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Designing a big news site is about more than beauty

Information designers still haven’t figured out how to present large amounts of information in a way that’s beautiful, encourages discovery, and leaves room for editorial control.

It appears to be Pick On News Web Designers Day today. This comic — poking at news sites’ unwillingness to link, misuse of thumbnails, and addictions to share buttons, among other things — made the rounds of Twitter, to the point of crashing cartoonist Brad Colbow’s site.

But even more talked about, on Hacker News anyway, was web designer Andy Rutledge’s unrequested redesign of the website of The New York Times. He finds the current site too busy, too data-dense, and he suggests an alternative, here. (That’s specifically a section front for Politics; you can see the existing page on here.)

Rutledge’s design has a lot to recommend it: it’s clean, spacious, has nice typography, and feels high-end, the way something like the Times should to differentiate itself from the competition. (I’m focusing just on his design rather than his ideas about journalism, which are pretty wrong-headed and seem derived from some more-puritan-than-the-Puritans ideal — how free news is inherently bad, that the act of “featuring” some stories over others is a violation of news purity, “there is no ‘most popular’ news,” “almost all news organizations have abandoned reporting in favor of editorial,” etc.)

But as nice-looking as it is, it also misses some of the point of what it means to design for the Times. The Times generates a ton of content every day. Looking at Times Wire, I see 169 stories published just in the past 18 hours — and I don’t believe that’s actually capturing everything that flows through the Times’ blogs and sundry other online spaces. And it’s a Tuesday! The challenge of a news organization that pumps out that much content is how to present it all in a way that maximizes its value, both journalistically and financially. There are many, many beautiful websites around the Internet that, as lovely as they are, would be awful as an entry point of a news site. (Similarly, stripping stories down to just headlines — no intro text, which Rutledge dislikes for some reason, no thumbnails — may maximize typographic beauty, but it doesn’t do much for enticing a click.)

This isn’t just a problem for the Times; it’s also a problem for the massive aggregators like HuffPo and Gawker. (Whatever one thinks of the controversial Gawker redesign, it is nonetheless an attempt to wrestle with this problem.) Rutledge’s design, on a commonly sized laptop screen (1440×990), would link to exactly three stories in the first screenful of content. The Times’ current Politics page links to 13.

Now, that doesn’t mean the Times Politics page is perfect. It’s actually kinda ugly, and confusing, and cramped. But, as ex-Timesman Michael Donohoe writes at Hacker News, it’s also based on a design that’s approaching six years old. (Here’s the front page of on April 2, 2006, when the current design was put into place. Look familiar?) That raises another of the major challenges news sites face: Because they produce so much content, every day, nonstop, major change is hard to pull off. That’s true with any extensive website, but it’s particularly true of a news website that takes its responsibilities to the historical record even a little bit seriously.

Think how much the Times’ digital output has changed since 2006, how many new targets those stories hit — an iPhone app, an iPad app, a Kindle edition, a mobile site. And each of those, I’d wager, meet more of Rutledge’s wishes: they’re cleaner, more spacious, more obvious nav targets. And the bits of that have gotten designed/redesigned since 2006 — DealBook, Opinion, T — all share that spirit.

(And if Rutledge really does want nothing more than a long stream of decontextualized headlines, may I suggest either Times Wire or Today’s Paper?)

The legitimate question is why hasn’t the front page of seen that same kind of love. I suspect the institutional inertia question is a big part of it. I suspect another is the Times’ strong print DNA, which privileges the editor’s judgment in story placement in ways that lead to echoing of complex, text-heavy print layouts that match the Times-on-paper.

But the other piece is that no one has figured out a way to present lots and lots of constantly updated information in a way that (a) is beautiful, (b) is effective at story discovery, and (c) privileges editorial control.

Beautiful by itself isn’t that hard — there are lots of beautiful sites on the web, and lots of talented designers. When it comes to effective story discovery, the innovation has all been in the direction of algorithms and raw feeds. An algorithm is how Facebook surfaces items in your News Feed; a raw feed is how Twitter organizes tweets from the people you follow, in straight reverse chronological order. But neither of those is perfect for human editorial control, which is something news organizations rightly value; there are tons of visual and contextual cues on those complicated pages that tell me what Times editors think is more or less important for me to see. (And, in any event, most news organizations have nothing near the amount of data needed to create Facebook-style personalization. The Times, with its article recommendations, is about as close as it gets.)

