Printing in pixels: The ‘Times’ lead designer and others on the next-generation web

The new Times Opinion page. ()
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The New York Times recently launched a redesign of its online opinion section, the silo where some of its most popular and well-trafficked writers—David Brooks, Maureen Dowd—display their columns.

 “The Opinion Pages,” displayed in the same elegant type as the print edition, titles the new design. Below that, the landing page (or, rather, the editors behind it) tells where users should click. Today, an illustration of a pilgrim’s hat, with a cluster of legs poking out from underneath, takes up nearly two-thirds of the screen, along with the headline for Ron Chernow’s “The Founding Fathers Versus the Tea Party” opinion piece. Flush to the right of the page, four boxes bobbing in pools of white space tout columns from David Brooks, Paul Krugman, Linda Greenhouse, and the main editorial team. Small, blue links lead users to comment on each article, and there are links to the “Columnist Page" for each writer.

“Below the fold” it gets heavier, with plenty more links to content. But they are placed in three neat columns: links to opinion topics and columnists’ individual pages on the left, a video sitting above more links to the day's articles in the center, and blog fodder on the far right. The page actually gets noiser the further down you scroll—the opposite of most web pages these days.

Open the NYTimes.com homepage in another tab and click between the two pages: the opinion site is a serene oasis compared to the hurricane of links on the main page.

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Explaining the Times' motivation for remaking the page, editorial page editor Andy Rosenthal told Capital: “Websites are fantastic. If you ask a website for something, it will give it to you. But in terms of presentation, a newspaper is an amazingly brilliant thing. Not that we want to just put a newspaper on a website, but we want to bring that sensibility to the Web.”

    >> Read Gillian Reagan's Q & A with lead Times designer Tom Bodkin.

The newspapery redesign will strike most regular readers as pretty, and distinct-looking, but instinctively unchallenging. For obsessive media critics, it is more grist for the argument over the "death of the Web." Writing for Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab, Joshua Benton called it a step in the "march toward app-inspired design."

"The web redesign looks an awful lot like an iPad app: stories set into big touchable-looking blocks; non-standard web typography; more white space and more room for graphics than 99 percent of newspaper websites offer," he wrote. "The redesign is limited to the Opinion front door; the actual story pages are unchanged. But this is the strongest sign yet that the design motifs news organizations are using in app development are bleeding back into the web."

In some parishes, these are fighting words. That is, ever since the gurus of Wired proclaimed the Web dead, gaining attention and long-tail traffic to links like this one here, overcharging the conversation about where the Internet is going. 

"Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display," Chris Anderson wrote. "It’s driven primarily by the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing, and it’s a world Google can’t crawl, one where HTML doesn’t rule. And it’s the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the Web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen)."

(To be fair, some of us were touting this line a while ago ourselves.)

What Anderson (the proprietor of a magazine himself, and one of the first publications to develop a prototype "app" for the iPad) was writing was provocative because it signalled a hostile coup of the power of monetization from media players who aren't publishers: digital marketing agencies, ad networks, and the Googles and Yahoos of the Web world. Now, in the controlled environment of tablet applications (and just possibly, websites you reach through your browser that have this "new feel"), media companies could cut out the middlemen and appeal directly to advertisers, as they have for decades: "Look at our pretty, organized, beautiful applications made for readers with heavy wallets and an eye for Bimmers. Please give us money to advertise to them just like you once did for our print products."

Of course the uptown Times puts out pretty newspapers and magazines every day—something downtown "Winner of the Internet" Nick Denton wouldn't be caught dead doing. Right?

But, in fact, Denton's Gawker has had a similar design aesthetic brewing since the beginning of the year, with its large, TV-screen sized image at the top of the page. There are weights and measures. Decisions. "Read this, please!"

Choire Sicha, former Gawker editor, writing now for his own site, The Awl, called it a moment not in the "march toward app design" but “the great magazining of websites.”

"It strikes me as an anti-Craigslist, an anti-Google," he wrote. "It's a magazining of web content beyond anything we might have expected. It's attractive! But it's also a whole lot less."

 

IN THE INCREDIBLY ANXIOUS BUSINESS OF PREDICTING WHAT readers want on the Web while depending financially on guessing correctly and quickly (and before what they want changes, again), there's a tendency to state things in the extreme. Things "work" or "don’t work," despite several competing models and designs operating simultaneously and successfully, while duplicates of each of those models fail. Perhaps we're taking a step backwards or we're entering a dark room, with only the light from Denton's iPhone or the overcompetence of the New York Times Co. to guide us.

