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

Publishing v. Performance—or, The Soul of the Web

MY SOUL is in twain. Two principles on which clued-in web folk heartily agree are coming more and more often into conflict—a conflict most recently thrust into relief by discussions around the brilliant Vox Media team, publishers of The Verge.

The two principles are:

  1. Building performant websites is not only a key differentiator that separates successful sites from those which don’t get read; it’s also an ethical obligation, whose fulfillment falls mainly on developers, but can only happen with the buy-in of the whole team, from marketing to editorial, from advertising to design.
  2. Publishing and journalism are pillars of civilized society, and the opportunity to distribute news and information via the internet (and to let anyone who is willing to do the work become a publisher) has long been a foundational benefit of the web. As the sad, painful, slow-motion decline of traditional publishing and journalism is being offset by the rise of new, primarily web-based publications and news organizations, the need to sustain these new publications and organizations—to “pay for the content,” in popular parlance—is chiefly being borne by advertising…which, however, pays less and less and demands more and more as customers increasingly find ways to route around it.

The conflict between these two principles is best summarized, as is often the case, by the wonderfully succinct Jeremy Keith (author, HTML5 For Web Designers). In his 27 July post, “On The Verge,” Jeremy takes us through prior articles beginning with Nilay Patel’s Verge piece, “The Mobile Web Sucks,” in which Nilay blames browsers and a nonexistent realm he calls “the mobile web” for the slow performance of websites built with bloated frameworks and laden with fat, invasive ad platforms—like The Verge itself.

The Verge’s Web Sucks,” by Les Orchard, quickly countered Nilay’s piece, as Jeremy chronicles (“Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking”). Jeremy then points to a half-humorous letter of surrender posted by Vox Media’s developers, who announce their new Vox Media Performance Team in a piece facetiously declaring performance bankruptcy.

A survey of follow-up barbs and exchanges on Twitter concludes Jeremy’s piece (which you must read; do not settle for this sloppy summary). After describing everything that has so far been said, Mr Keith weighs in with his own opinion, and it’s what you might expect from a highly thoughtful, open-source-contributing, standards-flag-flying, creative developer:

I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. …

Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. …

For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.

Me, I’m torn. As a 20-year-exponent of lean web development (yes, I know how pretentious that sounds), I absolutely believe that the web is for everybody, regardless of ability or device. The web’s strength lies precisely in its unique position as the world’s first universal platform. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext, and his (and his creation’s) genius doesn’t lie in the deployment of tags; it subsists in the principle that, developed rightly, content on the web is as accessible to the Nigerian farmer with a feature phone as it is to a wealthy American sporting this year’s device. I absolutely believe this. I’ve fought for it for too many years, alongside too many of you, to think otherwise.

And yet, as a 20-year publisher of independent content (and an advertising professional before that), I am equally certain that content requires funding as much as it demands research, motivation, talent, and nurturing. Somebody has to pay our editors, writers, journalists, designers, developers, and all the other specialtists whose passion and tears go into every chunk of worthwhile web content. Many of you reading this will feel I’m copping out here, so let me explain:

It may indeed be a false dichotomy that “either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising” but it is also a truth that advertisers demand more and more for their dollar. They want to know what page you read, how long you looked at it, where on the web you went next, and a thousand other invasive things that make thoughtful people everywhere uncomfortable—but are the price we currently pay to access the earth’s largest library.

I don’t like this, and I don’t do it in the magazine I publish, but A List Apart, as a direct consequence, will always lack certain resources to expand its offerings as quickly and richly as we’d like, or to pay staff and contributors at anything approaching the level that Vox Media, by accepting a different tradeoff, has achieved. (Let me also acknowledge ALA’s wonderful sponsors and our longtime partnership with The Deck ad network, lest I seem to speak from an ivory tower. Folks who’ve never had to pay for content cannot lay claim to moral authority on this issue; untested virtue is not, and so on.)

To be clear, Vox Media could not exist if its owners had made the decisions A List Apart made in terms of advertising—and Vox Media’s decisions about advertising are far better, in terms of consumer advocacy and privacy, than those made by most web publishing groups. Also to be clear, I don’t regret A List Apart’s decisions about advertising—they are right for us and our community.

I know and have worked alongside some of the designers, developers, and editors at Vox Media; you’d be proud to work with any of them. I know they are painfully aware of the toll advertising takes on their site’s performance; I know they are also doing some of the best editorial and publishing work currently being performed on the web—which is what happens when great teams from different disciplines get together to push boundaries and create something of value. This super team couldn’t do their super work without salaries, desks, and computers; acquiring those things meant coming to some compromise with the state of web advertising today. (And of course it was the owners, and not the employees, who made the precise compromise to which Vox Media currently adheres.)

