Authoritative, Readable, Branded: Report from Poynter Design Challenge, Part 2

Poynter style guide

THIS year’s Poynter Digital Newspaper Design Challenge was an attempt by several designers and pundits, working and thinking in parallel, to save real news via design. In Part 1 of my report from Poynter, I discussed the questions driving the challenge, and talked about the design work done in response to it by my colleagues Kat Downs Mulder, Mike Swartz, Lucie Lacava, and Jared Cocken. Here in Part 2, I’ll discuss my own work and the approach we took at my studio. But we begin with a quick look back at the past designs that brought us to this point:

Experiment № 1: The Deck

During the past decade and a half, as both a publication designer and a publisher, I watched in horror as our publications became reader-hostile minefields of intrusive ads, overlays, and popups. The first thing I tried to do about this (besides removing the web equivalent of chart junk from my magazine) was to offer an alternative approach to advertising via The Deck, an ad network I cofounded with Jim Coudal of coudal.com and Jason Fried of Basecamp (formerly 37signals). The Deck permitted only one appropriately targeted ad per each page of content viewed. As primary instigator Jim Coudal put it:

A buy in The Deck reaches the creative community on the web in an uncluttered, controlled environment, far more valuable than a standard banner or a single text ad among dozens of others.

Jim, Jason, and I hoped that our cost-per-influence model would replace the CPM race to the bottom, and that our quasi-religious use of whitespace would be widely imitated by the smartest publications online.

But that didn’t happen. Advertising just got more intrusive. The Deck succeeded as a small business supporting a network of interesting small publications, but not at all as a primary influencer on the direction taken by advertising that supports web content.

Experiment № 2: Readability

Then about seven years ago, my friend Rich Ziade and his engineers created Readability, an app that sat between you and the ugly site you were trying to read, the way screen readers sit between visual websites and blind web users. Readability grabbed an article page’s primary content, removed the junk, and replaced the cluttered and illegible layout with a clean, readable page inspired by the clarity of iBooks and Kindle, which were just taking off at the time.

Rich released Readability 1.0 as open source; Apple immediately absorbed it into the Safari browser, where it continues to provide Safari’s built-in “reader” mode. (Safari’s “reader” mode was Apple’s first step in decluttering the web and returning it to the people who use it; “content blocking” would be the second step.)

Moreover, Readability 2.0, released by Rich’s then-company Arc90 the following year, added automatic payment for content creators slash publishers, as I explained at the time to anyone who would listen. Had Readability been allowed to continue the experiment, content monetization might have been less of a problem than it is today, and publication brands (the notion that it matters who publishes what we read) would be in exactly the same pickle they’re in anyway—except that readers would get their news in Readability’s attractive and customizable format, instead of from Apple News, Facebook, and the like.

I used to go around the world on lecture tours, warning my fellow designers that if we didn’t figure out how to declutter and compellingly brand sites, apps like Readability would do it for us. I still go around on lecture tours, but I’ve moved on to other issues. As for Readability, it was killed by a digital lynch mob after one powerful blogger, misunderstanding the motivation behind it, issued the digerati equivalent of a fatwā. But that’s another story.

Experiment № 3: Big Type Revolution

In 2012, inspired by Readability and frustrated by the industry’s determination to make ever less legible, ever more cluttered sites full of tracking and popups and everything except what readers need, I bet big on large type:

This redesign is a response to ebooks, to web type, to mobile, and to wonderful applications like Instapaper and Readability that address the problem of most websites’ pointlessly cluttered interfaces and content-hostile text layouts by actually removing the designer from the equation. (That’s not all these apps do, but it’s one benefit of using them, and it indicates how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content. It also suggests that those who don’t design for readers might soon not be designing for anyone.)

Writing in Forbes, Anthony Wing Kosner saw the future in my initially crude experiment:

If you want to know where the web is going, one clue is to look at the personal sites of top-tier web designers. And one trend that just bubbled to the surface is large body type—the kind you don’t have to command-plus to read.

Jeffrey Zeldman…made a particularly strong point about it in his “Web Design Manifesto 2012,” that he published yesterday.

Large Type: One Web Designer Puts Content First in a Big Way

Not to brag (okay, too late), but he wasn’t wrong. It was the future.

(Also, I’m fairly sure I wasn’t the only designer at the time who reacted against tiny type and cluttered anti-user layouts by stripping pages down to only their most necessary elements, and boosting the type size to enforce a more relaxed reading posture. The idea was in the air.)

The experiment becomes the norm

In any case, soon enough, readable (big type and plenty of whitespace) layouts starting popping up everywhere. At medium.com. In Mike Pick’s redesign of A List Apart. In article pages for The New York Times, Washington Post, Vox, Newsweek, The New Yorker, and, eventually, many other publications.

