IN a world where newspapers are dying and half the public believes fake news, what online news experiences need is design that is branded, authoritative, and above all, readable:
Branded, because we need to convert the current hummingbird model (where readers flit from flower to flower) back to the idea that your news source matters—and that it is worth your time to return to a source you trust.
Brand helps the social-media-driven seeker notice that they’re returning time and again to a certain resource, facilitating a mental model shift back toward destination web browsing. When every site looks the same, it’s easy to see all content as equal—all spun from the same amorphous mass. A strong brand, which is individual to the given newspaper, can cut through that amorphousness, which is the first step in building (or rebuilding) loyalty.
Authoritative, because combating fake news means visually cueing the reliability of a particular source—one staffed by real journalists and editors, with real sources in real countries. In the coming years this will be more important than ever.
Readable, because an informed public needs to grasp stories that can’t always be reduced to headlines or sound bytes. Readability means even longer articles actually get read, sometimes even all the way through. Readability requires a combination of typeface, type size, leading, measure, hierarchy, contrast, etc.—as well as the introduction of visual information, both to break up the flow of text, and to further illuminate what is being said.
Related news keeps readers reading
Additionally, this branded, authoritative, readable content needs to become (to use an ancient word) sticky: through a combination of editing and algorithms, related content must be presented at the appropriate time in the reading experience, to engage the visitor in continued reading.
Currently two publications—nytimes.com and medium.com—achieve all these goals better than any other publications on the web. One is the newspaper of record; the other is a vehicle for anyone’s content. Yet both really do the job all newspapers will need to do to survive—and to help the Republic survive these next years. I particularly admire the way both publications surface related content in a way that practically demands additional reading.
Design won’t solve all the problems facing newspapers, but it will help. And unlike more “immersive” approaches such as WebVR, original full-screen imagery, and original embedded video, the basics of solid, readable design should not be out of budgetary reach for even the most cash-strapped news publisher—budget being a problem for any business at any time, but especially for newspapers now.
In my studio, we’ve been pondering these problems for content sites of all types (not only newspapers). At the Poynter Digital Design Challenge next month, I hope to share designs that nudge the conversation along just a bit further.
STUDIO.ZELDMAN is open for business. It’s a vision I’ve been cooking up, a new studio supported by some of the most talented people in our industry and everything I’ve learned in two-plus decades of web and interaction design. And now it’s here. studio.zeldman designs digital experiences and provides strategic consulting. We don’t have a portfolio yet, but we landed our first client before we launched. Come on down!
Heading in this direction meant leaving the studio I founded in 1999 (we’re on the best of terms, and it’s an excellent company in great hands). My rise to an almost purely strategic position there taught me a lot about my business—but it also kept me from designing new projects. And I’ve been itching to get back to my roots. Three factors shaped my design for the new studio’s website:
I wanted to try something different: something that was conceptual and art directional. Jen Simmons’s An Event Apart presentations (like this one from last year) inspired me to break out of the columnar rut of current design and create something that didn’t look like it came pre-baked in a framework.
Because I am contrary, I thought it might be fun to allude to an outdated design approach (like, say, skeuomorphism) in a responsive web layout—if the content supported such a gambit.
Most of all, my design had to come out of content.
Let’s unpack that third point a bit more. Normally, design studio websites discuss the customer’s business problems and posit design (and their particular skills) as the solution. It’s a strategy David Ogilvy pioneered for print advertising in the 1950s (“problem/solution”).
Every mention of an achievement or capability exists to show how it solved a client’s business problem: “our redesign increased conversion by 20%” or “our testing and iterative process reduced shopping cart abandonment by 37%,” and so on. Such sites talk about the company’s expertise, positioning it within a framework of client needs. Almost every design studio says the same two or three things at the top of their home page, leaving the real selling to their site’s case studies section. But studio.zeldman is new. No portfolio yet; no company history.
But first, a little something about me
With no portfolio, our strategy—at least for the launch—couldn’t be about our body of work. At least for now, it had to be about me: what I believe, what I’ve done. I came to that realization very reluctantly: I wanted to create a studio that was bigger than any one person. (My original name for the company was simply “studio,” and my plan for the design was that it should be as clean and basic as water.)
But Jason Fried of Basecamp, who is one of my smartest friends, persuaded me that what was unique about this new studio was me, and that I shouldn’t be afraid to say so. Jason convinced me to write simply and directly, in my own voice, about what I believe design is and does—and to support that message by showing some of the things I’ve done that reach beyond my portfolio.
As if I were sitting down to send you a personal note about this new company I’m starting, the best way to express those thoughts on the site was in a letter. That was the strategy. The letter was the idea. And the idea shaped the design.
