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What’s next: The transition to online journalism depends on clean, simple design

In a world where people consistently refer to newspapers as a dead industry, it’s no surprise that the future of news design lies in websites, tablets and mobile devices. Many loyal newspaper-readers try to counter the transition by emphasizing the beauty of a physical newspaper — the feel of it, the design of it, the overall experience of it. Reading the news should be an experience, and some readers just don’t get the full affect by staring at a bright screen. This, in turn, raises an interesting question: Is hesitancy toward online news a result of cluttered, confusing and near-frustrating design?

Andy Rutledge analyzes the design of The New York Times’ website in the following article, citing it as an example of a suffocating website so packed with links that a reader has no idea where to click or what to read. It seems that NYT’s intention is to cram as much content onto a page as possible. Rutledge believes it could be a plan to overwhelm the reader, tricking them into believing the newspaper is bursting with “a mindbogglingly-bottomless array of important information.” After analyzing the website myself, I find it nearly impossible to recognize any hierarchy among the stories, between what’s most recent and most important and what’s simply a blog post. For example, their main navigation sidebar has about 40 different options for links to subpages.

Working off this example, the future of digital news should incorporate the clarity and breathable nature of newspaper design. Headlines should be bold, descriptive and powerful. Opinion should be distinct from news. Media types like video, gallery and audio, aren’t sections, but should be incorporated into each story.

Here are some examples of more attractive presentations for the digital version of The New York Times that Rutledge created.

New York Times, 1

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For the time being (at least while we still know that newspapers are in fact existent), the same principle must be applied. Readers can’t be overwhelmed by cramming content, sometimes unnecessary, onto a front page simply for the purpose of “filling out the page.” News design needs to give the reader the opportunity to take a breath. In this article, Ohio University professor Julie Elman urges designers to back off.

 

She brings up an interesting point that I personally often forget when designing. Designers are the ones who are ultimately in charge of putting things on a page, and often times its necessary to go by the principle of less is more. Every dot on a page has a meaning, and if it doesn’t have any meaning, the reader is going to try and assign it one.

Elman suggests designers avoid using photos as space fillers, and instead run a photo very large rather than several photos of the same subject repeatedly. If an image doesn’t add something, she says, then it takes away from the entire package. When I design photo spreads, which are analyzed in this article, I’ll often randomly create a hierarchy among photos based off what works with my design, which photos are the better ones visually, etc. Yet as designers, we must create a story with the photos. We use simplicity and white space to create dominance and focal points, rather than cram as many photos as we can. We use visual cues to guide the reader, such as diagonals to guide their eyes from an entrance to a middle to an exit. The words surrounding photos should complement the emotions of the photos.

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Hartford

HARTFORD COURANT

The Hartford Courant’s election coverage of 2004 is most likely among my favorite post-election front pages. It’s elegant and chilling at the same time — the bold mac and white space put the reader on edge, and then simultaneously bring the reader into the photograph, in which everyone is equally on edge. The white space of the design and the break from the Courant’s normal something shows you something’s wrong or out of the ordinary instantly — the design echoes the sharpness and discomfort of a sharply split nation. The all-caps, centered text additionally create an eerie tone, while keeping its boldness. Simplicity works.

Politiken1

Politiken2

POLTIKEN (Copenhagen, Denmark)

This front page takes soft and neutral colors and a clean layout so that the front page art pops out in contrast, looking especially sharp. Clean, horizontal packaging on the right hand side of the A1 compliments it well. The jump pages are also stunning, with sharp typography and the use of white space allows the light bulb to pop and work as art in itself. The red pull quotes work as simple but fun accents. Poltiken takes white space and a lack of photography and transforms it into something artful, which is truly innovative.

Marwa Eltagouri

4 Comments

  1. Nice finds, Marwa. And smart posts. Good work. And I especially love your comparison of print and web.

  2. I agree that online journalism design needs to be clean and simple in order to keep your reader on track and more likely to stay on the page, however, I also believe that too simple and clean can deter a reader from wanting to further explore your content. In the examples Rutledge created as alternatives to the present NY Times design, she creates what I think is a carefully constructed prototype–but one that hinders too much on the idea of simplicity. We have to remember that there are other digital outlets that readers can access news–one of the primary ones being the smartphone. Her first example looks to similar to the smart phone option, which can create a problem from the reader as to why they would want to access the online version if it is the same as the smart phone one? The website should offer some exclusivity that the smart phone doesn’t and vice versa. So while the content should stay the same, how the information is organized is the next critical element. Clean and simple is key, but it shouldn’t be taken to such a literal definition.

  3. I find this article really interesting. As journalists, we are constantly haunted with the depressing slogan: print is dead. I don’t think a day goes by where we don’t hear something to the tune of shifting online, print is a thing of the past and the most dreaded: “why are you getting degree in that?” It seems that we must always be strategizing how to improve and transition print to be more reader/user friendly. But, I’ve never really heard the same for the web-when it comes to breathability and clarity (for news sites). I’ve heard people say that websites can be confusing and convoluted, but to analyze a news website – I think it has vast importance. I also believe that we, as Syracuse students, are in an ideal place to see how integral a website could be when there is a limited paper (such as the very recent (if not this week) shift to three-day-a-week printing for The Post-Standard. It’s new website (www.syracuse.com) has changed about three times since we got here this past summer, but now it seems to have found what I think is a happy medium. If or when print publications cease (at least newspapers) there needs to be some type of channel on the website to resemble the purpose of what a newspaper has done. Sorry, I belabored, I just found this super interesting.

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