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

Digital newspaper design challenge: a report from Poynter, part 1

CAN design create a better user experience that engages readers and drives revenue? Can it fight fake news and help save real journalism at a time when news organizations large and small are underfinanced and under attack?

These questions drove the Poynter Design Challenge, “a project to create new visual models for digital news publications” sponsored by William R. Hearst III, hosted by the Poynter Institute, and directed by publication designer Roger Black.

The challenge began October 17–18 in New York, with five pundits and five designers, of whom I was honored to be one, workshopping a project brief during a two-day conference event at the Columbia Journalism School. (You can watch videos of all these sessions courtesy of Fora.tv.)

The next phase took place yesterday in St. Petersburg, Florida, as the four other designers and I presented our work to a live audience. In this short piece, I’ll talk about the designs my colleagues presented; in the next, I’ll discuss my own.

Reconnecting with the people: the challenge for digital news

Roger Black described the difficulties facing digital news publications:

The challenge is serious. Fake news crowds real news. Numbers no longer add up for publishers. Readers jump from site to site without knowing where they are, or staying for long. You can see the brief for this project here.

Can design help? Well, as a I designer, I think it can. I mean, the design of most news pages is not what you’d call attractive. But the solutions proposed at Poynter will be much more strategic than cosmetic. And they’re strategies that can be combined.
Five design answers that add up, Roger Black, January 20, 2017

“A news publication might think a bit more like Fitbit”

News prototype by Kat Downs Mulder, Graphics director at The Washington Post.

Between us, we designers had about a century of experience designing digital publications—internally, as consultants, or both. This means that, even though an open “design challenge” brief necessarily omits an unknown number of the specific requirements any actual publication design assignment would include, all of us were aware of, and to some degree addressed, typical news publication requirements not included in our brief.

Kat Downs Mulder, Graphics Director at The Washington Post, shared a prototype for a big-brand news site. Kat had just given birth to a healthy baby boy (congratulations!), so her work was presented by two of her colleagues from The Post. Kat did not design with the avid, committed news reader in mind (since those folks are not the problem for most publications). Instead, she pondered how to engage the typically fragmented attention of today’s distracted and passive news reader:

“A big-brand news site [should be] aware that people have a lot more to do in their lives than read the news,” Kat posited. Thus, “A news publication might think a bit more like Fitbit. That is, it should make you feel like it’s working for you. A reader should say, ‘I’m reading everything I need to know.’”

Keep that dopamine pumping

Kat presented a multi-paned prototype. The wider pane on the right contained news content; the narrower pane at left was navigation. As I’ve just described it, this isn’t much different from the current Post website, but Kat’s prototype was very different, because it prized reader control over editorial director control; kept track of what you read; encouraged extra reading the way Fitbit encourages extra steps, and rewarded it the same way Fitbit does, with an accumulation of points that give the reader dopamine hits and create the perception that the “news app” is working for her—as a rewarding part of her busy lifestyle.

An Operating System for your city

Mike Swartz, Partner at Upstatement, a design and engineering studio in Boston, took on the challenge to smaller publications (such as his original hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) which lack the resources of a Washington Post or New York Times.

Mike’s presentation, “information OS for a city: redefining the opportunity for local media,” turned the journalistic prowess of a good local paper into a superpower, connecting readers to their city the way the “terrible towel” stunt concocted in desperation by radio announcer Myron Cope in 1975 reconnected Pittsburghers to their hometown football team, and helped the Steelers win Super Bowl X over the Dallas Cowboys.

There’s a potential for an operation like the [Post Gazette] to rebrand itself as more of an “informational operating system” for its city. With different types of products that are focused and useful and not necessarily bundled into a traditional news format, we can create more enjoyable experiences and more useful products readers will love.

Building reader interest and finding a way to pay for it all

Lucie Lacava designed an app targeted at millennials.

Where the rest of us avoided the elephant in the room, in her design Lucie Lacava, president of Lacava Design Inc., boldly confronted the challenges of advertising and monetization. Algorithm-driven advertising frustrates users, who, in desperation, block it. Choked for income as a result, publications and advertisers create more and more intrusive forms of unwanted advertising. Nobody wins.

