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

Ten Years Ago on the Web

2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugsworrying 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.

I was reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, a delightfully written text that anticipated and suggested design rules and thinking for our present Internet of Things. It’s a fine book, and one I helped Adam bring to a good publisher. (Clearly, I was itching to break into publishing myself, which I would do with two partners a year or two afterwards.)

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 onetwothree, or four, have a look back.

 

 

Helvetica With Curves—And Other Updated Classics

Keynotesnaps001

Title card from ‘Designing With Web Standards in 2016,’ An Event Apart presentation by Jeffrey Zeldman. Text is set in Forma, an upcoming face from Font Bureau.


NOT UNLIKE what Mattel has done with Barbie, the typographic geniuses at The Font Bureau are working on a humanist geometric sans-serif that could almost be thought of as Helvetica with curves.

Forma is the name of the as-yet unreleased font family, and you can get a peek at one weight of it in the above image, which is taken from my slide deck for “Designing With Web Standards in 2016,” which is the presentation I’ll premiere next month at An Event Apart Nashville.

This new presentation examines the seemingly ever-deepening complexity of designing for our medium today—a complexity that has driven some longtime web designers I know to declare that web design has become “too hard,” or that “the fun has gone out of it”—and asks what our traditions of designing with web standards can teach us about crafting web experiences for a multi-device, mobile-first world.

Given that my original (unpublished) title for Designing With Web Standards was going to be Forward Compatibility—and given that Forward Compatibility is not so different in concept from today’s phrase, Future-Friendly—I’m guessing that structured, semantically marked-up content, progressive enhancement, and the separation of style from structure and behavior still have a huge role to play in today’s day-to-day web design work.

Oh, dear, I hope that wasn’t a spoiler.

I look forward to sharing these ideas with you in greater detail at An Event Apart. Now celebrating our tenth year of bringing great ideas to our community, and creating a space where the smartest folks in web design and development can meet, mingle, bond, network, and learn together. Follow @aneventapart for show announcements, links to useful web resources, and free giveaways on the 10th of every month in 2016. (This month’s giveaway, ten beautiful fleece comforters monogrammed with the A Decade Apart logo, went to ten lucky winners on February 10th. Keep watching the skies.)

Sharing is Caring: the Shopify Partner Studio Program

NYC Photo

THE INTERNET, as we all know, makes it possible to work from anywhere. Back in 1999, I started Happy Cog studio from a desk in my bedroom. I shouldn’t even call it a desk. It was a door on top of two filing cabinets. But that, a Mac, and an internet connection were enough to launch my web design business.

But creative people thrive by rubbing shoulders with other creative people, which is why I opened a studio as soon as the business I was doing justified the expense.

It’s no secret that coworking spaces have exploded in the past five to ten years, and the communal setting they offer helps freelancers, remote workers, and other independent professionals work better and more happily. But, as good as coworking spaces are, I believe designers and developers do even better in a shared studio where the same talented folks come in day after day, sitting at the same desks every day. That’s why I opened A Space Apart in 2012, and it’s why I’m delighted to open my studio to the Shopify Partner Studio Program.

If you’re a qualifying designer or developer just starting your career, we want you here. Besides rubbing shoulders with each other, and with some of the smartest designers and developers I know, you’ll gain mentorship experience from Shopify execs, web design/development industry icons, and me. (Never fear, I’ll learn more from you than you will from me.)

So kickstart your freelance business with free office space and mentorship from Shopify and me. If you haven’t already done so, apply now!

Save “Save For Web”

TWENTY years or so ago, Adobe Photoshop was, as its name suggests, primarily a tool for professional commercial photographers. Strange though it may seem for a company that now sells its software via a “Cloud” subscription service, the web was not at all on Adobe’s radar in those days. “Save For Web” was not even a widely held concept, let alone a Photoshop menu option.

This vacuum created an opportunity for independent developers and designers. Which is how the very talented Craig Hockenberry of Iconfactory and I came to release Furbo Filters, an indie shareware product that let designers prepare images for the web. It did a few other things as well, such as offering garish, psychedelic treatments you could apply to any image—not unlike the far more expensive (and also far, far more developed) Kai’s Power Tools. (And you know what they say: if you’re old enough to remember Kai’s Power Tools, there’s a Drop Shadow in your closet. But I digress.) Some of you may have used DeBabelizer to manage your web color palettes in those days when Adobe and Photoshop ignored the web. Some may even have used Furbo Filters.