A new angle on an old design idea
In 2007, if I were designing a site that began with a letter to the reader, I would have used drop shadows and paper textures to suggest that context. Back in 1995, I’d have made an image of a letter on a table or desk top, and the letter would have been at a slight angle, as if the writer had just left it there. Could I allude to these old-fashioned ideas in a way that was subtle and modern?
The 1995 technique of a photorealistic letter was out. But a slightly angled “paper” was feasible; Jen Simmons had shown me and hundreds of other people how this kind of thing could be achieved in modern CSS.
Of course, whether something is possible in modern browsers and whether it actually reads well can be two different things. So while I was comping in pen and paper and in Photoshop, we also ran tests. My collaborator Roland Dubois set up a CSS3 font-smoothing test for angled text in JSFiddle, while my friend Tim Murtaugh of MonkeyDo put together a quick prototype of the top portion of my initial design. Everything checked out.
Once I knew an angled letter could work, I made the angled placement and angular cropping of images a guiding principle and unifying idea for the rest of the design. On the calendar, it took me from January through April of this year to land on a design idea I liked. But once I had it, the site seemed to design itself in just days.
I confess: yes, I designed in Photoshop. (Don’t tell anyone, but I even started with a grid.) And, yes, to your horror, on this project I designed for big screens first, because that’s where these particular design ideas could be most impactful. I knew we could make the design sing on any size screen, but designing for big-screen-first brought this particular project’s biggest coding challenges to the fore and provided the excitement I needed to get to the finish line. Nothing brings a smile to a designer’s lips like seeing your web idea completely fill a 27-inch screen (and do it responsibly, even).
The best part
The best part of the page is the part I didn’t design. Roland did. It’s that magical form. I could play with that thing forever, and I hope potential clients feel the same.
Some folks who checked out the beta asked why we didn’t focus on specific capabilities or budget ranges. Fair question. We certainly could have launched as, say, a redesign shop, or a web-only studio, or a content-focused studio. Any of those would have been credible, coming from me, and differentiating ourselves right out of the gate would not have been a stupid move. We really thought about it.
But we decided it would be more interesting to be less specific and find out what our potential clients are actually looking for. Consider it research that might sometimes lead to a gig.
studio.zeldman thanks you
Mica McPheeters and Jason Fried checked out my copy and kept me honest. Tim Murtaugh coded an early prototype of the site. Roland Dubois coded the final from scratch. Noël Jackson set up the repository and CDN, and ran sophisticated tests that uncovered everything from bugs to performance issues, rebuilding and re-coding with Roland to squeeze every byte of performance we could out of a site with full-screen Retina images. An article by Roland and Noël on the experiments and techniques they used to code this site would be infinitely more interesting than what you’ve just read.
Hoefler & Co. designed the reliable letter font which you will all recognize as Sentinel; DJR created Forma, which I think of as sexy Helvetica, and let us use it even though it is still in beta. Before launch, to save bandwidth, we tried recreating the site design using system fonts. Wasn’t the same. (And with WOFF and CDNs and subsetting, we were able to deliver these wonderful faces without choking your pipes.)
AS MUCH as I love reading (and writing and publishing) books and articles about design, I’ve never learned as much from a book as I’ve picked up over time while rubbing shoulders with colleagues who share my work space.
It’s why, even though NYC office rents are ludicrously expensive, I opened a shared design studio space in gently trending NoMad, Manhattan in January of 2012. And why, just three short months ago, I leaped at the chance to help launch the Shopify Partners Studio Program—a coworking space and casual mentoring program for exceptionally talented freelance ecommerce designers and developers.
The first six participants included a web developer and social media consultant; a visual experience designer; a freelance web developer and blogger; two freelance designer/developers; and a copywriter/marketing consultant. Three of them sought feedback from me on exciting business and product ideas they’d come up with; two asked me for career guidance and business advice. All taught me more than I taught them, and inspired me to look at my own work and career with fresh eyes.
Most or all of these lovely and talented people will be moving on soon, as the next phase of Shopify Partner Studio begins. Which brings us to you.
Apply now to join the next round of Shopify Partner Studio! If selected for residency, you’ll gain access to a suite of opportunities to kickstart your business, including:
Free rent and high-speed Internet for three months in my studio on lower Madison Avenue.
Mentorship from your humble narrator, Shopify executives, and “other industry icons.” (I put the quotations around Shopify’s phrase to not sound like a complete egomaniac.)
Fast-tracked access to the Shopify Experts Marketplace, where Shopify sends its 243,000 merchants looking for help with store, theme, and app builds.
A free Shopify store to build your portfolio website.
A free ticket to Smashing Conference NYC.
So what are you waiting for? Join me and some of your smartest colleagues in an experience that just might help make your career. Apply now to the Shopify Partners Studio Program.
A Book Apart Briefs!