And while subscription models have worked, at least partly, for some of the very top news publications, such models are not likely to help most news publications in the near term.

Digital publication as digital application

Lucie’s design addressed these challenges by recasting the news as a hyper-customized application targeted at younger users, who get to choose news streams and ads that are relevant to them. “The elusive millennial” was Lucie’s target. I cannot do her idea justice with a couple of paragraphs and a single screen shot.

Affordable, immersive VR is here

Jared Cocken, brand and product designer for hire and co-founder of STYLSH.co., approached the “attention war” by showing how any size publication could create “video or VR driven stories that enrich a user’s understanding of the world around them.”

Because VR video is immersive, it holds viewer attention. Because it is reality-based, it fights fake news. (It’s hard to call bullshit on a scene you can explore from any angle.) VR also, potentially, builds compassion. It’s one thing to read about conditions in a Syrian refugee camp, another to visually experience them in VR.

Until now VR and video have been cost-prohibitive, but, working (and co-presenting) with VR startup founder Anna Rose and Hollywood producer/actor Banks Boutté, Jared showed how even woefully under-financed newsrooms can use newly designed, super-affordable tools to create “video or VR-driven stories that enrich a user’s understanding of the world around them.”

(For more on VR and the web, see webvr.info and VR Gets Real with WebVR by studio.zeldman’s Roland Dubois.)

Parting thought for now

Blogging about a conference is like tweeting about a sexual experience. You had to be there. I wanted to record and share the outlines of what my fellow designers presented, but these few paragraphs should in no way be considered authentically representative of the deep thinking and work that went into every presentation.

You may see holes in some of the arguments presented here. In some cases, I might agree with you—some ideas, while dazzlingly creative, did not seem to me like the right way to save news. But in most cases, if an idea seems wrong, blame my telling. If you had been there and heard and seen everything, the value of the proposal would have far more apparent than it can be here.

I love that each of us took on a quite different aspect of the problem, and addressed it using very different tools. I’ll be back soon with a short write-up of the design approach I took. Meanwhile, I want to thank all the pundits, designers, and attendees in New York and St. Petersburg—and the Poynter Institute, Roger Black, and William R. Hearst III for making it all possible.

 

Also published in Track Changes.

Streaming suicide and other design decisions

A 12-year-old girl live-streamed her suicide. It took two weeks for Facebook to take the video down.”

So reads the headline of a January 15 news story in The Washington Post. Saying that she’d been sexually abused by a family member, 12-year-old Katelyn Nicole Davis, of Polk County, Georgia, hanged herself, broadcasting the suicide via a 40-minute live stream seen worldwide.

While YouTube immediately removed the video, it “lingered on Facebook for nearly two weeks,” according to the Post’s reporting of Buzzfeed and other unspecified “media reports.”

First, it just hurts

I keep rereading the short article and its headline as if it will make sense or stop hurting on the next scan-through. As a human being, I can’t fully process the horror and sadness of this tragedy.

I was initially going to write “as a human being and the father of a 12-year-old girl,” but that last part shouldn’t matter. You don’t need to be the parent of a child Katelyn’s age and sex to feel the feelings.

Nor does there need to be someone in your life who was raped or molested—although, whether they’ve told you about it or not, there almost surely is. Statistically there are likely multiple someones in your life who have suffered unspeakably, too frequently at the hands of people whose main job in life was to protect them. I’m sorry to have to write these words, and I hope reading them doesn’t rip open wounds.

But the point is, even if you and everyone in your circle has lived a magical life untouched by too-common crimes and horrors, it is still unbearable to contemplate too closely what Katelyn must have felt, and what she did about it, and what watching what she did must have done to those who watched the video—both the empathetic majority, and the hopefully small minority of viewers who, because of their own damage, may have gotten off on it, edging just that much closer to some future sociopathic acting-out.

