ON SUNDAY, while leading a discussion on the future of web design and publishing, I noticed a slightly confused look appearing on some faces in the audience. The discussion had been billed as “Jeffrey Zeldman’s Awesome Internet Design Panel,” and I thought perhaps there was a disconnect for some in the audience between “design” and such topics as where content comes from and who pays for it.
So I asked, “Who here is in publishing?”
A few hands were gently raised.
Uh-huh. “And how many of you work on the web?”
Every right hand in the room shot up.
“You are all in publishing,” I explained.
Now, I like a good rounded corner talk as much as the next designer. I’ve given my share of them. Also of line height and measure, color and contrast, how to design things that don’t work in old versions of Internet Explorer, and so on. In the practice of web and interaction design, there will always be a place for craft discussions—for craft is execution, and ideas without execution are songs without music, meaningless.
But right now (and always) there is a need for design to also be about the big strategic issues. And right now, as much as design is wrestling with open vs. proprietary formats and the old challenges of new devices, design is also very much in the service of applications and publishing. Who gets content, who pays for it, how it is distributed (and how evenly), the balance between broadcast and conversation, editor and user—these are the issues of this moment, and it is designers even more than editors who will answer these riddles.
Episode 39: Crowd Fusion’s Brian Alvey live on The Big Web Show
Brian is CEO of Crowd Fusion, a publishing platform that combines popular applications like blogging, wikis, tagging and workflow management, and a leader in the content management world. He co-founded Weblogs, Inc.—home to Engadget, Autoblog, TUAW and more—and built the Blogsmith platform, both of which were acquired by Aol and are essential to their current strategy. Brian has been putting big brands on the web since 1995 when he designed the first TV Guide website and helped BusinessWeek leap from Aol to the web.
Brian built database-driven web applications and content management systems for many large companies in the 1990’s including Intel, J.D. Edwards, Deloitte & Touche and The McGraw-Hill Companies. His 1999 Tech-Engine site was a “skinnable HotJobs” which powered over 200 online career centers including XML.com, Perl.com, O’Reilly & Associates Network, DevShed, and Computer User magazine.
He has been the art director of three print magazines (I met him in 1995 when he was art director for “Net Surfer” or something like that) and was the Chief Technology Officer of Rising Tide Studios where he developed The Venture Reporter Network, which is now a Dow Jones property.
In 2003, Brian invented and launched Blogstakes, a sweepstakes application for the blogging community. He is a former Happy Cog partner of mine; at Happy Cog, Brian built content management systems for customers including Capgemini, A List Apart, and the Kansas City Chiefs. He was also the creator and host of the Meet The Makers conference, a series of talk show-style events that were so compelling, they helped inspired me to create An Event Apart with Eric Meyer.
And I’ll stop there. Ladies and gentlemen, a legend and true creative force in this medium. Please join us at tomorrow on 5by5.tv/live for a lively and wide-ranging discussion.
The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”) records live every Thursday at 12:00 PM Eastern. Edited episodes can be watched afterwards, often within hours of recording, via iTunes (audio feed | video feed) and the web. Subscribe and enjoy!
RELEASED LAST WEEK, Arc90’s Readability 2.0 is a web application/browser extension that removes clutter from any web page, replacing the typical multi-column layout with a simple, elegant, book-style page view—a page view that can be user customized, and that “knows” when it is being viewed on a mobile device and reconfigures itself to create an platform-appropriate reading experience.
In so doing, Readability focuses the user’s attention on the content, creating an enhanced—and often much more accessible—reading experience. It also subverts the typical web browsing design paradigm, where each website offers a different visual experience. Instead, to the Readability user, all web content looks the same, once she has clicked a button to engage the Readability view.
If Readability did only this, it would represent a significant directional departure for the web and for site owners, in that, for the first time in the history of designed websites, branded look and feel is subordinated to a user-focused content experience that transcends the individual site.
Of course, this was always supposed to be possible in HTML, and it always was possible for users of some assistive devices and for CSS experts who felt like creating intricate personal style sheets, but those are edge cases, and Readability is for everyone.
Readability 1.0 was released as open source. Apple used its code for the “Reader” view in Safari. The creators of Flipboard used its code too. And the creators of the open-source Treesaver swapped code and rights with the makers of Readability to enhance both products. I’ve never seen a humble open-source project, created by a not-terribly-well-known shop get so quickly accepted and absorbed by companies like Apple and by the creators of cutting-edge web and hybrid apps.