FROM THOSE WONDERFUL people who brought you Responsive Web Design, Design Is A Job, Mobile First, plus thirteen additional instant classics of web design and development, here come A Book Apart Briefs: even briefer books for people who make websites. Starting with the immediately useful and illuminating Get Ready For CSS Grid Layout by Rachel Andrew (foreword by Eric Meyer), and Pricing Design by Dan Mall (foreword by Mike Monteiro).
Web design is about multi-disciplinary mastery and laser focus, so we created A Book Apart to cover the emerging and essential topics in web design and development with style, clarity, and, above all, brevity. Every title in our catalog sheds clear light on a tricky subject, and fast, so you can get back to work.
With sixteen classics under our belt, and buoyed by your support over the years, today we take that mission one step further with our new, ebook-only guides to essential fundamentals, of-the-moment techniques, and deep nerdery.
Bear suit courtesy of Shopify. No animals were harmed. Happy Twenty-Thirteen, everybody.
For Your Listening Pleasure
THE BIG WEB SHOW is back, baby! In spite of hurricanes, blackouts, and the vagaries of international travel, my 5by5 audio podcast about “everything web that matters” has returned to weekly broadcasting. Here are the latest episodes for your edification and listening pleasure:
Creator of four classic web design books (in 13 editions) Jennifer Robbins and I chat about her upcoming Artifact Conference for multi-device design; why sites are now systems, not pages; how style guides can function as a system design description tool; getting digital UX design into its natural habitat (hint: not a comp) sooner than later; what’s new in web design and the 4th Edition of her O’Reilly classic Learning Web Design; and loads more.
Jennifer Robbins has two decades of web design experience, having designed the first commercial website, O’Reilly’s Global Network Navigator (GNN), in 1993. She’s the author of O’Reilly’s Web Design in a Nutshell, and has taught web design at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and Johnson and Wales University in Providence, RI.
Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, discusses what it’s like to be an internet entrepreneur, from the origin of product ideas to the art of the pivot. Ev is a notoriously private guy; it is wonderful to hear him open up and share his hard-won web wisdom in this episode.
Evan Williams is an American entrepreneur who has co-founded several internet companies, including Pyra Labs (creators of Blogger) and Twitter, where he was previously CEO. His new thing is Medium. Ev was born and raised on a farm in central Nebraska. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two sons. He likes long walks, tofu, and bourbon. Ev has blogged for over a decade at evhead.com; you can follow him on Twitter at @ev.
In Episode No. 74 of The Big Web Show, I interview Chris Coyier of CSS-Tricks, CodePen, and ShopTalk about the path from employee to media maven, upcoming secret features for CodePen, coping with Retina images, finding sponsors, the success of his Kickstarter campaign, tee shirts for manly men, Twitter dramas about baseline grids, and more.
Chris Coyier (@chriscoyier) founded and writes at CSS-Tricks, co-hosts a podcast at ShopTalk, and co-founded and is a designer at CodePen, a sort of Dribble for coders.
I chat with content strategist and author of Content Everywhere Sara Wachter-Boettcher (@sara_ann_marie) about how practitioners can organize and structure content to maximize its value, longevity, and future-friendliness.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a content strategist and writer based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she drinks strong coffee and sometimes blogs. She is editor in chief at A List Apart magazine, and her book, Content Everywhere, is due out from Rosenfeld Media in the very near future. You can find Sara on Twitter trying not to say all the snarky things she thinks.
For the return of The Big Web Show, I speak with web pioneer Derek Powazek (@fraying), Founder and CEO of Cute-Fight, the online game for real-life pets and the people who love them.
Derek Powazek has worked the web since 1995 at pioneering sites like HotWired, Blogger, and Technorati. He is the author of Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places (New Riders, 2001) and the cofounder of JPG, the photography magazine that’s made by its community. He has also been Chief of Design for HP’s MagCloud, advisor to a handful of startup companies, and creator of Fray, the quarterly book of true stories and original art. Derek is now Founder and CEO of Cute-Fight, the online game for real-life pets and the people who love them. Derek lives in San Francisco with his wife, two nutty Chihuahuas, and a house full of plants named Fred.
My Brother is a Monster
MY MOTHER played piano and cello. My father draws, paints, and sculpts; plays trumpet and guitar; and led an advanced R&D lab in the 1970s, developing robotics and rocket parts. You know what I do, but I also play keyboards and other instruments, studied music theory, and composed and produced music in my own studio before failing up into my present career. We Zeldmans go our own way, bring our own juice, and leave a trail of tears and gold. But my brother Pete Zeldman is the real talent in the family.
My brother Pete spontaneously composes and performs music of such rhythmic complexity that Edgard Varèse and Frank Zappa would be proud. Even with an advanced music degree, you’d have a tough time following the music analytically. But you don’t have to, because it grooves. That’s the crazy surprise of it. My brother plays 17 in the time of 16 in the time of 15 in the time of 14, with cross rhythms in simultaneous 3/4 and 7/8, and you could dance to it. Admittedly, you couldn’t pogo, but it doesn’t pretend to be punk. Musically it is probably the exact opposite of punk, but spiritually it is punk because it is pure affirmation.