A designer’s job

On a personal level, I’m good citing horror and sadness as a reaction to this ugly story. But as a web and product designer, I can’t help but see it as another instance of what Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher warn about in their book, Design For Real Life. Namely:

For every wonderfully fresh use of the internet’s social power we conceive, we must always ask ourselves, how might this be used to make our world more hurtful, less loving, less kind? What unforeseen dangers might our well intentioned innovation unleash?

I published Design For Real Life, but I don’t cite Katelyn’s story or repeat Sara and Eric’s moral here to sell copies. I do it to remind us all that what we make matters. Our design decisions matter. The little qualms that might float through our minds while working on a project need to be examined, not suppressed in the interest of continued employment. And the diversity of our workforce matters, because it takes many different minds to foresee potential abuses of our products.

Streaming suicide, monitoring content

Live.me isn’t the first live streaming app, and, as a category, live streaming likely does more good than harm. The existence of a live streaming app didn’t drive a girl to kill herself, although, in despair at not being listened to, she might have found solace and an appeal in the idea that her suicide, witnessed globally, could lead to an investigation and eventual justice.

Similarly, when Facebook began allowing its customers to perform live streaming (or, in Nicole’s case) to post video streams from third parties, use cases like pre-teen suicide or the torture of a mentally disabled teenager most likely did not factor into those business decisions. But here we are.

And, as much content as Facebook produces in a day, you can’t really fault them for not always being johnny-on-the-spot when some of that content violates their guidelines. But surely they can do better. 

Invention is a mother

There’s no closing Pandora’s box, nor would we wish to. But we who create websites and applications must remain mindful, honest, and vigilant. We must strive to work in diverse teams that are better than homogenous groups at glimpsing and preparing for the unforeseen. More than ever, we must develop design practices that anticipate the horrible and tragic—not to mention the illegal and authoritarian.

And in life, as well as design, we must do a better job of asking ourselves what we are not seeing—what struggles the people we meet may be hiding from us, and how we can help them before it is too late.


Also published on Medium

To Save Real News

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.

 

Simultaneously published in Medium.

Responsive Images and Web Standards at the Turning Point – Mat Marquis in ALA

IN A SPECIAL ISSUE of A List Apart for people who make websites:

Responsible responsive design demands responsive images — images whose dimensions and file size suit the viewport and bandwidth of the receiving device. As HTML provides no standard element to achieve this purpose, serving responsive images has meant using JavaScript trickery, and accepting that your solution will fail for some users.

Then a few months ago, in response to an article at A List Apart, a W3C Responsive Images Community Group formed — and proposed a simple-to-understand HTML picture element capable of serving responsive images. The group even delivered picture functionality to older browsers via two polyfills: namely, Scott Jehl’s Picturefill and Abban Dunne’s jQuery Picture. The WHATWG has responded by ignoring the community’s work on the picture element, and proposing a more complicated img set element.

Which proposed standard is better, and for whom? Which will win? And what can you do to help avert an “us versus them” crisis that could hurt end-users and turn developers off to the standards process? ALA’s own Mat Marquis explains the ins and outs of responsive images and web standards at the turning point.

.net interview

There was a point in the 90s when I felt like a sucker for doing HTML and CSS.”

The .net Zeldman interview is available for your downloading pleasure (4.2 MB PDF). For more of the best in web design and development, visit netmag.co.uk.

Update, 27 May 2009

An HTML version of the interview has now been posted on .net’s website.

[tags]webdesign, webdevelopment, magazine, interview, .net, netmag, interview, interviews, zeldman, jeffreyzeldman[/tags]

Self-publishing is the new blogging

Everyone a writer, everyone a publisher, everyone a citizen journalist.

Everything that could be digital would be. Content wanted to be free. Then we had to get paid. But animated smack-the-monkey ads were so declassé. Ch-ching, Google AdSense, ch-ching, The Deck advertising network, ch-ching your ad network here.

Everyone a writer, everyone a publisher, everyone a citizen journalist, ch-ching.

First the writers and designers did the writing. Then the non-writers who had something to say did it. Then the people with nothing to say got a MySpace page and the classy ones switched to Facebook.

