Teaching Examples

Online news design, Part 3
September 17, 2006, 12:11 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

What kind of work goes into designing news Web pages? It’s quite different from designing for print.

The Onion front
The Onion’s 2005 site redesign won an award from Step (Inside Design), a prominent design magazine (the Best of the Web winners appear in the September-October issue, and not on their Web site). I don’t recall anyone in the journalism world making a peep about it, so I went searching and found this informative post from Khoi Vinh, who has been the design director for NYTimes.com since January 2006. As creative director at the design firm responsible for the Onion redesign, Behavior Design, he wrote this (Aug. 30, 2005):

Compared to the recent redesigns of other online magazines, what we did for The Onion isn’t quite so whiz bang — not a grand slam visual breakthrough, but a pretty serious undertaking nevertheless. We used a bit of sIFR for text labels, a bit of JavaScript for some modestly interactive content modules, and we structured the entire site with some fairly complex XHTML and CSS … but the real focus was on getting the joke right.

The editorial staff told us that The Onion was at its funniest when it was deadpan and straight-faced; as a longtime reader, I concurred wholeheartedly. The design challenge, then, became somewhat more complex than creating a Web site for a weekly newspaper with a fairly low page count, but rather how to create a site that might pass for a legitimate news organization on the level of The New York Times or The Washington Post.

… If the results look suspiciously like a green version of The New York Times Online, it’s because we spent a lot of time studying how the Gray Lady delivers news — but I like to think we were conscientious enough not to steal crassly. The entire design approach was built from scratch, including a fairly intense grid system at the heart of every page that is a direct response to the myriad requirements unique to The Onion: a singular mix of content types, past, present and future, and an influx of advertising inventory that finances the newly opened archives….

I might need to add Vinh’s blog to my Bloglines … I found this much more recent post (about the NYTimes.com September 11 anniversary home page) very informative as well:

When I try to explain what it is exactly that we do in our design group, the point I try to really bring home is we focus on designing the NYTimes.com platform, rather than on art directing the NYTimes.com content. There is so much demand for designers’ skills and smarts to be applied to complex new features and functionality for the site, that we’re consistently preoccupied with developing new sections.

This work largely consists of developing design templates into which our editors and producers pour new content; rarely do we get to design in a way that responds directly to a specific piece of content. This is a function, as I said, of the design needs for our ever-expanding platform; but it’s also a function of the state of Web design today. We simply don’t yet have the tools or the business model to support art direction.

While this is hardly news to anyone who has ever put the home page together at an online news operation, I find there are still many people in print and TV who have no idea how this stuff works in a real online newsroom.

Some folks picture a designer sitting there with Dreamweaver open on the screen — when the reality is usually someone who’s not a designer at all selecting items from a drop-down menu or a database directory. The design was completed elsewhere, on another day.

The Onion A.V. Club
The Onion Sports
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