I guess my overarching point is that, while there are no doubt lots of pages on or any other news site that could use a once-over, the problems of large-scale information architecture for news sites are really hard problems. Smart people think about these problems. And their solutions require more than a nice slab-serif typeface and some white space.

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  • Kate Hannon

    But if the site is so “busy” that it confuses people, what’s the point of offering all the information. I think Rutledge has a point of view that deserves to be explored further.

  • Joshua Benton

    True — but a certain amount of busyness would seem to be the necessary complement to producing a ton of content. If were one big beautiful image with a link to one single story, then it would achieve a certain beauty and certainly avoid busyness — but it also wouldn’t be particularly effective at either leading people to Times journalism or at generating revenue.

  • Rick Conrad

    Excellent points!

  • Tyson Evans

    Great post, Joshua. It’s been a fun day reading other’s prescriptions for the craft of news design. For what it’s worth, the Society for News Design’s latest digital awards showcase some real innovation:

  • Joshua Benton

    Maybe another way to think of it: An Apple retail store is much more beautiful than a Safeway grocery store. *Much* more.

    But the Apple model wouldn’t make any sense for a grocery store — every box of Rice-a-Roni set alone on a lovely blond-wood table, given room to breathe; only one of each item out on the show floor, with the actual stuff for sale in the back room for staff to fetch. Now, that doesn’t mean that Safeway couldn’t *learn* something from Apple, or that Safeway’s current structure of aisles and produce sections and frozen-food freezers is necessarily optimal. But, fundamentally, it’s trying to solve for a different problem.

  • Stijn Debrouwere

    I disliked Andy’s inappropriate and vituperative comments about the NYTimes site and I think his ideas about the industry are quite naive, but I did enjoy the redesign and thought some of his criticism (e.g. that NYT’s nav is all over the place) was spot on.
    I think people miss the point when they say it’s (too) easy to do redesigns if you’re not hampered by reqs and politics and financial considerations and whatever, or when they say that Andy’s redesign isn’t realistic. That’s not the purpose of a carte blanche redesign mockup.

    Sometimes we need to go crazy and mock up stuff that can’t absolutely work in its pure form, because they get the creative juices flowing and they avoid us only ever considering incremental improvements when a full-on rethink might be what we need to move forward.

    I’ve done many of these kinds of designs in the past and I’m actually working on some others for work right now. They always get people thinking, even if you’d never ever actually want to implement ‘em.

    Andy’s mockups revolve around what a news site could look like if the reading experience was all that mattered. Okay, now let’s do a similar exercise for a news site that revolves entirely around fostering a community. Or one that is all about bringing context to the news. Or all about sharing. Or new ad and sponsorship forms. Or centered around the mobile experience. You can bet that each of those mockups would teach you something and would help you when you’re doing a real redesign.

    So, more crappy unrealistic redesigns, please.

  • Scott Klein

    But the “vituperative” and “naive” comments are indicative of a bigger problem — and that problem is just as evident in his mockups.

    Design is about understanding your client, understanding their audience, and understanding their challenges. Design is not about wishing all of that away, and it’s certainly not about demanding that you understand your client’s industry and vision better than they do.

    So while we shouldn’t be quick to set his comments aside, let’s set them aside for a moment. It’s difficult to see how effectively the Rutledge mockups solve the problem he claims to solve — complex pages with too many stories. Simply deleting stories and eliminating ads and social media links isn’t a design solution. It’s the opposite of a design solution: it’s a cop-out. A good design accepts complexity and scale, and comes up with an elegant way through through that complexity and scale.

    Are we to assume that the parts of the Times’s journalism that he cuts out is shuttered? Or perhaps that the rest of the stories are hidden under subnav and banished to other pages? The former would be a disaster, and the latter an exponential *increase* in complexity and anxiety for the reader.

    So while I agree that we should see more unrealistic designs that push us forward, let’s get ones that take things a bit more seriously.

