Herewith, a scene from last night’s interview with legendary web & book designer (and Dean of The Cooper Union School of Art) Mike Essl, who shared his portfolio, career highlights, early web design history, and more. Fun!
If you get a chance to meet, work with, or learn from Mike, take it. He’s brilliant, hilarious, warmly human, and one of the most creative people you’ll ever have the good fortune to know.
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?
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”
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
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.”
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.
When I first met Lara, she was touring behind her excellent O’Reilly book Designing For Performance, a topic she brought to life at An Event Apart in 2016. But, as important as performance is, I was even more excited to publish her new A Book Apart book, Demystifying Public Speaking, because, for nearly 20 years, I’ve impressed on my design/development colleagues and students the vital importance of public speaking to the success of their projects and careers—and now there’s finally a book that tells them how to do it.
I believe in public speaking (and writing) because a person who is comfortable sharing ideas and communicating to groups can evangelize designs, principles, and best practices. This in turn helps build consensus, support collaboration, and keep everyone’s eyes focused on what’s best for users—instead of, say, which colors a powerful committee member dislikes, or how much bigger we could make a button or logo.
Those who communicate comfortably, even when opinions vary and the subject is contentious, spread reassurance, which means the project not only focuses on the right things, but does so in a positive and supportive environment. Effective communicators inspire their groups to dig deeper and try more things—to work, and ponder, harder. This generally leads to more successful iterations (and, ultimately, projects), spreading good work in the community and leading as well to greater career success and longevity. Whew!
That’s why I speak. And why I strongly encourage my students and work mates to speak. Thanks to Postlight and to everyone who attended last night’s event.
THE BIG WEB SHOW is back, baby! In spite of hurricanes, blackouts, and the vagaries of international travel, my 5by5 audio podcast about “everything web that matters” has returned to weekly broadcasting. Here are the latest episodes for your edification and listening pleasure:
Creator of four classic web design books (in 13 editions) Jennifer Robbins and I chat about her upcoming Artifact Conference for multi-device design; why sites are now systems, not pages; how style guides can function as a system design description tool; getting digital UX design into its natural habitat (hint: not a comp) sooner than later; what’s new in web design and the 4th Edition of her O’Reilly classic Learning Web Design; and loads more.
Jennifer Robbins has two decades of web design experience, having designed the first commercial website, O’Reilly’s Global Network Navigator (GNN), in 1993. She’s the author of O’Reilly’s Web Design in a Nutshell, and has taught web design at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and Johnson and Wales University in Providence, RI.
Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, discusses what it’s like to be an internet entrepreneur, from the origin of product ideas to the art of the pivot. Ev is a notoriously private guy; it is wonderful to hear him open up and share his hard-won web wisdom in this episode.
Evan Williams is an American entrepreneur who has co-founded several internet companies, including Pyra Labs (creators of Blogger) and Twitter, where he was previously CEO. His new thing is Medium. Ev was born and raised on a farm in central Nebraska. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two sons. He likes long walks, tofu, and bourbon. Ev has blogged for over a decade at evhead.com; you can follow him on Twitter at @ev.
In Episode No. 74 of The Big Web Show, I interview Chris Coyier of CSS-Tricks, CodePen, and ShopTalk about the path from employee to media maven, upcoming secret features for CodePen, coping with Retina images, finding sponsors, the success of his Kickstarter campaign, tee shirts for manly men, Twitter dramas about baseline grids, and more.
Chris Coyier (@chriscoyier) founded and writes at CSS-Tricks, co-hosts a podcast at ShopTalk, and co-founded and is a designer at CodePen, a sort of Dribble for coders.
I chat with content strategist and author of Content Everywhere Sara Wachter-Boettcher (@sara_ann_marie) about how practitioners can organize and structure content to maximize its value, longevity, and future-friendliness.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a content strategist and writer based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she drinks strong coffee and sometimes blogs. She is editor in chief at A List Apart magazine, and her book, Content Everywhere, is due out from Rosenfeld Media in the very near future. You can find Sara on Twitter trying not to say all the snarky things she thinks.
For the return of The Big Web Show, I speak with web pioneer Derek Powazek (@fraying), Founder and CEO of Cute-Fight, the online game for real-life pets and the people who love them.
Derek Powazek has worked the web since 1995 at pioneering sites like HotWired, Blogger, and Technorati. He is the author of Design for Community: The Art of Connecting Real People in Virtual Places (New Riders, 2001) and the cofounder of JPG, the photography magazine that’s made by its community. He has also been Chief of Design for HP’s MagCloud, advisor to a handful of startup companies, and creator of Fray, the quarterly book of true stories and original art. Derek is now Founder and CEO of Cute-Fight, the online game for real-life pets and the people who love them. Derek lives in San Francisco with his wife, two nutty Chihuahuas, and a house full of plants named Fred.
I AM EXCITED to participate this morning in Reasons To Be Creative, NYC, where I’ll give a talk on “The End of Web Design;” and at An Event Apart Boston starting Monday, where I’ll make the case for “Content First” in web design.
