Responsive design has made news websites look similar. Much more similar. In just a couple years, sites that once looked like distant cousins have turned into siblings. Larger fonts, more white space, and a seemingly limited number of layouts have all contributed to a general feeling of déjà vu. And when a news site unveils its responsive redesign, we can’t help but wonder if we’ve seen it somewhere before. I mean, we have, right?
Those of us in media try really hard to visually differentiate our sites from the others. But in the context of mobile, all those little differences are literally little. We vastly overestimate how well our audience recognizes our brand based from aesthetics alone. It’s asking a lot of design to be the sole force orienting the reader to the brand space, especially on small screens. At low contrast. In full sunshine. While the reader waits for the crosswalk sign to change, and is distracted by that taco truck across the street.
Design will increasingly be defined in terms of what it does rather than what it looks like. Usability and utility will force aesthetics to stand back, to get out of the way. Style decisions that news designers, editors, and stakeholders have traditionally pored over will become moot. Imagine the time you can devote to user experience when you choose not to debate which shade of grey speaks to your brand voice! (The answer is neither shade of gray. See above: small screen, low contrast, full sunshine.)
News organizations will become more willing to experiment with design in public, stripping ornament from tools to make them more usable. Features will evolve from shiny objects into plain Jane problem-solvers. Thoughtful testing will reveal how audiences want to use our sites. We’ll openly adapt, based from what users actually do instead of what we’d like them to do. And will the audience notice if a designer changes the font? Only if it hurts the reading experience. Only if it hinders comprehension. Only if it harms the shared experience of staying informed.
Libby Bawcombe is senior visual product designer at NPR.