  • Stijn Debrouwere

    That’s a very valid point, and one I didn’t really fully understand when reading your tweets earlier, so I’m glad you replied here, Scott.

    As a nuance, though, I do feel that information architects and designers sometimes need to have the balls to stand up and say, “look, I can’t turn this into something pretty and user-friendly because the constraints you’ve given me are crazy”. You can’t make just anything work. Thus, a redesign can also entail anything from changing the ad formats to the categorization to deciding what content should go to which platforms, and designers should have a seat at the table in those discussions.You’ll probably disagree here, but if a company that’s barely profitable is producing so much daily content that it becomes overwhelming in any kind of design, and readers miss out on good stuff because of the sheer quantity of it, maybe changing the content strategy is a more appropriate solution than telling your designers they’re copping out.

    You’re right though in this specific case: Andy doesn’t complain of unrealistic design premises, he simply ignores them, which detracts from some of his mockups’ merits.

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  • Vadim Lavrusik

    I think you make a good point, Josh, but ultimately there’s no excuse for a failure to address the needs of users. Many news orgs get stuck in their current designs not because people couldn’t create a more usable design that meets the needs of today’s news consumer, but because there is too much bureaucracy dictating the design and often by those who are not experts of it. 

  • Joshua Benton

    True, but I think it’s also easy for people to assume that the needs/desires of the users match an ideal that they really don’t. Not everybody wants an uber-clean, Instapaper-like experience. Particularly people who check mainstream, broad-based news sites. I check several times a day precisely because I want to see a bunch of links to a bunch of stories, so I can quickly see if there’s something noteworthy I should know about that I don’t. That’s a very different goal than the one I have when I go to, say, The New York Review of Books, where I’m looking for something substantial to sink my teeth into.

    I think that, particularly for the front pages of mainstream, non-specialist sites — like the NYT — the needs of info-scanners is important, and information density *helps* those readers a lot more than sparseness does.

    Look, I think different news orgs are going to have different kinds of readers with different kinds of needs. They know their readers better than I do, and they should do whatever matches their needs (and the org’s business model). It’s just that every time there’s a spec redesign of a news site, the “answer” is always strip it down, class up the fonts, and add white space. Those aren’t bad ideas per se — I’m working on a redesign of the Lab that does all three! — but just once I’d like to see a spec redesign that honors complexity, that tries to solve the problem at hand.

    Finally, note that it wasn’t that long ago that Felix Salmon was arguing that the NYT was doomed to lose out to HuffPo because their site design wasn’t busy *enough*:

    (I don’t agree with Felix, FWIW — I think the NYT is selling classiness as part of its brand and that its design should do what it can to match that.)

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  • Ryan Sholin

    I vaguely recognize my own words here, so I’ll respond: I too encourage crappy unrealistic redesigns, but the bold assumption that beautiful design leads to… well, success of some sort — this is just a bold assumption. On the other hand, this 2007 iA take on the Washington Post seems to have real goals and a strategy in mind:

    Personally, I’d love to see a great designer (or developer) post a plan for a great rethought news site that listed success metrics other than subjective darts at “readability” and “clean” design.

  • Chanders

    Folks really interested in these ideas should check out “The Form of News,” by Kevin Barnhurst and John Nerone:

    “This book takes a fresh look at the role of the newspaper in United States civic culture. Unlike other histories which focus only on the content of newspapers, this book digs deeper into ways of writing, systems of organizing content, and genres of presentation, including typography and pictures. The authors examine how these elements have combined to give newspapers a distinctive look at every historical moment, from the colonial to the digital eras. They reveal how the changing “form of news” reflects such major social forces as the rise of mass politics, the industrial revolution, the growth of the market economy, the course of modernism, and the emergence of the Internet. Whether serving as town meeting, court of opinion, marketplace, social map, or catalog of diversions, news forms are also shown to embody cultural authority, allowing readers to see and relate to the world from a particular perspective. Including over 70 illustrations, the book explores such compelling themes as the role of news in a democratic society, the relationship between news and visual culture, and the ways newspapers have shaped the meaning of citizenship.”

    It is one of my favorite journalism books, precisely because it doesn’t look at news content.