That was Readability 1.0. What Readability 2.0 adds to the mix is automatic payment for content creators. How it works is simple: I pay a small fee each month to use Readability. Most of that money gets divided between the creators of the web pages I’ve viewed in Readability. This makes Readability 2.0 disruptive two ways:
As mentioned earlier, for the first time, branded look and feel is secondary to the user’s desire to engage with written content in a visually comfortable environment. (That Readability 1.0 premiered around the same time as the iPad is not coincidental.)
For the first time, content monetization is no longer the problem of content creators. Writers can stop being salespeople, and focus on what they do best: creating compelling content. The better the content, the more people who engage with it via Readability, the more money writers will make—with no bookkeeping, no ad sales, and no hassle. This is a huge subversion of the ad paradigm.
Many of us who watched Arc90 develop Readability worried that short-sighted publishers and site owners would misunderstand and reject the app, maybe even sic’ing their lawyers on it. But in the hectic two weeks just ending, publishers have had time to absorb what Readability 2.0 does and what it could mean to them—and according to Readability creator and Arc90 founder Rich Ziade, the reaction is positive.
Have publishers suddenly grasped the web? Perhaps not. But it’s a rare publisher who’d say no to extra money, risk-free. We are in a wait-and-see, try-it-and-see phase of publishing and the web—past the initial Web 2.0 euphoria and into the hard business of creating great stuff (and finding new ways to keep old great stuff, like great writing and reporting, alive). No one is quite sure what will work. And publishers risk nothing by participating in the Readability program. If the program succeeds, they make additional revenue for their content. If it fails, it’s no skin off their budget.
WHAT A YEAR 2010 has been. It was the year HTML5 and CSS3 broke wide; the year the iPad, iPhone, and Android led designers down the contradictory paths of proprietary application design and standards-based mobile web application design—in both cases focused on user needs, simplicity, and new ways of interacting thanks to small screens and touch-sensitive surfaces.
It was the third year in a row that everyone was talking about content strategy and designers refused to “just comp something up” without first conducting research and developing a user experience strategy.
Even outside the newest, best browsers, things were better than ever. Modernizr and eCSStender brought advanced selectors and @font-face to archaic browsers (not to mention HTML5 and SVG, in the case of Modernizr). Tim Murtaugh and Mike Pick’s HTML5 Reset and Paul Irish’s HTML5 Boilerplate gave us clean starting points for HTML5- and CSS3-powered sites.
Print continued its move to networked screens. iPhone found a worthy adversary in Android. Webkit was ubiquitous.
Insights into the new spirit of web design, from a wide variety of extremely smart people, can be seen and heard on The Big Web Show, which Dan Benjamin and I started this year (and which won Video Podcast of the Year in the 2010 .net Awards), on Dan’s other shows on the 5by5 network, on the Workers of the Web podcast by Alan Houser and Eric Anderson, and of course in A List Apart for people who make websites.
Zeldman.com: The Year in Review
A few things I wrote here at zeldman.com this year (some related to web standards and design, some not) may be worth reviewing:
Lack of Flash in the iPad (and before that, in the iPhone) is a win for accessible, standards-based design. Not because Flash is bad, but because the increasing popularity of devices that don’t support Flash is going to force recalcitrant web developers to build the semantic HTML layer first.
Love means never having to say you’re sorry, but client services means apologizing every five minutes. Give yourself one less thing to be sorry for. Take some free advice. Show up often, and show up early.
A few things I wrote elsewhere might repay your interest as well:
Cheap, complex devices such as the iPhone and the Droid have come along at precisely the moment when HTML5, CSS3 and web fonts are ready for action; when standards-based web development is no longer relegated to the fringe; and when web designers, no longer content to merely decorate screens, are crafting provocative, multi-platform experiences. Is this the dawn of a new web?
When Style is a fetish, sites confuse visitors, hurting users and the companies that paid for the sites. When designers don’t start by asking who will use the site, and what they will use it for, we get meaningless eye candy that gives beauty a bad name.
Happy New Year, all!
