We’ve got some exciting news to share. Web and interaction design studio.zeldman is moving, from our digs at 148 Madison Avenue to a new location on Fifth Avenue. As of June 1, we’ll be designing, creating, and consulting out of our beautiful new studio space at The Yard: Flatiron North.
But we’re tired of playing landlord. Instead of debugging the internet router, tending to the recycling, hiring HVAC repair people, and seeking suitable replacement studio mates when a company moves out, we’d rather spend our time solving our clients’ design problems and making cool stuff like A List Apart, A Book Apart, The Big Web Show, and An Event Apart. And The Yard’s the perfect place for us to ply our trade and make our goods. (Plus we still get to rub shoulders with other creative business folk.)
We can’t take it with us: furnish your office with our stuff!
Running a co-working studio space meant buying a lot of furniture and equipment. Beautiful stuff, still in great condition. Elegant stuff, because we’re designers. Stuff we won’t need any more, now that we’re moving to new digs where somebody else does landlord duty. So we’re selling it, for a lot less than we paid. And that’s where (maybe) you come in.
Most everything must go, including our famous Eero Aarnio (style) ball chair (if its red cushions could talk!), custom Bo Concept shelving, Eames Desk Units from Design Within Reach, Herman Miller Aeron chairs (ditto), midcentury tulip table and side chairs, black glass desks, Nespresso espresso maker, file cabinets, icemaker, microwave oven, see-through glass mini-fridge, and more. These are beautiful things that inspire good design, and they deserve good homes.
ABOUT A YEAR ago, around the time I launched my new design studio, I moved nearly all business-related communications to Basecamp 3, the latest evolution of the web-based project and communications management tool from my Chicago designer friends who used to be called 37signals.
One of Basecamp 3’s nicest features is the ability to set up automatic check-ins, such as asking all team members “What did you work on today?” at 5:00 pm daily.
On the surface, it’s intended as a way of letting everyone know what their teammates are working on, thereby deleting needless meetings from everyone’s schedules. But the feature can go much deeper, as I’ve discovered to my great pleasure. A day at a time, it can build community and help you design your career and your life. It even brings back some of the joy we once derived from the days of the personal web.
What did you work on today?
Over the years, I’ve started or cofounded several web-related businesses. Rather than limit my new studio.zeldman Basecamp exclusively to the designers, developers, and UX specialists who make up my studio, I decided to include everyone from allthebusinessesI touch.
Naturally, I’m mindful of people’s bandwidth, so anyone who doesn’t wish to participate can opt out or selectively block threads or projects that don’t interest them. I also refrained from inviting two staffers from one of my businesses who, for whatever reason, have just never hit it off with Basecamp. (Evangelizing any tool, however much one personally loves it, is like trying to convince a carnivore to go vegan. It accomplishes nothing, and leaves everyone feeling hurt.)
Save those two folks, with whom I collaborate through other methods, everyone else I work with on a daily or weekly basis, across all my little businesses, has access to a shared Basecamp. And every day at 5:00 pm Eastern Time, Basecamp asks all of us, “What did you work on today?”
The evolution of open sharing
At first, those who chose to participate took the question literally, sharing the work-related tasks we’d accomplished that day. But, over time, we began something sharing else. We began sharing our lives.
As if in a Unitarian church group, or an AA meeting, we share daily joys and sorrows, hopes and aspirations. One of us has a child leaving the nest; another’s child may have had a tough day at school. One of us is writing a book, another has begun physical therapy. Some of us comment on each other’s shares; others use Basecamp’s “applause” feature to indicate that we read and appreciated what was shared. Some folks write essays; others share via bulleted lists.
Hearkening back to the old, personal web
Sharing and reading other people’s posts has become a highlight of my day. Of course it helps me get my work done, but more importantly, it also lets me focus on my life and professional goals—and those of my friends. I love getting to know people this way, and I deeply appreciate how respectful and safe our sharing space feels—partly because Basecamp designed the space well, and partly because I work with people who are not only talented and bright, but also kind and empathetic.
If we all sat together in the same office space, I doubt we would let down our guard as much as we do when responding to Basecamp’s automatic check-in. Indeed, far less personal sharing goes on with the non-remote colleagues in my NYC studio space—probably because we are all there to work.
It reminds me of what life was once like on the old web, where people shared honestly on their personal sites without fear of being harassed. I’m not the only old-timer who misses that old web; in recent years, several of my internet friends who once blogged blithely have switched to opt-in newsletters, sharing only with subscribers. Although I mourn the personal, open-hearted web we once shared, I understand this impulse all too well. Sharing with my colleague/friends on Basecamp restores some of the joy I used to take from sharing and listening on the old open web. You might try it.
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 fatw?. 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.
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.)
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?
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.
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.
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.
2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugs, worrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.
I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.
Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)
Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.
Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.
In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.
As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts one, two, three, or four, have a look back.
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.)