And ch-ching was heard in the land. And the (not citizen) journalists heard it, and it got them pecking into their Blackberries and laptops.

And then the writers and designers, ashamed at rubbing shoulders with common humanity, discovered the 140-character Tweet and the Tumblr post. No stink of commerce, no business model, nothing that could even charitably be called content, and best of all, no effort. Peck, peck, send.

When you’ve flown that far from Gutenberg, the only place to travel is back.

Enter Lulu, all slinky hips and clodhoppers. Self-publishing is the new blogging. No more compromises. No more external deadlines. No more heavy-handed editors and ham-fisted copyeditors. No more teachers, lots more books.

You don’t need distribution, you’ve got PayPal. You don’t need stores: there’s only two left, and nobody buys books there, anyway. You don’t need traditional marketing. Didn’t we already prove that?

Got book?

[tags]blogging, editing, publishing, self-publishing, writing, writers[/tags]

Don’t sleep here

Makeshift bed at construction site.

The area above Madison Square Park in Manhattan is in a condo- building frenzy. Of course all of Manhattan (and Brooklyn and Queens) is in a condo-building frenzy. But above Madison Square Park there is a particularly feverish keenness to the activity, as the glamor of the Flatiron District moves north to a zone that was formerly best known for its gaudy wig and cheap lingerie wholesalers.

The richie rich are buying, and who can blame them? Proximity to Madison Square Park and the chic shops south of 23rd Street makes for an elegance that is almost Parisian—or at least suggests the possibility of such a way of life.

Huge signs affixed to newly rising high-rises and condo converted prewar office buildings trumpet the glory of living here. But there are other signs, as well.

Barely noticed in the builders’ gold rush, the poorest poor, pushed off the benches of Madison Square Park, take shelter in the very construction sites that signify their doom. When this building is finished, the rich will sleep here. ‘Til then, it’s the poor who do so. And what do they dream?

Related

[tags]americandream, housing, homeless, homelessness, shelter, cities, urbanism, newyork, newyorkcity, NYC, boom, highrises, condos, condosandcoops, nest, citythatneversleeps[/tags]

The King of Web Standards

In BusinessWeek, senior writer for Innovation & Design Jessie Scanlon has just published “Jeffrey Zeldman: King of Web Standards.” By any standards (heh heh), it is an accurate and well researched article. By the standards of technology journalism, it is exceptional. It might even help designers who aren’t named Jeffrey Zeldman as they struggle to explain the benefits of web standards to their bosses or clients. At the least, its publication in Business Week will command some business people’s attention, and perhaps their respect.

Avoiding the twin dangers of oversimplification that misleads, and pedantry that bores or confuses, Scanlon informs business readers about the markup and code that underlies websites; what went wrong with it in the early days of the web; and how web standards help ensure “that a Web site can be used by someone using any browser and any Web-enabled device.”

Scanlon communicates this information quickly, so as not to waste a business reader’s time, and clearly, without talking down to the reader. This makes her article, not merely a dandy clipping for my scrapbook, but a useful tool of web standards evangelism.

Contributing to the article with their comments are Jeff Veen, manager of user experience for Google’s web applications and former director of Hotwired.com; NYTimes.com design director, subtraction.com author, and grid-meister Khoi Vinh; and Dan Cederholm, founder of SimpleBits and author of Bulletproof Web Design. Dave Shea’s CSS Zen Garden features prominently as well, and rightfully so.

A right sexy slide show accompanies the article.

And lest a BusinessWeek article lull us into complacency, let us here note that the top 20 blogs as measured by Technorati.com fail validation—including one blog Happy Cog designed. (It was valid when we handed it off to the client.)

[tags]design, webdesign, standards, webstandards, webstandardsproject, WaSP, zeldman, jeffreyzeldman, veen, jeffveen, simplebits, dancederholm, bulletproof, khoivinh, subtraction, wired, hotwired, nytimes, happycog, zengarden, css, csszengarden[/tags]