This just in from Eustace Tilly

tHE NEW YORKER has redesigned its web site, and the design is fine, but the approach to the web seems stubbornly retro. Resolutely anti-Web-2.0. The site seeks no community. And it is absent of dynamic content, although as the author of this very slow blog, I suppose I am not one to criticize. Only the calendar changes every day, and those items just come from the weekly magazine section, “Goings on About Town.”

Other retrograde elements:

  • Not all of the New Yorker’s content is available online, although you don’t know that unless you click on the “magazine” link in the secondary nav list on the right of the home page. When you get to that index, many key features of the print edition are grayed out. Some headlines still link to content, but others, like the one for John MacPhee’s European geology piece in last week’s issue, go nowhere, and there is no explanation about why there is no text. (Hint: Go buy the magazine!)
  • No comments are solicited, or presumably welcome. Of course the New Yorker only printed letters in the magazine over William Shawn’s dead body.
  • There is nothing interactive, except the cartoon contest, the existence of which irritates many old New Yorker readers. At least online you can vote.
  • The archive button leads only to a list of folders of stories on several topics, with a promise of a complete searchable archive to come.

So The New Yorker seems like many early magazine web sites, albeit one with superb content, pleasant design, and excellent cartoons (which you can still look at in a slide show.) It’s an ice sculpture. Look-don’t-touch.

The site serves as a kind of compendium of old New Yorkers, almost like a monthly edition, when you click on on one of the sections, like “Reporting & Essays.”

The good news is that there are several features that you can’t get in print, some shown on the home page, and more gathered in an “Online Only” section. For example, the torture clips from “24” that Jane Mayer described in her TV review.

But, also added are some alarming animated versions of old cartoons. These make a good argument for the idea that “some things are better in print.”

What is a magazine online?

Conde Nast, the owner of the magazine, has recently moved away from a strategy of consolidating print titles under aggregated “portal” brands, such as Style and Epicurious. CondéNet (watch that accent grave), the online arm of the company, has reportedly freed the magazine titles to go their own way. Their direction is not entirely clear, with Self, Vanity Fair and House & Garden available under their own URLs, but other titles still tucked under or elsewhere. Here’s a list of sister sites in the bottom nav of the home page. I bet the association with Jane and Lucky irritates the old time New Yorker readers more than anything else.

If you go through some of these sites, it becomes apparent that the CondéNet is on the move. is back together with the print magazine, which only makes sense. An interesting newcomer is Lipstick, which is a quick link list of celebrity news. (You gotta love a home page that consists mainly of a big, live list.) Now there’s Flip, which is Conde’s mashup of Facebook and Alloy, perhaps their smartest launch.

And while behaves like a year-2000 magazine site, other traditional titles have moved at least into the present. Vanity Fair has video of Annie’s recent Sopranos shoot, and James Wolcott’s active blog. Self has a tip of the day, and a rich selection of forums on fitness and health topics. House & Garden has several lively blogs, including useful style news from the staff, and Grace Bonney’s tireless product spotter.

The online brand

All of these sites are handsomely designed, carrying over much of each title’s graphic look. Which brings us back to The New Yorker. Would that the CondeNet people had brought more of their new thinking to this redesign.

Yes, it looks like the New Yorker, and faithfully “extends the brand.”

When the great Massimo Vignelli redesigned the magazine for Tina Brown, there was some teeth-gnashing from traditionalists. What, a grid in a classical magazine?! The New Yorker design of course had nothing to do with the Bauhaus. It was an artifact of the old-world taste of the first art director, Rea Irwin, and the house style of the Blanchard Press composing room.

But Massimo actually enhanced the use of Irwin’s iconic typeface (which I’ve always heard called Knickerbocker). His modern grid forced a system on the page layouts that had become formless and random. A redesign can only be judged over time, this effort, after ten years, is a great success.

The design adapted Adobe Caslon to replace the Linotype Caslon Old Face, which had never looked right since the switch to offset. (It is not too much to hope that Caslon text, even Adobe’s bland version, will find its way to The New Yorker site, perhaps with the help of David Berlow’s new screen font scheme.)

Since Tina, photography has taken a rich role in the printed magazine. And there are a lot more cartoons. Old purists, of course, miss the letterpress most. They miss the big margins, the wire-saddle binding (the staples of which would rust when you left the magazine out in the gazebo), John McPhee at unfettered length, the ridiculous cute flower pot covers of the Shawn era (replaced by annoying political cartoons), the dry squibs of more flower pots, unsigned Talk pieces, E.M Frimbo, Block that Metaphor fillers, William Steig.

Instead, they get the best magazine in the United States, wide-ranging, vigorous and startling, beautifully written and edited, an insightful photo assignments, and the brightest hard-working editor in history.

My quarrel is that moved the modernized design a notch colder. The site needs a little whiff of the letterpress. And the home page could do without the heavy black horizontal nav bar and the egregious display of Irwin’s avatar, Eustace Tilly, who would never want to be used as a spokesmodel.


Footnote: For an impartial review, go to and search for “New Yorker.”

Your Thoughts (1 comment)

2007-03-20 by luca menato

No interactivity required

I cannot say I am disappointed by the lack of user-generated content or other interactive options on the New Yorker site. While busy dailies like The Guardian have been able to create unusually lively debate areas (probably thanks to their younger-than-average and more-left-than average audience), I bank on sites like the New Yorker precisely because of I appreciate their quiet discipline. Even The Atlantic's discussion areas hardly fizzle with interesting comment. My own bugbear of the new look? Too many flags, signposts and signifiers pointing to (relatively) too little content. PS: I may be getting old but your own red-on-white text areas are a challenge

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