An uncluttered page focused on the reading experience (reminder: big type and plenty of whitespace) is now the default at several leading news publications. But many smaller publications, struggling just to survive, have not kept up. And so we have a perfect crisis:

Publications that do not encourage reading, loyalty, or repeat visits are struggling to survive at the very moment real news is under attack from an authoritarian president. What to do?

 

A two-up from the Poynter challenge

My response to the Poynter Design Challenge

There are many ways to respond to an existential crisis like the one facing most news publications. You can rethink the relationship between reader and publication. Rethink the job of the publication. Make news work more like a lifestyle app. Make it more immersive. My colleagues followed those paths out brilliantly (as described in Part 1).

But I went for the low-hanging fruit. The thing any publisher, no matter how cash-strapped, could do. The thing I had seen working since I started yelling about big type in 2012. I went for a clean, uncluttered, authoritative, branded page. Authoritative because this isn’t fake news. Branded because the source matters.

The easiest, fastest, most readily attainable path to clean, uncluttered, authoritative, branded design is through typography.

 

Sample reader layout from the Poynter challenge

Any publication can be readable

Any newspaper, however poor, can afford better typography. Any newspaper with a designer on staff can attain it, if the paper stops treating design as a lackey of marketing or editorial or advertising, and sets designers free to create great reading experiences.

In my work, which is still underway (and will continue for some time), I focused on creating what I call “reader” layouts (and probably other designers call them that too; but I just don’t know). Layouts that are branded, authoritative, clean, uncluttered, and easy to read.

I played with type hierarchies and created simple style guides. Most of my little pages began as Typecast templates that I customized. And then Noël Jackson from my studio cleaned up the HTML and CSS to make it more portable. We put the stuff up on GitHub for whoever wants to play with it.

These are only starting points. Any designer can create these kinds of layouts. There’s nothing special about what I did. You can do the same for your paper. (And if you can’t, you can hire us.)

The work I share here is the start of a project that will continue at our studio for a long time. #realnews for the win!

Additional reading

Big Web Show № 150: Giant Paradigm Shifts and Other Delights With Brad Frost

Brad Frost, photographed at An Event Apart by Jeffrey Zeldman.

BOY, was this show overdue. For the first time ever on The Big Web Show, I chat with my friend, front-end developer extraordinaire Brad Frost, author of the spanking new book, Atomic Design.

We have fun. We go way over time. We kept talking after the show stopped. There was just so much to discuss—including Pattern Lab and style guides, being there for the iPad launch, working with big brands, how to say no and make the client happy you said it, avoiding antipatterns, mobile versus “the real web” (or the way we saw things in 2009), dressing for success, contributing to open source projects, building a community, the early days of Brad’s career, and that new book of his.

Listen to Episode № 150 on the 5by5 network, or subscribe via iTunes. And pick up Brad’s book before they sell out!

Sponsored by Braintree and Incapsula.

Brad Frost URLS

@brad_frost
http://bradfrost.com
http://patternlab.io/
http://bradfrost.com/blog/
http://bradfrost.github.com/this-is-responsive/
http://wtfmobileweb.com/
http://deathtobullshit.com/
http://wtfqrcodes.com/
http://bradfrost.com/music
http://bradfrost.com/art

Of Patterns and Power: Web Standards Then & Now

IN “CONTENT Display Patterns” (which all front-end folk should read), Dan Mall points to a truth not unlike the one Ethan Marcotte shared last month on 24 ways. It is a truth as old as standards-based design: Construct your markup to properly support your content (not your design).

Modular/atomic design doesn’t change this truth, it just reinforces its wisdom. Flexbox and grid layout don’t change this truth, they just make it easier to do it better. HTML5 doesn’t change this truth, it just reminds us that the separation of structure from style came into existence for a reason. A reason that hasn’t changed. A reason that cannot change, because it is the core truth of the web, and is inextricably bound up with the promise of this medium.

Separating structure from style and behavior was the web standards movement’s prime revelation, and each generation of web designers discovers it anew. This separation is what makes our content as backward-compatible as it is forward-compatible (or “future-friendly,” if you prefer). It’s the key to re-use. The key to accessibility. The key to the new kinds of CMS systems we’re just beginning to dream up. It’s what makes our content as accessible to an ancient device as it will be to an unimagined future one.

Every time a leader in our field discovers, as if for the first time, the genius of this separation between style, presentation, and behavior, she is validating the brilliance of web forbears like Tim Berners-Lee, Håkon Wium Lie, and Bert Bos.

Every time a Dan or an Ethan (or a Sara or a Lea) writes a beautiful and insightful article like the two cited above, they are telling new web designers, and reminding experienced ones, that this separation of powers matters.

And they are plunging a stake into the increasingly slippery ground beneath us.