My brother made two CDs before releasing his new video, Enigma, this week. I listen to these CDs a lot. Although I’ve watched my brother develop his unique rhythmic musical theories over the past 20 years, I don’t attempt to “follow” the music in any analytical fashion while listening. I just let it wash over me. So can you.
New art is rarely understood. New music is rarely what the people want. They threw tomatoes at Debussy and Stravinsky, and now their compositions are gentle backgrounds for dentist’s offices. White people laughed at rock and roll and their children danced to it. Those rockers laughed at hip hop and their kids dance to it. My brother’s music is like that. It is something new. It’s not going to be a movement because it takes a certain kind of twisted genius to conceive of and play it. But you might like it. And if you’re a drummer, you probably need to hear it.
I am proud of my brother and delighted to share his genius with you. Samples from his new video are available at pete-zeldman.com. His CDs are also available.
Insites: The Book Honors Web Design, Designers
“INSITES: THE BOOK is a beautiful, limited edition, 256-page book presented in a numbered, foil-blocked presentation box. This very special publication features no code snippets and no design tips; instead, 20 deeply personal conversations with the biggest names in the web community.
“Over the course of six months, we travelled the US and the UK to meet with Tina Roth Eisenberg, Jason Santa Maria, Cameron Moll, Ethan Marcotte, Alex Hunter, Brendan Dawes, Simon Collison, Dan Rubin, Andy McGloughlin, Kevin Rose and Daniel Burka, Josh Brewer, Ron Richards, Trent Walton, Ian Coyle, Mandy Brown, Sarah Parmenter, Jim Coudal, Jeffrey Zeldman, Tim Van Damme, and Jon Hicks.
“We delved into their personal journeys, big wins, and lessons learned, along with the kind of tales you’ll never hear on a conference stage. Each and every person we spoke to has an amazing story to tell — a story we can all relate to, because even the biggest successes have the smallest, most humble of beginnings.” — Insites: The Book
I am honored to be among those interviewed in this beautiful publication.
Insites: The Book is published by Viewport Industries in association with MailChimp.
An Event Apart posts 2013 schedule: 8 cities, 8 shows
Join us for three days of design, code, and content with fantastic designers, writers, and speakers including Josh Clark, Kim Goodwin, Erika Hall, Scott Jehl, Colleen Jones, Jeremy Keith, Ethan Marcotte, Karen McGrane, Mike Monteiro, Jason Santa Maria, Jen Simmons, Jared Spool, Jon Tan, Aarron Walter, and Luke Wroblewski — not to mention Eric Meyer and me.
“The Web Everywhere: Multi-Device Web Design,” a full-day workshop by Luke Wroblewski (Mobile First, A Book Apart 2012), follows each two-day conference event in all eight cities.
You can register for the one-day multi-device web design workshop, for the two-day conference, or save over $100 when you attend all three days! Tickets are now on sale, and are first-come, first-served. Every AEA show in the past three years has sold out in advance. Don’t miss out; register early.
Proposed standards for the care and feeding of user generated content
THIS MORNING Contents Magazine launched the beginning of something both good and important: a set of guidelines that could lead to a safer world for user-created content.
Contents believes (and I agree) that products and services which make a business of our stuff—the photos, posts, and comments that we share on their platforms—need to treat our content like it matters. Not like junk that can be flushed the moment a product or service gets acquired or goes under.
On the web, popularity waxes and wanes; beloved services come and go. AOL was once mighty. MySpace was unstoppable. Nobody expected Geocities, Delicious, or Gowalla to just disappear, taking our stories, photos, and memories with them. But that’s what happens on the web. Tomorrow it could be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Flickr. We can continue to blindly trust these companies with our family histories, and continue to mourn when they disappear, taking our data with them. Or we can demand something better.
Contents and its small team of advisors have devised three simple rules customer-content-driven services and apps should follow to respect and protect our content:
Treat our data like it matters. Keep it secure and protect our privacy, of course—but also maintain serious backups and respect our choice to delete any information we’ve contributed.
No upload without download. Build in export capabilities from day one.
If you close a system, support data rescue. Provide one financial quarter’s notice between announcing the shutdown and destroying any user-contributed content, public or private, and offer data export during this period. And beyond that three months? Make user-contributed content available for media-cost purchase for one year after shutdown.
You may see this as a pipe dream. Why should a big, successful company like Facebook listen to us? But citizen movements have accomplished plenty in the past, from bringing web standards to our web browsers, to peacefully overthrowing unpopular governments.
I’m on board with the new Contents guidelines and I hope you will be, too. If enough of us raise enough of a sustained fuss over a sufficient period, things will change.