  • Jason

    Just like in the original article both here and at Andy’s, there are some great discussions and points that can’t be ignored. One piece of this discussion worth throwing two cents in is the revenue side, which is largely being ignored (and I have a passion for, seeing how I’ve had two separate media company interactive P&Ls). The designer’s dilemma is varied with all your points but ALSO must take into consideration ad placements combined with readers’ desires to not pay for content (or at least have it subsidized).

    One ad is not going to cut it. Period. That doesn’t mean creativity in this space has been good, I simply mean something has to pay for the writing and content creation.NY Times has the benefit of large scale, and even that team does not fully fund its digital operations via subscriptions or rev share from sites like Readability.
    Ads matter in *any* medium… expecting print/journalism sites to exclude that is naive, and the UED must consider that implication. 

  • Steve Myers

    +1 to most of what you say here, Josh. My take on why the home page hasn’t been redesigned is that the Times is learning by redesigning the section/vertical pages like Opinion and Dealbook. I expect that once they figure out what works, they’ll take aim at the home page. At which point they’ll run into all the stakeholders who insist on maintaining their footprint there, however small.

  • Joe Clark

    Structurally, this posting serves the purpose of reassuring industry insiders that the unnervingly-on-target criticism from an outsider can be ignored and the complete nondesign of online newspapers can continue unchanged.

    You have not produced anything resembling an argument, let alone a countervailing mockup. All you have done is state that Rutledge doesn’t know as much as your friends do about some ill-defined backroom constraints, hence can be safely ignored.

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  • Ethan Kaplan

    As a former newspaper online designer/editor/webmaster/whatever, this statement “major change is hard to pull off” is more indicative of the problem with the Times et al than any need for a proposed redesign.

    “major change is hard to pull off” is an institutional problem, not anything endemic to what the Times is as a media entity (nor any paper). It takes will to make major change, not anything insurmountable.

    I agree that the issues with the NYT is not something that nice fonts and whitespace can fix. However, it also isn’t something that adopting a “change is hard!” excuse based mentality can fix either.

  • Anonymous

    I HATE the re-design of the NYTimes that Rutledge did.

    The problem is that it is bereft of INFORMATION DENSITY.  It feels as if I am being spoonfed the news.  And it feels as if someone else is deciding what is important news TO ME. IT IS BORING. BORING. BORING.

    It is FAR BETTER to have a “BUSY” News Page.  It can be divided into relevant sections with TABS that are LARGER than what the NYTimes currently has.  This lets me decide what is relevant to read.

    When one looks at traditional printed News, it has information density in the front page. THIS IS GOOD.  It is a smorgasbord of information from which people can decide what is important to read.  It is a launch board to the other sections.  If the editors have to, they can make certain stories more prominent.

    Google does a good job with news aggregation.  Its strength is in enabling the customer to CUSTOMIZE their view, their sections.  Perhaps the NYTimes needs to copy Google in its presentation of the news.  CERTAINLY the TABS in the NYTimes COULD BE LARGER to make navigation among the sections EASIER.

    If people are confused by how busy the news looks then they are TOO DUMB to be customers in the first place.  Newspapers are for READERS, not the illiterate.  The illiterate can get news from VIDEO websites.  They can be spoonfed editorialized news there.

  • Anonymous

    Apple doesn’t have to make money by clicks or ads.  They are free to design beautiful websites which are simple and don’t have to be clicked.

  • Anonymous

    Apple doesn’t have to make money by clicks or ads.  They are free to design beautiful websites which are simple and don’t have to be clicked.

  • Anonymous

    If anything, the biggest problem of the NYTimes website is how random it appears BECAUSE ADS are littered throughout the webpage. It certainly would be more user friendly if the ads and content can be arranged in a more pleasing configuration.  And if the Ads are good enough, people would still be enticed to clic.

    Some sites force an ad on you before you can see the content via an overlay.  Perhaps this can be also done by the NYTimes to at least get a minimum of clicks and eyeballs for income.

  • Joshua Benton

    Agreed — thankfully, I’m not the Times, so my saying change is hard isn’t going to affect much. :)

    I think another factor is the fact that the Times’ top editorial leader for the better part of the past decade has had a, shall we say, mixed relationship with the web. We’ll see if Jill Abramson changes that (I suspect it will):

  • Gunnar Lium

    Have a look at how Norwegian newspapers present current events, for example and

    Their beauty can surely by debated, but they excel at editorial control and story discovery/click enticing.