Why is it slippery? Because too many developers and designers in our amnesiac community have begun to believe and share bad ideas—ideas, like CSS isn’t needed, HTML isn’t needed, progressive enhancement is old-fashioned and unnecessary, and so on. Ideas that, if followed, will turn the web back what it was becoming in the late 1990s: a wasteland of walled gardens that said no to more people than they welcomed. Let that never be so. We have the power.

As Maimonides, were he alive today, would tell us: he who excludes a single user destroys a universe. Web standards now and forever.

The Year in Design

  • Mobile is today’s first screen. So design responsively, focusing on content and structure first.
  • Websites and apps alike should remove distractions and let people interact as directly as possible with content.
  • 90 percent of design is typography. And the other 90 percent is whitespace.
  • Boost usability and pleasure with progressive disclosure: menus and functions that appear only when needed.
  • One illustration or original photo beats 100 stock images.
  • Design your system to serve your content, not the other way around.
  • Remove each detail from your design until it breaks.
  • Style is the servant of brand and content. Style without purpose is noise.
  • Nobody waits. Speed is to today’s design what ornament was to yesterday’s.
  • Don’t design to prove you’re clever. Design to make the user think she is.

Also published in Medium

Translated into German (also here) by Mark Sargent

Translated into French by Jean-Baptiste Sachsé

Translated into Turkish by omerbalyali.

Translated into Spanish by Tam Lopez Breit.

The independent content producer refuses to die!

2001 IS CALLING, and while it may not look fresh, its message still resonates:

We believe that the web is a remarkable medium for new forms of art, personal storytelling, and all manner of information and services whose rewards are not necessarily financial.

The independent content scene is alive and well, but is largely unknown by the general web-using public.

We seek to support each other as a community, and to increase, if possible, the general public’s awareness not only of existing independent sites, but of the fact that they can create their own.

INDEPENDENTS DAY is a wholly non-owned, non-commercial, non-subsidiary of nothing.

Independent content on the web: a declaration of principles from 2001, still relevant today, from Independents Day.

McGrane: Kill Your CMS

THE ERA of “desktop publishing” is over. Same goes for the era where we privilege the desktop web interface above all others. The tools we create to manage our content are vestiges of the desktop publishing revolution, where we tried to enable as much direct manipulation of content as possible. In a world where we have infinite possible outputs for our content, it’s time to move beyond tools that rely on visual styling to convey semantic meaning. If we want true separation of content from form, it has to start in the CMS.–Karen McGrane, WYSIWTF ∙ An A List Apart Column.

Design is Copy is Design

ART AND COPY have been joined at the hip since Bill Bernbach launched the creative revolution in the 1960s. But on the web, not so much.

It’s great that some of the brightest minds in our industry continue making the point that copy matters, and that “one of the most overlooked designers in any field is the copywriter.” But it’s sad that, whenever we make that point, the only examples we seem to come up with are 37signals and Apple. (Flickr used to be in there, too, but these days, sadly, nobody wants to talk about Flickr—even when they’re a canonical example of doing x right.)

Anyhoo: Great Design is Jargon-Free is another fine instance of a smart web person (in this case, the handsome and erudite Scott Berkun) making those points.

Content Strategy for Mobile three ways from Sunday

IT’S A Karen McGrane world! Today, as A Book Apart unveils Karen McGrane’s amazing new Content Strategy for Mobile, the entirety of A List Apart Issue No. 364 is dedicated to Karen and her vision for future-friendly web content:

Uncle Sam Wants You (to Optimize Your Content for Mobile)

Thirty-one percent of Americans who access the internet from a mobile device say that’s the way they always or mostly go online. For this group, if your content doesn’t exist on mobile, it doesn’t exist at all. The U.S. government has responded with a broad initiative to make federal website content mobile-friendly. Karen McGrane explains why this matters—and what you can learn from it.

Your Content, Now Mobile

Making your content mobile-ready isn’t easy, but if you take the time now to examine your content and structure it for maximum flexibility and reuse, you’ll have stripped away all the bad, irrelevant bits, and be better prepared the next time a new gadget rolls around. This excerpt from Karen McGrane’s new book, Content Strategy for Mobile, will help you get started.

Help Hurricane Sandy relief efforts

Fifteen percent of sales of Karen McGrane’s Content Strategy for Mobile and other A Book Apart books sold today will go to the Red Cross in its effort to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Leo Laporte interviews JZ

IN EPISODE 63 of Triangulation, Leo Laporte, a gracious and knowledgeable podcaster/broadcaster straight outta Petaluma, CA, interviews Your Humble Narrator about web standards history, responsive web design, content first, the state of standards in a multi-device world, and why communists sometimes make lousy band managers.

Interacting Responsively (and Responsibly!)

AT AN EVENT APART Boston, “Scott Jehl discussed ways we can improve web performance by qualifying capabilities and being smart about how assets are loaded in browsers [and] shared a … new tools he helped create that can help address these issues.”

Enjoy Luke Wroblewski’s notes on Scott’s talk.