Can Good Design Save Online Media?
A few design tenets online media outlets can follow to encourage slow, careful reading of important content
By Ryan Hatch
At a conference in Denver recently, New York-based creative director Jeffrey Zeldman gave a talk he called “Slow Design for an Anxious World.” The world in question was that of the wide web. In short, Zeldman says this anxious world is built for speed, and speed can be good. Speed online is good when filling out an address form or trying to pay for sneakers.
But speedy digital experiences don’t always translate to pleasant ones, particularly when deeper concentration is needed to understand and digest complex information, as is often the case when consuming news. To illustrate the point, Zeldman included in his presentation screenshots of several websites: the New York Times, Washington Post, the New Yorker, ProPublica. All of the sites, he argued, were enjoyable experiences at least in part because they provide readers with the chance to immerse themselves in the content.
He was right — the sites were a breath of fresh air in a landscape littered with pop-ups and autoplay videos. But why? What, even at a brief glance, made these experiences “good” beyond the absence of full-screen surveys and male enhancement display ads? Zeldman pointed out that across these sites there is a strong focus on type size. That is, big type, not unlike what’s seen on this platform. (Zeldman pushes for font size 16 point and above. Medium uses 21-point font, as does the New Yorker, at last check.)
He argues readability, big type, hierarchy, minimalism, art direction, and whitespace effectively deployed create a more readable experience, one that translates into content absorption rather than merely conversion.
Zeldman argues that big type on digital platforms has a dual effect: people tend to lean back — literally, physically — to consume the content; this, in turn, causes them to slow down, to consume the content at a more measured pace. In this case “slow,” he says, is good, and it’s best for reading comprehension; bigger type fosters a focused and thorough reading experience when it is most crucial.
“Is there a science [to this]?” Zeldman asked, rhetorically. “I don’t know.”
For Zeldman it’s more of a theory, one rooted in feeling and anecdotal evidence. He argues readability, big type, hierarchy, minimalism, art direction, and white space effectively deployed will cause people to lean back — again, literally and physically — and create a more readable experience, one that translates into content absorption rather than merely conversion. After all, how have we for hundreds of years read physical newspapers? How do we read books? It’s rarely by trying to get to the end as fast as possible.
Browsing many of these media properties can still feel like looking at five different models of sports cars devoid of anything that distinguishes one from the other.
So, all good? Every media company can just adopt these principals, implement the strategy, and watch the money roll in? Not quite, Zeldman notes, because we’re also up against a new problem: homogeneity. Even to the trained eye, many of the sites Zeldman highlighted looked awfully similar. Sure, there’s the diaeresis sprinkled through the New Yorker articles (like on the words “coöperate” or “reëlect”), the NYT flexes its data visualizations muscles in no small ways, and ProPublica doesn’t skimp on art direction in the hero sections of its investigative pieces.
It’s not enough. Because browsing many of these media properties can still feel like looking at five different models of sports cars devoid of anything that distinguishes one from the other—they’re fine, they’re cool, but readers are choosing blind, and likely have little loyalty to one over the other. And, when stories are displayed on, say, Facebook, and a New York Times article about race is virtually indistinguishable from someone’s uncle’s rant about the same topic, how are we to expect users to know the difference?
Start, Zeldman says, with developing a strong brand and bring authority to everything—type, voice, color, layout, and hierarchy, etc. Readers must know when they’re reading a particular site, much like they know when they’re driving (or at least looking at) a certain sports car. (He noted that movie posters do this well, lending gravitas to films before people have seen a single frame.)
“A strong brand,” Zeldman once wrote, “is individual to the given newspaper, can cut through that amorphousness, which is the first step in building (or rebuilding) loyalty.” And his position, intentionally or not, supports a recent shift within the industry that favors marking success by gauging users’ time spent on the page (longer the better, natch) rather than individual “clicks.”
Figuring all this out, determining how to successfully build digital media properties, is of course worthy of serious consideration. The industry’s in crisis — yes, a damn crisis. Since 2008, there are 25% fewer working journalists, and today, public relations flacks outnumber reporters six to one. (Six to fucking one!) These trends and numbers don’t contribute to a healthy society. So whether it is subscription models or advertisement dollars that drive the future of online news, keeping readers’ eyeballs on stories for longer is in the best interest of publishers’ bottom lines and our collective well-being alike.
Will big type and white space help fix the numbers above? I don’t know. Maybe. I hope. But we have to try, and we can start by improving the things we can control. Is it hyperbole to say that good design and brand work can help preserve our democracy? Perhaps not.