weird Unibomber-like hermits and Tantek hand-codes individual pages anymore.

    HEY! I am not some kind of crazed hermit just because I’m still hand-coding my work templates. And I have the 150 page manifesto decrying the W3C’s alliances with the Bilderberg Group and Colonel Sanders to prove it! Just publish it for me already, Zeldman.

  18. While this is a novel idea (that has been done before, some web zines do it all the time) the important thing that I noticed here is Jason’s use of Expression Engine verses ye olde Movable Type and the ever so bloggiest WordPress. It looks like Jason did some playing around and done learned the engine good. With the way Expression Engine is set up you can not help but get inspired to change the look as often as you have time for.

    So while I applaud the art direction approach I am equally stoked that someone else in the community is realizing the power of EE.

  19. You have to give the guys at A Brief Message some credit, they’ve been doing it for months now.

    Jason credits them and A List Apart in his post to which I linked.


    That’s what happens when you write blog posts at 4:00 AM. :)

    I remembered an April 21, 2008 article I read, where NY TImes Newsroom Design Director Khoi Vinh said “It’s our preference to use a text editor, like HomeSite, TextPad or TextMate, to “hand code” everything”

    Right. They hand code their *TEMPLATES.*

    They don’t hand code each individual page of the newspaper!

    We hand code our templates. Every good designer or shop hand codes its templates.

    Hand coded templates not the same as hand coded pages.

    I am not some kind of crazed hermit just because I’m still hand-coding my work templates.


    Good designers hand code their templates.

    But almost nobody anymore, myself included, *publishes* by hand-coding each individual web page.

  20. I am still most happy with the completely hand-coded sites I made (and still make), because of that incredible quality they have: no security vulnerabilies, no upgrade to version and no plugins. It just means overall less maintenance, and the maintenance that is required is purely content, which I do myself and can fit in semantically, hell even use microformats. The fact that it’s all HTML and hardly any interactivity doesn’t seem to bother the visitors of the site: they get their information quickly and presented with great visuals. Plus: total flexibility, no fixed framework to work in. I also notice a lot of clients don’t want a CMS because they have to do the work, they prefer to have someone else do content updates (who can blame them?). Ultimately RSS can then still take care of a lot of content that has to come from a database or other sources.

  21. >But almost nobody anymore, myself included,
    >*publishes* by hand-coding each individual web page.

    Guilty as charged: **
    (the entire public.resource site is handcoded. It is the only way we can get the flexibility we want with the layouts)

    I actually find myself creating hybrid sites – I will handcode the core site, and then perhaps have a section of the site have an underlying CMS. BBS or blog engine.
    So, I am glad to hear there is a movement afoot. I just thought I was old-fashioned.
    BTW, watch the TimBL video … it’s great!

  22. Personally, I think the Internet has been a great gift to art lovers, not only because it makes great works of art available for so many people to admire themselves. It’s also the best resource ever invented for art lovers like us to meet and exchange ideas!

  23. Nobody but weird Unibomber-like hermits and Tantek hand-codes individual pages anymore.

    I hand-code all my site. I did try moving to Expression Engine but found it limited so much of what I could do. I tried my best to tweak it but I was fighting the programmers. Then, after a while of leaving it, it got hacked. I deleted the whole thing and returned to glorious HTML, PHP and Notepad2.

    Note: if I was starting again I would probably go for WordPress. Hand-coding sure takes time!

  24. Are the days of “set it, and forget it!” websites coming to an end? Not if bosses like mine have anything to say about it.

  25. I was thinking of this post earlier today when I was reminded that ESPN does some neat things when it comes to their “E-Ticket” stories. is one of my most visited sites – and while the regular site generally follows their templates, they post a highlight story every week or so under the “E-Ticket” banner. stories usually involve much better art direction that incorporates a unique design, larger high-quality photos and other interactive material like video, etc.

    A few examples:

    Practive Swings
    The Day Innocence Died
    Dice K 2.0
    All Too Perfect
    Unlikely BFF’s

  26. This move by Jason (and the others who have gone before) remind me — as someone who currently works in an ad agency — of the value of brand. If I can subscribe to the Wired RSS feeds to get the Wired content, why would I ever navigate my way to Well, I wouldn’t, unless the payoff of leaving my reader was worth it.

    Content is king, as they say. But content is not content is not content. In my reader, Jason’s content is output from him, input for me. Transactional. Commoditized. (And this has nothing to do with the content itself, b/c what he shares is great. It has everything to do with the context of my reader.) At, his content is truly king b/c he treats it as such, and I experience it that way.

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