  • Dale P

    I disagree that a headline is not enough to entice a click. Back in my AOL days, we had very limited promotional space on “channel” home pages and were taught how to encourage the maximum number of click-throughs with the least amount of words. Heck, we often had to link to more than one item in that space and still managed it.

    Rutledge didn’t suggest that his solution was complete or perfect, but it is a lot closer to an ideal user experience than the current norm amongst news sites. It would be great to see people who work for news organisations taking his challenge and running with it.

  • Jason Pontius

    Sheesh, that’s not true at all.  The point the author (and many commenters) are making is that “cleanliness” and “readability” are only two of many things that a successful news front page needs to accomplish.   
    In fact a mockup that addresses all these goals (ad placement, story density, adequate communication to encourage story clicks, etc.) would be MUCH, MUCH harder and more time-consuming to execute than the nice, simple, minimalist design discussed here.

    To the Apple Store / Safeway analogy— maybe the NYT should be more like a Whole Foods than a Safeway?  Either way, the one story on huge white background approach would never fly for the NYT (nor should it).

  • Mike Swartz

    Loving this whole discussion and the fact that more than just a few people care what their news looks like. 

    Unfortunately the only people that can make news(paper) websites better are the newspapers themselves. We (designers and internet people) can come up with all the guerilla redesigns in the world, but until the management teams at newspapers decide to embrace change as a constant, there’s going to be more of the same. I’m still waiting for the day that a news site tries to stand up and take the lead on their design/presentation and doesn’t design a site around internal politics and user patterns that only exist because of decisions baked into legacy products. 

    Hopefully the momentum this whole story has picked up will go at least a little ways toward convincing decision makers that people are eager for them to at least TRY some new approaches to news. 

  • Harper Lieblich

    I kind of agree with Rutledge in his contention that news shouldn’t be free or that the consumer should at least incur some of the cost. 

    Remember that with print advertising the primary product was still the paper itself. But with news web sites the primary product now seems to be the consumer, which has some ugly implications on user experience.

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  • Anonymous

    There is no fold. This idea that the top half is more viable than the bottom half is just pure 1992-ism.

    People scroll. It’s the one UI feature that every user on the globe can depend on and expect to do when they arrive to a website. No one is thinking, “Well, I guess I won’t read other stories if they’re not in the top half of the page”.

    Ultimate editorial control that co-exists with great design is not possible without severe compromise. One always gets the shaft in lieu of the other.

  • Anonymous

    I believe with a few minor tweaks based off of user testing that Rutledge’s example seems to be a pretty solid starting point to get news sites in the right direction. Right now I think almost ALL of them are doing it completely wrong.

    I don’t use, and have NEVER used a news website. They overwhelm me. The only time I use one is when someone shares a link to a specific article, on Twitter, Facebook, a blog, or through a search engine. In these cases I am taken directly to a specific article, and not to a home page.

    Also you said;

    “But the other piece is that no one has figured out a way to present lots and lots of constantly updated information in a way that (a) is beautiful, (b) is effective at story discovery, and (c) privileges editorial control.”

    I think search engines and RSS feeds have done a pretty darn good job at this. It seems that, THAT is basically the direction that Rutledge was trying to take his example. Sure I agree that his EXAMPLE isn’t perfect, but even he said that himself in his article. I think his “unsolicited re-design” was more of a “visual example” to help illustrate what he was talking about in his post.

  • Joshua Benton

    I take your point behind “there is no fold” — users scroll more often than many think, and they’re accustomed to multiple screenfuls of content. But it’s just silly to say that all positions on a web page are of equal “viability,” to use your term, in terms of attracting user attention and/or clicks. If that were true, then a link at the bottom of would get as many clicks, all else equal, as a link at the very top, and that’s just not how it works.

    Even data that promotes the there-is-no-fold idea

    finds that only 22% of visitors scroll all the way to the bottom of a web page, and less than 30% make it 90% of the way down the page.