Then Adobe created a “Save For Web” option (in Photoshop 5.5), and Furbo Filters’s beautiful market was gone in a moment. All that remains as a memento of that time and that product is the domain name furbo.org, which is where Craig keeps his blog.

I was reminded of this during a workplace discussion about the seeming disappearance of “Save For Web” from modern Photoshop.

To be clear, “Save For Web” still exists in Photoshop CC 2015. But it has been rather awkwardly deprecated, as revealed through both UX (“Save For Web” no longer appears in the part of the interface where we’ve been trained to look for it for the past twenty years) and language: when we stumble onto “Save For Web” hiding under Export, after not finding it where we expect it, we’re presented with the words “Save For Web (Legacy),” clearly indicating that the feature is no longer a recommended part of today’s workflow.

Adobe explains: “Because Save for Web is built on the former ImageReady product (now discontinued), the code is too antiquated to maintain and develop new features.” (If Furbo Filters and DeBabelizer didn’t resurrect dead brain cells for some of you, I bet “ImageReady” did. Remember that one? Also, how scary is it for me that half the tools I’ve used in my career only exist today as Wikipedia entries?)

Instead of Save For Web, we’re to use Export: Export As…, which Adobe has built on its Generator platform. Stephen Nielson, writing on Jeff Tranberry’s blog for Adobe, explains:

Adobe Generator is a new, modern, and more efficient platform for exporting image assets from Photoshop. We have been building new capabilities on top of this platform for the past two years, including the new Export As and Device Preview features. The Generator platform allows us to build new, streamlined workflows and incorporate more efficient compression algorithms like PNGQuant into Photoshop.

The new Export As workflows are a complete redesign of how you export assets out of Photoshop. Export As has new capabilities like adding padding to an image and exporting shapes and paths to SVG. We also introduced the Quick Export option, which allows you to export an entire document or selected layers very quickly with no dialog.

Going forward, we will no longer develop new features in Save for Web, which is why it now is labeled as “Legacy”. Don’t worry; no features have been removed from it and we know there are critical workflows that still require Save for Web. However, Save for Web does not support, for example, new Artboard documents.

—Jeff Tranberry’s Digital Imaging Crawlspace, “Save for Web in Photoshop CC 2015

While I believe the Export As function is built on newer code, and I get that Adobe is committed to it, after months of use, I still spend a tremendous amount of time searching for Save For Web whenever I use Photoshop. And when I make myself use Export As, I still don’t feel that I’m getting the speed, power, and options I loved and came to depend on in Save For Web. This is a subjective reaction, of course, and “users hate change” is not a truth to which designers are immune—but I’ve yet to meet a designer who prefers the new tool and doesn’t feel confused, frustrated, and bummed out about the switch.

What I’m saying is, Craig, let’s talk.

No Good Can Come of Bad Code: Ask Dr Web in A List Apart

Remember: the future will come whether you design for it or not. If your company charges $300,000 for a website that won’t work on next week’s most popular device, your company won’t be able to stay competitive in this business. It might not even be able to stay in the business, period. After all, clients who pay for sites that break too soon will look elsewhere next time—leaving your company perpetually hunting for new clients in a downward spiral of narrowing margins and diminishing expectations.

Your company’s survival is tied to the ability of the products it makes to work in situations you haven’t imagined, and on devices that don’t yet exist. This has alwaysbeen the challenge of web design. It’s one A List Apart has taken seriously since we began publishing, and our archives are filled with advice and ideas you can boil down and present to your bosses.

Source: No Good Can Come of Bad Code

Marchgasm!

I’VE BEEN BUSY this month:

And March is only half over.

Chicago, Chicago

An Event Apart Chicago—a photo set on Flickr. Photos of the city and the conference for people who make websites.

AN EVENT APART Chicago—a photo set on Flickr. Pictures of the city and the conference for people who make websites.

Notes from An Event Apart Chicago 2013—Luke Wroblewski’s note-taking is legendary. Here are his notes on seven of the ten presentations at this year’s An Event Apart Chicago.

#aeachi—conference comments on Twitter.

Chicago (Foursquare)—some of my favorite places in the city.

An Event Apart Chicago—sessions, schedule, and speaker bios for the conference that just ended.

AEA Chicago 2013 on Lanyrd—three days of design, code, and content on the social sharing platform for conferences.


THE NEXT AEA event takes place in Austin and is already sold out (although a few spaces are still available for the full-day workshop on multi-device design).

A handful of seats are available for the final event of the year, An Event Apart San Francisco at the Palace Hotel, December 9–11, 2013. Be there or be square.