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NYT’s Opinion Pages continue the march toward app-inspired design

Above is a screenshot of The New York Times’ opinion section, whose redesign went live a few hours ago. Looks sharp, doesn’t it? It also looks like it’s itching to be put into a different context:

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. And below the area in the screenshot above, the selector for moving between different Times columnists is all done in Ajax, so each click seamlessly shifts between content, much as a nice menuing system in an app might. Even the ING Direct ad in the upper right looks like the sort of small display ads some apps use. In some ways, this redesign more closely resembles the original NYT iPad app previewed in January than does the app the Times eventually shipped.

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, as I’d predicted back in April. Twitter’s recent redesign, of course, had a similar app-to-web feel.

Part of this design trend is driven by technology: more people using modern browsers that can handle Ajax; faster connections for big graphics and larger page sizes; the arrival of Typekit as a de facto standard for non-standard fonts. But I think it’s also driven by the desire to present easier navigation choices for readers and the sort of graphical class that lets you stand apart from the increasingly info-cluttered corners of the web. (Compare the Times’ new opinion page to, say, its politics page.)

I think this is important in ways that aren’t just about aesthetics. Simpler, bolder design also helps news organizations push back against the notion that the web demands more more more — more stories, more updates, more exhausted reporters. In the comments to Nikki Usher’s post on the “hamster wheel” a few days ago, a few of us had a mini-discussion on the subject. After C.W. Anderson described “the ‘needs’ of the internet” as “bottomless needs,” I said:

I’d just like to put a signpost in the ground for the argument that the needs of the Internet are not “bottomless needs.” There is not a single human being who consumes everything The New York Times produces online in a given day — or even the amount that The Dallas Morning News, or The Toledo Blade, or The Podunk Gazette produce. (Okay, maybe The Podunk Gazette.) Aren’t there any number of successful online content businesses built around strong but not overwhelming-in-quantity content?

I have no data to prove this, but I think there’s a chart to be drawn somewhere that features both quantity of content output and loyalty of audience, and I don’t think they line up 1:1. I don’t think the hamster-wheel model makes a lot of business sense for even a lot of online news outlets, whatever journalism sense it may make.

The hamster-wheel urge to produce more more more is happening at the same time that audiences are feeling more overwhelmed than ever with information. There aren’t many Americans who, at day’s end, lament: “Man, I just wish I’d had access to more content today.” There’s a role to be filled by providing simplicity, a more limited universe of choices, and information underload.

I’ve called it before a New Urbanism for news, and I think designs like this are a step in that direction.

What to read next
Justin Ellis    Aug. 25, 2014
Developers, designers, and writers from across the Vox Media family are getting involved in building new storytelling tools for the tech site and plotting its next phase of growth.
  • Owen Linderholm

    I’ll be a little bit of a devil’s advocate. First off, I don’t get the same screen – so it might be worth looking into that.

    But on to my core point. Instead of putting that screen into an iPad screen – just put it exactly where it was designed for – a monitor. This is first and foremost a web-friendly design. Easy to read and easy to go to other stories. Sure it also works well in the context you describe, but more importantly it works well in the existing context.

    I’d argue that this is far less an app-friendly design than a reader friendly design.

  • Matt Wright

    Definitely agree with you re: the hamster wheel model being off-base. There’s way too much good stuff to read out there, and I find myself increasingly gravitating towards carefully curated, human-paced sites. I recently unfollowed all of NYT’s Twitter accounts for this very reason. That said, I’m sure some people enjoy the firehose.

  • bill schwab

    I’d love to hear more about the trend toward “graphical class” for a research project I’m working on. Additional visual examples of this trend would be greatly appreciated.

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  • Ivo Jansch

    It’s also not so much a trend towards apps, but a trend towards ‘touch friendly design’, with the
    mouse losing more and more users; even on laptops and desktops where other input mechanisms such as trackpads are gaining ground.

    The ‘not a single user reads all’ argument is weak though. Do you know a person who buys every product at walmart or burger king? This is about choice, which means that that particular question should be turned around to ‘is all content read by someone’ instead of ‘does anybody read all content’.

  • Don O’Shea

    I’m not sold on the layout. The two center columns that form a grid uses too much white space. This means that items that caught your eye before are now, even on my 30″ monitor, “below the fold.” Or, perhaps, “below the monitor.”

    I wonder if Stanley Fish is happy with the location of his link today?

  • Joshua Benton

    Hey Ivo — I actually think the Walmart analogy isn’t a bad one. Yes, general department stores traditionally sold an extremely wide variety of goods, far more than any one consumer would purchase. And that model has led to 90% of department store chains going out of business, as their traditional local monopolies have been overtaken by larger corporations (i.e. Walmart) who have massive efficiencies at scale and tremendous cost-cutting ability. I think you’re actually seeing the same thing happen to newspapers, whose local monopolies have been superceded by the Internet and which are under threat by things like Demand Media, which promise to bring Walmart-style efficiency and cost cutting to media production.

    So, would you rather be trying to compete with Walmart at their own game (next to impossible) or start playing a different one? What’s the biggest retail success story of the past 10 years — the Apple Stores, which focus 90% of their space on, what, maybe a dozen products? That try to make buying decisions simpler than at, say, Dell? Basically, traditional media companies are never going to be able to compete with these digital newcomers on cost, so they need to find other ways to differentiate themselves — and I think the sort of user experience something like this offers could be one way to do that.

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