But as we were discussing the new page design with Tom Bodkin, the New York Times’ assistant managing editor and design director, it became clear that an Web era had in fact been accomplished. Whether it belongs to the app-induced future or is a nostalgia trip to get relief from the trend toward almost deliberately ugly, crowded webpages (hello, Huffington Post!), the developments are clear: Editorial judgment, beauty, usability, and quality are returning to the Web.

Bodkin oversees all design for the Times' newspaper and its digital products and worked on the first version of the Times Reader, the Times' digital newspaper for tablets.

"I read the piece about it being a so-called app-influenced design," Bodkin said. "I think that’s totally wrong-headed. I mean, yeah, sure, it does sort of resemble an app. But an app looks the way it does because it was influenced by technology or the platform, by an aesthetic that wasn’t constrained by web conventions," he said. "What we did was something influenced by graphic design principles. What we did literally had nothing to do with apps."

The Times' Rosenthal told us the concept was developed during the spring of last year, before sites like Denton's Gizmodo were writing up educated guesses on what media content might look like on Apple's "tablet." The Times conducted reader surveys and useability panels to find out what people were looking for, and decided to take charge of the page.

"The entire page gives us the ability to place articles, editorials, op-eds, videos, whatever—it is based on our priorities," Rosenthal said.

The new design signals a "maturing" of the Web, as Bodkin put it. It's also a throwback to the era when readers had a relationship with news content: A simpler time when media consumers took time to sit back, relax and read.

And it's a radical move. For some time now, Huffington Post editors have gone with the opposite approach: If a story is doing well, move it up the page; if it's doing poorly, move it down—or off. It's democratic: the more people like something, the more people get to see it.

The Gawker sites were built to automatically shrink the height of stories that didn't get enough traffic over a specified period of time, and remove the picture from the teaser. Stories that aren't getting read don't deserve to take up vertical space in a page, when readers can't be depended on to scroll down when they reach the other end of their attention spans.

But there's a reason this approach is on the wane. More and more, people are not using the homepages of websites to read. They are seeing what their friends post to their tweetstreams and onto their Facebook news feeds; they're organizing their own pages through Google Reader or Flipboard based on algorithms that measure their interest in certain topics and publications.

Finally, the only motivation to go to the Times website to read Maureen Dowd instead of letting her pop up somewhere else in your online existence is if there's  a place on the Web you want to visit on your own terms. By then, you've read all the quantity you want: presentation, curation, selection is all that "destination" websites have left to offer.

If people won't visit you for that, they won't visit you until Facebook, or Twitter, or Google tells them to. And very soon, those people are not going to be worth a whole lot to publishers.

Does it matter whether you reach that destination by tapping a bookmark in your web browser or an app icon on your iPad or iPhone? Probably not. The best new stuff on the Web will work beautifully in both.

 

IT WAS PROBABLY INEVITABLE THAT THE WEB WOULD RETURN here. A couple of months ago, Dan Maccarone of Hard Candy Shell, a much-in-demand New York design firm with little time for the pieties of either the ink-stained Luddites or the self-proclaimed Futurists with their Nietzschean distrust of anything that had already been seen before, set out something like a Doctrine of the Mean in an interview with Capital.

"There are classic reasons why classic layout can show you hierarchy ... Use digital presentation, but take magazines on one end and RSS feeds on the other, and find somewhere in the middle—a flexible presentation of content, with pictures and text."

Simple enough!

Bodkin described the impetus for the Times redesign in similarly sober terms.

"It can be described as app, as in it’s user-friendly, the simplicity, the larger focal image. It has an organization that’s very clean and simple and moving away from the pressure to put as many elements above the fold as you possibly can," he said. "Those are some of the things happening in apps, but we weren’t influenced by apps. It’s about good digital design."

And as pundits, designers, publishers and editors of websites gloat that they are not weighted with the legacy of 500 years of print convention, to designers like Bodkin, their own two decades of legacy may be catching up with them.

"The Internet has had a very interesting history," he said. "It began as a tool for engineers. It didn’t start out as a mass medium. I think some of the early demands sort of became conventions."

As Maccarone put it: "Get everything else out of the way and let me just read. You look at these websites and they are just so desperate to get you to click on anything else than what you want to read. 'Please click on something else, please.'"