A reality-based guide to news site design: Part 1

wHEN Roger asked me to contribute to his blog. I couldn't say no, and I'll tell you why.

When I was art director for the U.C. Santa Cruz student weekly newspaper, "City on a Hill," we had a poster on the wall that read, "World Domination Through Typography." It was an advertisement for a lecture by Roger Black, our divine spiritual leader.

Roger's work was the latest chapter in the annals of great design. Emphasizing basic traditional elements such as superb typography and lucid editorial, his designs spoke to you in a contemporary language that was as appealing as it was challenging. He also designed "California" magazine. I stole a lot of ideas from that magazine.

Years passed. T-squares, tissues and Rubylith gave way to QuarkXpress, Photoshop and InDesign. I moved on from the college paper to New York and real, live, (mostly) paying clients. But in spite of all the changes in design tools and processes - not to mention the onset and immediate evolution of an entirely new communication medium - my role has remained basically the same: creating editorial design that actually enhances readers' ability to digest information.

In this column, I hope to provide some insight into the world of news design on the web. More than half of our major design clients at Richardson+Fels, are news organizations. (Disclosure: Some of them came to us through Roger Black.) Although it's an industry rife with tribulations, I find the work very satisfying. Maybe it's the kick of actually helping people stay connected to what's going on in the world. Or using design to help clients solve business problems. Or both.

There's a lot of emotion wrapped up in newspapers these days. You love the feel and smell of the paper and ritual of the reading it. You like the intuitive delivery, knowing exactly where to find your favorite stuff. You love it all! That is if you were born before 1975. If you weren't, you don't care and you don't know what the big deal is. You get your news online. And you get it for free!

I bet every newspaper publisher in the world would love to kill the guy who first posted news on the web for free. I'd like to, too. It has significantly diminished resources and inhibited growth. But that's the way it is, and it's the system we have to work within.

Typically, I'm called in when a publication is mounting a major site redesign. This involves not only design but business strategy, branding evolution, staffing strategies and technical integration. I've got loads to say about all these things, but I thought I'd start at the beginning.

Let me tell you about initial design meetings. I'm usually at a table surrounded by a group of people who know things are changing -- that there's a generational shift in the way people acquire news.

On top of that, they've already committed amazing amounts of money and personnel into getting a newspaper produced, printed and distributed every day. (And generally speaking, this isn't an industry that's rolling in the dough.)

I can see in their eyes what they're looking for. I've heard it many times: "We have no money to staff our web product. We've put what money we have into the technology needed to support the web so we can port articles over to the web with the least amount of hand work."

The first thing I ask is, where do they see their news product in ten years? Most of them bow their heads and say, "Online." This gets them thinking about long-term priorities. And it usually gets me at least one full-time, in-house web designer dedicated to the project.

Beyond emotions and economics, there are tons of other critical elements that need to be considered when designing or redesigning news sites. Here are a few of the basics:

  • Editorial - How do you prioritize stories and take advantage of the accessibility of stories on the web? [not sure what this means]
  • Functionality - How do you give people tools that are helpful and will make their lives better (or at least more fun)?
  • Technology - Are you dealing with existing servers and functionality, or are you building something completely new? How are delivery systems going to change in the future?
  • Advertising - Is the publication looking to increase page views? Are ads high enough on the page? Are there enough ads on each page? Too many?
  • Production - How extensive is the in-house design staff? Will it be able to keep your design consistent on an ongoing basis? Are you dealing with original web content? Do you have a videographer? Do you have blogs? Are you creating a community?

And that's just the beginning. My plan is to delve a bit further into each of these areas in a series of posts. Next up: Editorial. But you can't really discuss editorial without bringing in page real estate, navigation, multimedia capabilities, search, type size. . . .

Your Thoughts (0 comments)

No comments yet!

Featured Post

Go to post.

Go OnDemand With MediaBistro