In a 2006 post at Design Observer, Michael Bierut praised what he termed the “slow design” of The New Yorker: “the patient, cautious, deliberate evolution of a nearly unchanging editorial format over decades.”
It’s an apt description. As Jon Michaud, the magazine’s archive director, told me, “There have been slight design changes over the years — the pages are now a little smaller than they used to be. We put the bylines at the top of articles, no longer at the bottom. We introduced photographs in the ’90s.”
But “for the most part, the magazine has evolved slowly over the decades.”
The New Yorker’s self-conscious connection to its own past is undoubtedly one of its key selling points. But what about the more future-oriented component of the publication: the digital magazine that lives on the web? When you redesign your site — as The New Yorker did late last year, in its first online revamp since 2007 — how do you balance “a nearly unchanging editorial format” with the needs of transition to (an at least partly) digital existence?
One way: Even online, preserve an ethos of print. “Designers who’ve worked on the print magazine week after week were intimately involved in the web design,” Blake Eskin, The New Yorker’s web editor, explained in an email. So “there are all sorts of ways, articulated and unarticulated, in which the look and feel of newyorker.com is guided by what’s on paper.”
Indeed, the new update is — as The New Yorker has always has been — spare in its use of text, minimal throughout, and squeaky clean. It even makes more use of Irvin, the iconic, 1925 typeface designed by (and named for) the magazine’s original art director, Rea Irvin. Illustrations and other art have also been more integrated into newyorker.com, and can be found at almost every turn — clever, and reliably unpredictable.
Then again, not everything on the new site is print-derivative. The magazine’s vintage sensibility notwithstanding, it was actually The New Yorker’s iPad app that inspired many of the site’s visual design choices, Eskin told me — like the greater use of images, both thumbnail and full-screen. “Before, our website, much like the printed magazine, had been more sparing in its use of art, and the iPad helped pave the way for using more images,” he says. “We tried to optimize both digital formats for readability. Which is why the default font size is bigger — one benefit of removing the sidebar on the left edge of most pages.”
SEO was a factor, as well. “The removal of the sidebar made a more open page, but it should also help search engines to notice our stories,” Eskin notes. (Headlines, with the help of Typekit, are also searchable.) Likewise, “as we’ve added more writing that isn’t from the magazine, and more audio and video and slide shows, we outgrew navigation that largely followed the structure of the print magazine.”
The most telling change, though, is as much about philosophy as it is about design. On the re-launched site, “we put less of the magazine online than we used to,” Eskin says. It’s a choice that will likely become more common as The New Yorker’s fellow outlets make key decisions about paid content. “Especially now that ‘Information wants to be free’ is no longer an article of faith — we wanted to tell our paying subscribers that they can access everything,” he says. “And to tell our non-paying visitors that there’s a lot that they’re missing.”