TUESDAY, 3 APRIL 2012, was Day II of An Event Apart Seattle, a sold-out, three-day event for people who make websites. If you couldn’t be among us, never fear. The amazing Luke Wroblewski (who leads a day-long seminar on mobile web design today) took excellent notes throughout the day, and shares them herewith:
In his The Future is Now talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, WA 2012 Eric Meyer talked about some of the visual effects we can achieve with CSS today. Create shiny new visual elements with no images using progressive enhancement and CSS that is available in all modern browsers.
In his A Philosophy of Restraint talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, WA 2012 Simon Collison outlined his design philosophy and how he applies it to web projects. Embrace constraints; simplicity and complexity; design aesthetic; design systems as foundations that prepare us for future projects and complexity; affordances and type; focus and content; audit and pause — prevent catastrophic failures and shine a new light on what you’ve learned with each project.
In his Touch Events talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, WA 2012 Peter-Paul Koch talked about touch support in mobile browsers and how to handle touch events in web development. Includes a ranking of current mobile browsers; interaction modes in mobile versus desktop (mouse) and keyboard — how do we adjust scripts to work with touch?; touch events; supporting modes; event cascade; and “stick with click.”
Mobile to the Future – Luke Wroblewski
Alas, Luke could not take notes on his own presentation. Here’s what it was about: When something new comes along, it’s common for us to react with what we already know. Radio programming on TV, print design on web pages, and now web page design on mobile devices. But every medium ultimately needs unique thinking and design to reach its true potential. Through an in-depth look at several common web interactions, Luke outlined how to adapt existing desktop design solutions for mobile devices and how to use mobile to expand what’s possible across all devices.Instead of thinking about how to reformat your websites to fit mobile screens, attendees learned to see mobile as way to rethink the future of the web.
In her What’s Your Problem? Putting Purpose Back into Your Projects talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, WA 2012 Whitney Hess outlined the value of learning about opportunities directly from customers. Understand the problem before designing the solution. Ask why before you figure out how. There is no universal solution for all our projects, we need to determine which practices are “best” through our understanding of problems. Our reliance on best practices is creating a world of uniform websites that solve no one’s problem. Leave the desk and interact with people. Rather than the problem solver, be the person who can see the problem.
At An Event Apart in Seattle WA 2012, Jared Spool walked through what makes a design intuitive, why some users need different treatment, and the role of design. Current versus acquired knowledge and how to bridge the gap (how to train users, thus making your site or app “intuitive”). Redesigns and how to avoid disaster. Design skills. The gap between current knowledge and target knowledge is where design happens. Why intuitive design is only possible in small, short iterations.
Day III begins in 90 minutes. See some of you there.
In his Rolling Up Our Responsive Sleeves talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, WA 2012 Ethan Marcotte walked through ways to tackle thorny issues in responsive design layouts, media, advertising, and more.
Jeffrey was looking for us to do a more tailored, short run of the doll we had initially designed of him-215 to be exact. They were to be given away as gifts at the Hall of Fame after party being held at South by Southwest (right about now is where you can hear our jaws drop to the floor).
Here was the opportunity to put handmade work into the hands of 215 web designers and industry gurus at one of the largest interactive design conferences in the world-South by Southwest. Are we interested? Hells, please! So, after hashing out the details and specifics we set into work on the very complicated and detailed project. Below are just a few of the pictures we took documenting the process…
“LONDON, ONTARIO Digital Interactive Game and Web Conference Day 1. Jeffrey Zeldman delivered the keynote in the Web stream downstairs at London Convention Centre. Later that day, SxSW announced his upcoming Hall of Fame Induction March 13, 2012!”
YOU FIND ME ENSCONCED in the fabulous Buckhead, Atlanta Intercontinental Hotel, preparing to unleash An Event Apart Atlanta 2011, three days of design, code, and content strategy for people who make websites. Eric Meyer and I co-founded our traveling web conference in December, 2005; in 2006 we chose Atlanta for our second event, and it was the worst show we’ve ever done. We hosted at Turner Field, not realizing that half the audience would be forced to crane their necks around pillars if they wanted to see our speakers or the screen on which slides were projected.
Also not realizing that Turner Field’s promised contractual ability to deliver Wi-Fi was more theoretical than factual: the venue’s A/V guy spent the entire show trying to get an internet connection going. You could watch audience members twitchily check their laptops for email every fourteen seconds, then make the “no internet” face that is not unlike the face addicts make when the crack dealer is late, then check their laptops again.
The food was good, our speakers (including local hero Todd Dominey) had wise lessons to impart, and most attendees had a pretty good time, but Eric and I still shudder to remember everything that went wrong with that gig.
Not to jinx anything, but times have changed. We are now a major three-day event, thanks to a kick-ass staff and the wonderful community that has made this show its home. We thank you from the bottoms of our big grateful hearts.
I will see several hundred of you for the next three days. Those not attending may follow along: