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.
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.
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.
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.
LIZZIE VELASQUEZ, age 25, weighs 64 pounds. Born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight, she was not expected to survive. Her parents took her home, raised her normally, and, when she turned five, sent her to kindergarten, where she discovered, through bullying, that she was different.
The bullying peaked when an adult male posted a photo of thirteen-year-old Lizzie labeled “World’s Ugliest Woman” on YouTube. The video got four million views. The uniformly unkind comments included sentiments like, “Do the world a favor. Put a gun to your head, and kill yourself.”
Rather than take the advice of anonymous cowards, Lizzie determined not to let their cruelty define her. Instead, as she reveals in this inspiring video captured at TEDxAustinWomen, Lizzie channeled the experience into a beautiful and fulfilling life.
A GOOD CONFERENCE is a designed experience. I don’t mean a visually over-designed brandgasm. I mean an educational and emotionally considered narrative.
To me, the ideal conference offers a single track, so that all attendees (and all speakers) share the same intense experience over one or more days. The content of each presentation should be discussed with the organizer far in advance of the show, just as the content of an issue of a magazine gets reviewed with editors long before the issue is published.
Too many conferences focus on the mechanics and skimp on the up-front editorial strategizing, shaping, and planning. It is not enough to simply hire people because they are respected in the industry, or because they are in demand, or because their name sells tickets, or because they are available.
A great conference is like a great playlist or LP; every song should contribute, and the sequence in which they are heard should have an inevitability to it, like the song sequence on your favorite albums. The order in which sessions take place is critical; there should be music to the ebb and flow; related ideas should be presented in blocks that help attendees see connections across sessions and topics.
A trained ape can invite the same speakers who speak everywhere else. Conference planners should constantly seek new talent and new ideas. Even more, they should strive to create an environment in which speakers actually want to sit and listen to other speakers, thus further improving the editorial flow and the conscious interplay of related ideas.
To put together great editorial content requires deep and broad knowledge of your discipline, and of the people who contribute to it. It takes sensitivity and experience to choose just the right speakers, on just the right topics, and to arrange their presentations across time for maximum educational and strategic benefit.
If I do say so myself, cough cough.
With thanks to my friend Louis Rosenfeld, who has asked a number of conference founders to share their thoughts on the subject. Watch this space for links to a polished conglomeration of all they had to say, coming soon.
MIKE MONTEIRO is a man on a mission. He wants to improve design by fixing the core of it, which is the relationship between designer and client. Too many of us fear our clients—the people whose money keeps our lights on, and who hire us to solve business problems they can’t solve for themselves. And too many clients are even more frustrated and puzzled by their designers than the designers are by the clients.
It’s the designer’s job to fix this, which is why Mike first wrote Design Is A Job, and spent two years taking the message into conference halls and meeting rooms from New Zealand to New York.
I wish every designer could read this book. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine—many of whom I consider far better designers than I am—struggle every day with terrible anxieties over how a client will react to their work. And the problem isn’t limited to web and interaction designers. Anybody who designs anything burns cycles in fear and acrimony. I too waste hours worrying about the client’s reaction—but a dip into Mike’s first book relaxes me like a warm milk bath, and reminds me that collaboration and persuasion are the essence of my craft and well within my power to execute.
If the designer’s side of things were the only part of the problem Mike had addressed, it would be enough. But there is more:
Next Mike will help clients understand what they should expect from a designer and learn how to hire one they can work with. How he will do that is still a secret—although folks attending An Event Apart San Francisco this week will get a clue.
Design education is the third leg of the chair, and once he has spread his message to clients, Mike intends to fix that or die trying. As Mike sees it (and I agree) too many design programs turn out students who can defend their work in an academic critique session among their peers, but have no idea how to talk to clients and no comprehension of their problems. We are creating a generation of skilled and talented but only semi-employable designers—designers who, unless they have the luck to learn what their expensive education didn’t teach them, will have miserably frustrating careers and turn out sub-par work that doesn’t solve their clients’ problems.
We web and interaction designers are always seeking to understand our user, and to solve the user’s problems with empathy and compassion. Perhaps we should start with the user who hires us.
Learn from some of the smartest people in our industry. Go deep on topics like emerging responsive image standards, advanced web typography, designing in the gap between devices, putting your UI in motion with CSS, working with CSS preprocessors, increasing the likelihood that your digital design projects will succeed, and even the best ways to share the ideas you’ve learned at An Event Apart when you get back to your office.
I’M AT THE MakingWeb conference in Oslo, Norway. Nearly all of the presentations here have been in English, but the one I’m listening to now is in Norwegian, a language of which I speak not a word. The ambient flow of phonemes teases my jet lag and makes my lids heavy. Yet each time I am about to drift off, a name or phrase I know leaps from the sea of foreign syllables, awakening me with a sudden shiver of recognition:
THEY’RE SLEEPING in New York. They’re sleeping all over the world. Even here in Leiden, The Netherlands, they’re still mumbling and drooling in their beds. But not me. I’m awake and packing for my return home to NYC after three glorious days here in this ancient university town, where I was privileged to speak at the first Inspire conference. And all you got were these lousy photos.
HARD TO BELIEVE, but it was ten years ago that I first heard Lawrence Lessig give a talk at SXSWi about an idea he had to save content from death by copyright law.
At the time, copyright law and digital creativity were at odds, and tens of thousands of cultural artifacts were disappearing from the commons because of the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, a copyright extension pushed through congress by the late Sonny Bono at the behest of the Disney corporation. Corey Doctorow, one of Lessig’s partners on the SXSW panel, memorably likened the destruction to the slow motion burning of the Library of Alexandria.
But Lessig had a plan. And, remarkably, it worked: “For a decade now, Creative Commons has made legal sharing and remixing easier for everyone. After ten years, it has become the default third way.”
THE YEAR Brooklyn Beta opened, a misunderstanding and a coincidentally timed paying gig prevented me from attending. The following year, two paying gigs, scheduled back to back, kept me away. This year was going to be different. This year I cleared my decks. This year there were no gigs, no client meetings, no major medical procedures scheduled for the three days that the internet descends on Brooklyn. This year I was definitely attending.
Then this family thing came up and I can’t go. Nobody’s sick, nobody’s injured, nobody’s mentally or emotionally or spiritually treading water, but my presence and attention are required in Manhattan for huge swathes of the day. Which means, although friends I adore and see too rarely are a mere five subway stops away, I cannot be with them now.
I hope Brooklyn Beta continues for a thousand years, and I hope I can attend for at least one of them. I hope this isn’t a thing—like it was a thing for years that when Apple updated its Macintosh operating system, I was certain to be one of the 0.001% of users who suffered from some strange edge-case problem as a direct consequence. I hope there isn’t a betting pool on the odds of my attending Brooklyn Beta, although I have visions of one bespectacled design nerd slipping another a fiver on their receiving news of my non-attendance. Most of all, I hope everyone attending has a great time. See you next year, maybe.
HEY, FRIENDS. I write from the magical city of Chicago, where I’m enjoying the first Happy Cog Summit. Next week, following our meet-up cum strategy session cum karaoke party, comes An Event Apart Chicago, three days of peace, love, and web standards (plus more Chicago magic).
I won’t be writing here much while these events continue, but I’ve started a Chicago 2012 photo slide show for your pleasure, and will add to it as time and aesthetics permit. You can also stalk me via my new Foursquare Chicago list.
Once An Event Apart kicks in, starting Monday August 27, and until it ends Wednesday night, August 29, I’ll post links and notes here—and you can follow the hot tweet-by-tweet action on A Feed Apart, the official feed aggregator for An Event Apart. Yowee!