Thursday, June 05, 2008

If You're In Charge Of Designing A Publication's Website, Read This Post.

A wonderfully talented colleague of mine passed along this interview with the web designer for Monocle, a fabulous internationally-minded magazine that has embraced the web with zeal. In it, the designer, Dan Hill, shows the sketches and thinking behind a magazine designing for the web.

(It's a long read, but worth every inch -- if you're the impatient type, skip to where the first images of the home page begin.)

One thought in particular showed how Monocle sets itself apart from the, ahem, bigger publishing houses in the U.S.:

Thus we were doing the opposite of what most magazine-driven brands when they turn to the internet (often as an afterthought). The obvious choice is to plonk all the magazine editorial online, and augment with a few editors' blogs and such-like. At first glance, we were effectively letting the print material reside where it is best experienced - in the tactile format of the magazine - and instead exploring new facets of the brand with a broadcast-led website. But wanting to have our cake and eat it, the magazine material is there too, just reformatted for the web and immersed in a new navigational framework, appropriate to its new context.

Afterward follows diagrams and explanations: why a certain layout, why certain fonts, why certain choices and under what kind of constraints instituted by the better-known print product:

I inherited a fairly full worked through corporate identity, with typeface choice (generally, Plantin, Helvetica Neue, and Hoefler + Frere-Jones's Strasse from Numbers; all quite beautiful), a 4-way colour-scheme, a strong grid-based structure, and all the small detail elements - end marks, pull quote styles, maps, oldstyle numerals, a Monocle mark as well as typographic treatment of the logo, and so on - that the architecture of a magazine supplies. Further, the identity extended into paper bookmarks, envelopes, letterheads, and the nicest cardboard DVD wallets I’ve ever seen.

The challenge was to translate all that for the internet - something I've done many times before, working with the music or broadcast industries, but I'd never done with a monthly magazine.

The same goes for generating content for the web. So many magazines use their website as an incomplete content dump, never really offering their backlog of content but still making it seem like it's a seriously complex site. Monocle went the other way:

In terms of rhythm of updates, we deliberately decided less is more, and flying in the face of conventional wisdom (if you can have wisdom in a medium only a decade old) we produced editorial at a steady rate - essentially a well-made film or two per week - rather than bombarding the user with content. Deciding to filter, reflect and craft rather than immerse the user in a constant flow of data in lieu of information. Again, this was difficult for some to get their heads around, and we certainly have aspirations to increase the frequency to include a snappy daily bulletin, but this sense of quiet calm exuding from Monocle was another important statement: that you don’t have to clutter websites with every possible bit of information you can. And that - particularly for the busy people that enjoy Monocle - information overload is not something we wished to contribute to.
And, of course, making stylistic choices that convey the greater message and brand of the publication:

Visually, we wanted to make something that didn't ape current design tropes - the boring, over-used and essentially art-less 'web 2.0 look' of bright palletes, gradient fills and rounded corners - but had a more classical view, as befitting something a little more grown up. Richard Spencer Powell said the magazine design draws from modernism, of course (especially North and Mittel European heritage) but also looks further back into the early 20thC, and beyond the simple serifs and vogue for ornamentation, but look at the engravings, section headers, cartographic styles etc.

So the last thing we needed was a bevelled/shaded button style in yellow or fuscia.

And, finally, the hot topic of the moment -- how to successfully engage readers with user-generated content like comments and the like (the approach may surprise you):

In terms of user generated content, or user discussion of Monocle pieces, my view was that we didn't need comments on the site as people increasingly have their own spaces to talk, discuss, comment - whether that's blogs and discussion fora, or the social software of Facebook et al. So a more progressive approach would be to ensure that everything is linkable and kept online - with clean, permanent URL structures - thus encouraging people to point to articles from the comfort of their own sites. At some point, we could begin to aggregate responses to Monocle editorial, Technorati-style, perhaps...overall, this seemed a more mature approach to handling this brand, and the increasingly sophisticated environment online. It's meant we don't have to carry moderation costs, which I knew could be expensive, yet still trigger conversation. Towards the end of the year, a site described Monocle as "the most blogged about magazine", so part of that strategy would seem to be working.

I think there are some incredibly valuable lessons to be had here, and all designers for the web ought to be thinking about these issues in depth. Given recent discussion on this blog, Mark Potts and Avenue A | Razorfish, I'm looking at you with a friendly gaze; but I'm also looking at every online editor and the higher-ups that constrain their efforts at Condé Nast, Hearst, Time, Hachette, Meredith, Rodale, and so forth.

Because honestly: I know The New Yorker site won the 2008 National Magazine Award for General Excellence, but let's be honest -- can sites like that (clean content dumps with unimaginative architecture) and the insanely cluttered sites of or even New York magazine's site really hold a candle to the clean lines, forward-thinking, mature site of Monocle?

I don't think so.

To me, they just look three steps behind.

1 comment:

sunitha said...

What makes the visitors to come back to the site that they have already gone through? I think a perfect website designing and a good looking websites makes the visitors again to be back to that designing