Flipboard Update Preview
FLIPBOARD, AS YOU DOUBTLESS know, is a social media magazine for iPad. Part RSS reader, part iPad publication uniquely curated by each reader, the app brings serendipity, discovery, and typographic excellence to the experience of keeping up with one’s friends on Twitter, Facebook, and so on. This morning (last night in Japan), a new, improved version of Flipboard was launched, offering designers like us even more visual pleasure and rewarding the hours we put into our content’s semantic underpinnings.
Designer Craig Mod, in a letter, told me his “goal was to try and produce one of the best RSS experiences out there.” It’s accomplished via features like those listed below and more, as seen in these screenshots Craig sent me from his pre-launch tests:
portrait and landscape optimized typography
full bleed images
flowing of text based on image size and location in the document
auto-generation of [figure] and [figcaption] objects based on alt
text on images
Adds Craig, “What’s great is that the more semantic and clean your feed, the better it will look in the app.”
I wrote a true story of love, obsession, heartbreak, and candy and my friend Jason Santa Maria art directed it. I’m proud of this tiny, fast-reading story, which is like condensed essence of me (and all these years later, nothing has really changed) and I love what Jason’s done with the page. Please enjoy Pixy Stix, the October 19th Candygram.
iPad as the new Flash
iPad. Never have so many embraced a great product for exactly the wrong reasons.
Too many designers and publishers see the iPad as an opportunity to do all the wrong things—things they once did in Flash—without the taint of Flash.
In the minds of many, the iPad is like Flash that pays. You can cram traditional publishing content into an overwrought, novelty Flash interface as The New York Times once did with its T magazine. You may win a design award but nobody will pay you for that content. Ah, but do the same thing on the iPad instead, and subscribers will pay—maybe not enough to save publishing, but enough to keep the content coming and at least some journalists, editors, and art directors employed.
It’s hard to argue with money and jobs, and I wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Alas, the early success of a few publications—publications so good they would doubtless survive with or without iPad—is creating a stampede that will not help most magazines and interfaces that will not please most readers.
Everything we’ve learned in the past decade about preferring open standards to proprietary platforms and user-focused interfaces to masturbatory ones is forgotten as designers and publishers once again scramble to create novelty interfaces no one but them cares about.
Luke Wroblewski’s Touch Gesture Reference Guide gives designers plenty of ammunition to create dynamic user experiences that work on a wide variety of mobile phones and devices (including iPad) while these same sites can use traditional desktop browser effects like hover to offer equally rich experiences on non-touch-enabled browsers. Unless your organization’s business model includes turning a profit by hiring redundant, competing teams, “Write once, publish everywhere” makes more economic sense than “Write once, publish to iPad. Write again, publish to Kindle. Write again, publish to some other device.”
I’m not against the iPad. I love my iPad. It’s great for storing and reading books, for browsing websites, for listening to music and watching films, for editing texts, presentations, and spreadsheets, for displaying family photos, and on and on. It’s nearly all the stuff I love about my Mac plus a great ePub reader slipped into a little glass notebook I play like a Theremin.
I’m not against iPad apps. Twitterific for iPad is by far the best way to use Twitter. After all, Twitter is really an internet service, not a website; Twitter’s own site, while leaps ahead of where it used to be, is hardly the most useful or delightful way to access its service. Gowalla for iPad is my constant companion. I dread the idea of traveling without it. And there are plenty of other great iPad apps I love, from Bloom, an “endless music machine” by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers, to Articles, which turns Wikipedia into an elegant reading experience, to Mellotronics for iPad, an uncannily accurate Mellotron simulator packed with 13 authentic voices—“the same production tapes featured on Strawberry Fields Forever” and other classic tracks (not to mention tracks by nouveau retro bands like Eels).
There are apps that need to be apps, demand to be apps, and I admire and learn from them like every other designer who’s alive at this moment.
I’m just not sold on what the magazines are doing. Masturbatory novelty is not a business strategy.
Listen up, web designers. From Stuntbox with love comes Gridulator, a dandy free web application that calculates multi-column grids for all your pixel-based web layout needs. Creator David Sleight explains how it works:
Tell Gridulator your layout width and the number of columns you want, and it’ll spit back all the possible grids that have nice, round integers. Just the thing for pixel-based designfolk. There are inline previews, courtesy of the canvas element, and when you’re all set Gridulator can crank out full-size PNGs for you, ready for use in your CSS, Photoshop docs, or what have you. And there’s full keyboard control for you snazzy power users.