The last blog

oF COURSE, it’s probably not the last blog, even for me. Wishful thinking. I am just getting started on one so late that perhaps no one can stand to read another, or to comment on it. But here we are. Late to the table is better than no meal at all. The point is to provoke a conversation about media design, and I hope you will dive in.

Ten years ago, when I started working on web sites, some early settlers slammed me for trying to bring print values to the Internet. Well, what values are you supposed to bring, other than those you have? The kind of print design I’d been doing for the preceding 25 years was aimed at making magazines and newspapers easier to read. I tried to work with some learning of the lessons of the 500 years of printing before that. I still think that a the web could use a little Theodore Low Devinne, and a lot of Bruce Rogers.

Trapped as it is behind unfriendly software, heavily glazed with Flash, the web is nevertheless mostly text, not in terms of file weight, but in terms of acreage. Even the vaunted “community” applications of the Internet, starting with e-mail, are mostly text.

Yet, for a number of reasons, reading on the web is still not easy:

  • blurriness
  • wide lines
  • long pages
  • glaring displays
  • dim displays
  • distracting ads

We’ve been conditioned against reading any length of text by the simple fact that web sites are better presenters of sports scores, stock prices and news headlines.

Home pages, usually designed in committee, favor more over less — to make everyone on the committee happy. Clutter is good. The dawning need to pay for the site welcomes more and more intrusive advertising. After ten years of this a simple, clear home page looks, well, empty.

And so writing on the web tends toward the telegraphic. Headlines work better than blurbs. More is better than less. Behavior has become . . . searching.

We have gotten used to moving quickly around, not staying in one place. It’s all about hypertext. As the usability pundit, Gerry McGovern, recently put it,

The primary purpose of web navigation is to help people to move forward. It is not to tell them where they have been, or where they could have gone.

All of this has combined to create a standard of behavior on the web that we designers of come to take for granted. Moving outside of its conventions, stupid though they might be, can confuse the users. In fact, the standard has become so quickly entrenched that people have started assuming that (1) it is here to stay, and that (2) the web has changed things forever.

We hear various media experts declare that newspapers and magazines will never compete with the Internet because people have forever changed the way they get information and entertainment.

Well, nonsense. Newspapers and magazines may of course perish by the hundreds, but that will because of a vitiating combination of stock market analysts and media buyers, two groups who have never allowed logic, or a knowledge of human behavior, to get in their way.

People have a prevailing need to believe that the way things are when we got here are they way they are supposed to be. This explains all the problems the boomers having adjusting to becoming the “older generation.”

A corollary of this is that a major transformation in the culture becomes the new permanent reality.

Both beliefs are enduring myths, but there is no guarantee of permanence. I still have a warm spot for vinyl records with that red Columbia label or the CBS Evening News broadcast, but the media just happened that way, and to tell you the truth the iPod and RSS headline feeds are vastly more convenient than the appointment-based analog world, with all of its endearing pops and scratches.

On 9/11 I thought for a moment that we were in a state of seige and New York was going to be the new Beirut. But it didn’t. There just weren’t a long line line of suicide hijackers out there, but the first assumption was that there was.

Designers born in the 80s may think web design is the way it should be, but it all just fell into place. There are indications that Microsoft’s WPF may be shift the assumptions, but that is another day’s subject.

*     *      *

As I start the last blog, I want to ask: What could happen and what should happen in the design of the media? Or: What do people really want?

The blog’s assumptions

narrative, long-form and short-, is something that people haven’t gotten tired of;

media is not a zero-sum game, new media accretes to the mix, but doesn’t necessarily eliminate the previous forms;

multi-tasking is something we all do;

quality is essential to success, and the reason all the media is in free fall may have as much to do with the product as with piracy or new kinds of competition.

Your Thoughts (10 comments)

2006-09-07 by Charles Apple

Graphics director, The Virginian-Pilot

A wonderful start to your new blog, sir! Lead on!

2006-09-08 by Nick Blume

Yes. Change color.

The red background with the white font is not so good for reading, can you be so nice to change this? Or is it your philosophy?

2006-09-08 by Rob Weychert


First of all, I've been a fan of your work for years, and I'm very pleased to finally welcome you to the blogosphere (as the kids call it). That said, I was surprised to find your site's layout so busy, especially with all this talk of how the web's clutter has reached criminal proportions. Sure, it's reminiscent of the sort of editorial work you've done both in print and online (most of which is perfectly suitable for its goals), but it seems to be tripping over itself to ensure its readers that THERE IS A LOT TO SEE HERE. It's not hard to make sense of it, once you've spent a bit of time with it, but I found it a bit jarring on first look. On the functionality side of things, I would strongly suggest that you <em>not</em> publish the e-mail addresses of your commentors, but instead publish their URL (if any). This wouldn't stop you from collecting e-mail addresses to privately correspond with your readers. Spam may be inescapable these days, but that's no reason to just hand over your address to the bots. Otherwise, I quite like the site (I was particularly surprised to find the white text on red very readable) and I'm looking forward to seeing it grow. Congrats!

2006-09-08 by martin gee


congrats on the launch. it's going to be great to read your opinions and check out your current projects. *bookmark* the "simplify" button is brilliant and cracks me up too.

2006-09-08 by Rob Hunter

Publishing commenters' e-mail.

E-mails are no longer being published. Thank you so much for helping us tidy things up.

2006-09-08 by Mike D.

Black and White and Red All Over

Very nice work. Just when you thought there were no original designs left to emerge from the blogosphere... I look forward to a continuing stream of design knowledge coming out of this place. Adding to newsreader right now...

2006-09-08 by Gary Bergeron

What Do People Want?

As an Internet Information Consumer I want information that is EASY TO FIND and content that is relative. Please... no more spinning globes, dancing fish or terrifying audio files that send me to ER. Good design with easy navigation and interesting content. Show me a website with these elements and I'll show you my bookmark.

2006-09-09 by vanni

First i am an admirer of your work. So it's with respect that i would suggest a little tweaking of your site for better legibility. white small fonts on red doesn't do my eyes any good. and your copyright footer is totally unreadable...needs a bigger font. All the best. Will be a regular visitor. cheers

2006-09-10 by Greg

<em>"Yet, for a number of reasons, reading on the web is still not easy: blurriness."</em> The white text with drop shadows on a red background only makes it worse, even on an Apple Cinema Display. You don't use drop shadows for body copy in your magazine and newspaper designs so why subject your readers to it online where it makes for very difficult reading?

2006-09-14 by John

White on Red hurts.

Reading this well written article hurts my eyes and my head. Thank goodness for modern browsers.

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