Put a gun to my head, and I will take the same position as Jeremy Keith. I’ll even do it without a gun to my head, as my decisions as a publisher probably already make clear. And yet, two equally compelling urgencies in my core being—love of web content, and love of the web’s potential—make me hope that web and editorial teams can work with advertisers going forward, so that one day soon we can have amazing content, brilliantly presented, without the invasive bloat. In the words of another great web developer I know, “Hope is a dangerous currency—but it’s all I’ve got.”


Also published in Medium.

Deck Ad Deal: Champagne Eyeballs on a Beer Budget

CALLING ALL STARTUPS. Got a product or service that appeals to the digitally with-it? Put your message in front of millions of web-smart, design-savvy individuals via the premier network for reaching creative, web, and design professionals. The DECK serves up over one-hundred million ad impressions each month and is uniquely configured to connect the right marketers to a targeted, influential audience.

That kind of reach rarely comes cheap, but we have a last-minute opening for an advertiser in October, and we’ll do a nice deal for someone who can pull the trigger quick. If that someone is you, ping @decknetwork now. First come, first served.

The DECK is now taking reservations for November, December, and the first quarter of 2012.

Complete Audio: Jeffrey Zeldman’s Awesome Internet Design Panel from SXSW Interactive 2011

Jeffrey Zeldman's Awesome Internet Design Panel

Mandy Brown, Roger Black, Daniel Mall and I discuss the state of web design and publishing at SXSW Interactive, Sunday March 13, 2011.

Photos courtesy Adactio. Audio element courtesy HTML5. Sorry, no transcript is available at this time.

On Board

If you enjoy A List Apart and zeldman.com, please doff your chapeau in the direction of our sponsor, the 37signals Job Board.

Everyone knows 37signals, inventors of Ruby on Rails and creators of Basecamp, Highrise, and other great productivity apps. We studied the leading web design and development job boards before signing on with theirs. Each job board we looked at had something great going for it.

We chose 37signals’s board because it appeals to the hybrid designer/ developer who cares as much about great user experience as clean code—the kind of web professional who believes great content and great design are inseparable. This new kind of designer, forged in the fires of the web, reads ALA and this site, and the 37signals Job Board is where you are most likely to find him or her when you need to hire skilled professionals with vision.

Income from the board helps defray the cost of producing our sites and paying our staff. But more importantly, running it alongside our articles provides a service to our readers, whether they seek a job or a great employee.

An e-mail from Chip Kidd

I’ll never forget the day Chip Kidd sent me an e-mail. Chip Kidd, author of The Cheese Monkeys, the book that does for design school what Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust did for Hollywood.

I wrote about Chip Kidd’s work and he sent me a polite e-mail in response. He called me “Mr Zeldman.” Him. He. That Chip Kidd.

Chip Kidd, my all-time-favorite, hall-of-fame book cover designer. Fabricator of the jackets on at least half the modern novels I’ve bought “on impulse”—that impulse triggered and exquisitely controlled by Kidd, who approaches the problem of book design the way a director approaches montage in film. Not a crude film director, but a sly one. One who attacks at tangents, combining images to create compelling narratives that strangely illuminate but never crassly illustrate each book’s contents.

Let me tell you about Chip Kidd. I stare at his work, trying to figure out how he does it. Looking for flaws, like you do when someone is that good. Chip Kidd, you might say, is a design hero of mine. He is likely a design hero of yours, too.

Now he works for us.

The Deck, the premier network for reaching creative, web and design professionals, is proud to welcome Chip Kidd, Dean Allen, Ze Frank, and the crew behind Aviary as the newest members of our network.

  • Chip Kidd: See above.
  • Dean Allen: One of the finest writers ever to grace the web with wit, insight, and a distinctively detached charm. Also a heck of a book designer, although of a very different school from Chip Kidd. Also a software developer, and not a bad hand at web design. I chose Dean Allen to redesign The Web Standards Project when I was ready to leave the august institution. (It has since been redesigned by Andy Clarke. Not a bad progression.)
  • Ze Frank: A man who needs no introduction. The original bad boy of look-at-me, the-web-is-TV. Artist, illustrator, satirist, programmer, and on-screen personality. The Jon Stewart of confessional web video. The Laurie Anderson of pop. The boy Lonely Girl only dreams of becoming. Too big for TV, too big for your iPhone. Coming soon to a conference near you.
  • Aviary: makers of rich internet applications geared for artists of all genres. From image editing to typography to music to 3D to video, they have a tool for everything.

The Deck delivered 20,121,412 ad impressions during April. Limited opportunities are now available through the Third Quarter of 2008.

[tags]Chip Kidd, Dean Allen, Aviary, Deck, The Deck, advertising[/tags]