    So, yes, people do scroll, the top of the home page isn’t the only valuable real estate, clients who want to cram everything into those precious pixels are being short-sighted — but nonetheless the top is more valuable than the bottom.

  • Joshua Benton

    Search engines and RSS don’t allow for editorial control. They’re governed by algorithms or by chronology, respectively. If I write a post that I think is really important, but then I write four other slight, less important pieces, the important one is still going to come out #5 in the RSS feed.

    I do think, though, that Twitter (which you can think of as a variant of RSS) presents the strongest argument for strict chronology. But the NYT offers that strict chronology in the form of Times Wire, and nobody uses it. (Well, nobody compared to the number who read the front page of 

    I do agree that the article-page question is a completely separate one from the home-page or section-front question. For article pages, the reading experience should take higher priority, and discovery is less important (though not unimportant).

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  • Anonymous

    Thats because I never even knew that the Times Wire existed until now.

    My argument of RSS and search results wasn’t for how they decide the order, but rather how the content is presented. It’s presented in a way which makes it far more inviting to skim and discover.

    News sites right now are very overwhelming and uninviting. They aren’t conducive to discovery.

    I’m not saying Andy Rutledge has THE solution, but I think he’s definitely headed in the right direction.

  • Anonymous

    This is a fascinating discussion. As a design student, I’ve been thinking about the problems with engagement, navigation, and consumption of news as a design problem. It is a design problem, of course – but after considering the implications of how difficult a problem it is, I doubt very much we’re going to solve it with individual thought experiments.

    If, however, some of us shift our focus to the problem of culture, by encouraging openness and innovation in our news rooms, we may collectively come up with something great. I can only speak from my experience managing a university newspaper and my discussions with other university papers, but I think the potential for change is there. I have a feeling focusing our sweat and tears in this direction will be a lot more fruitful than mocking up better typographical solutions.

    And I love typography! 

  • Sing

    His “unsolicited re-design” was to do what Andy does best… pretend he is smart and getting attention thinking he can do everything better than the next guy.

  • Anonymous

    Except the HP is your style lead-in to the rest of the site, and determines content heiarchy for everything. You use the HP as your springdboard globally and if you adress it last it becomes a kitchen sink of an afterthought. That was what I tried to avoid when I redesigned all of Village Voice Media’s newspaper sites (with many compromises that come from a network built with 14 publishers and sr. Editors.)

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  • Darek Rossman

    Andy Rutledge lost all credibility with his 2008 redesign article:

    He loves to use design writing as a platform to push his fat-headed, right-wing ideas – which is why I suspect he chose the NYT to pick on. There are an endless amount of prominent news sites to discuss, but he limits the discussion to the Times. It’s not so much the political aspect of his writings that deters me, it’s the underlying anger with which he delivers these so-called insights. I mean, have you ever read an article where he wasn’t bashing clients, designers, or entire industries? He’s also completely naive. NYT is one the world’s oldest and latest news organizations, but Andy knows what’s best for journalism? 

    Taking Rutledge seriously on the topic of design is like taking Fred Phelps seriously on the topic of theology. And while I do agree there’s a good discussion to be had on the topic of news sites, I just wish Andy would stay out of it, and everything else. 

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  • Ted M

    For many news organizations, though, more than half their visitors arrive at their site someplace other than the home page. And actually, to me, that’s part of where design could really pay off. The folks coming to your homepage are already interested in your site.

    Folks arriving via search are just showing up – making them harder to capture, but a potential new audience. (We can debate how many of them are actually winnable, but that’s for another post.)

    The two audiences have different needs and desires – but both are valuable. I wonder how many orgs have spent more than 10% of the time they spent agonizing over their home page designing a valuable story page that engages and tries to convert the audience that gets on to the site via search and referrals.

  • Daniel Lathrop

    The problem with a discussion of news pages that focuses on aesthetics misses the point. Lots of very effective Web pages are extremely ugly … and American newspapers were incredibly ugly during the time they were read by the largest proportion of the nation’s population.

    In other words, those concerned about the future of news should look more to Matt Drudge and Craig Newmark than anyone who approaches news UX as a being about traditional aesthetics.

    Brad Colbow’s critiques are all spot on. Andy Rutledge’s design is jet another pretty page.