I’ve been sniffling in bed watching anime all day and now it’s time to write a post about the future of designed content on the web.
A couple of assumptions going in:
- The era of random content shrapnel has gone on long enough. We can do better.
- We’ve suddenly got a pretty bad-ass toolkit! Standards like HTML5 and CSS3; extensions like Typekit and jQuery; browsers like Firefox, Chrome and Safari. (And as an add-on to that last one: the sophistication and homogeneity of Safari on the iPhone and, one presumes, the Imminent Apple Product.)
- We’ve got some starting points, both real and speculative. People are thinking about this stuff. Gannett huddled with IDEO for a whole year and the big idea they emerged with was… designed content.
At the Hacks and Hackers meetup here in SF a few weeks ago, we kept using the words “artisanal” and “bespoke” to talk about designed content. I like these words a lot, but I’m also wary of them:
- I like them because they imply a real care for craft, and they imply that form matches function. They also imply, you know, skill: smart people doing their best work.
- I’m wary of them because they can serve as an excuse: “Oh, yeah, we only post one new story every two months because… it’s artisanal.” Designed content shouldn’t try to compete head-on with Demand Media for page-views and placement in Google results, but it can’t ignore the reality of the web, either. It can’t be all stock and no flow.
So what I’m anxious to see is a synthesis that matches bespoke design to web scale. But what would that look like?
The crew that comes closest right now is the NYT graphics and multimedia team: they work fast, their work is beautiful, and it’s often quite story-specific. But it’s also more “web interactive” than truly “designed content,” and there’s only so much they can do with NYT-style stories. Those are both pretty subtle distinctions; you’ll see what I mean in a moment.
Here’s my pitch for who could hit this synthesis, if they wanted to:
- They’re web-native. They know headlines; they know linkbait; they know SEO. They have trained with the Dark Lords of the Sith. This is the right foundation.
- They’ve got voice. You could flip a switch to turn Gawker blogs into magazines, and they would make perfect sense. That’s not true for any other blog network, and it’s a real achievement. At the moment, those voices are transmitted through text and the occasional spectacle—but voice can drive design, too.
- They’ve got scale. Gawker Media isn’t three guys in a garage scrambling to keep the feed flowing. They’ve got corporate infrastructure, and they could plausibly invest in what I’m about to suggest.
Here’s the plan:
You build a small Gawker Media design desk. It’s just a handful of young, hungry, multi-talented web designers—designers who dig editorial, not user experience or information architecture. Then, every day—maybe once in the morning and once in the afternoon—each blog gets to pitch a handful of ideas to the design desk. There’s a fast, ruthless triage, and they go to work. The goal is to make stuff fast—on the scale of hours, sometimes days. Never weeks.
The idea is not to make interactive apps and draggy-zoomy data viz! That stuff is too complicated. Rather, the design desk’s mandate is simply to present words and images in a way that makes you go: Uh. Wow. Just the way this does, or this does. (Actually, yeah, jeez: Hire Jason Santa Maria to set this up why don’t you?)
And Gawker content is a great match for this—almost perfect, actually—precisely because it’s not NYT content. It’s not, you know, Very Useful Information. It’s punchy, sassy, funny and snarky. It’s chunky, and it should stay chunky. This isn’t about expanding blog posts into magazine article wannabes; it’s about presenting 200-800 words of pure bloggy voice in an original, uh-wow way every time. Actually, no, not every time: instead, only when it really counts. The Gawker Media design desk would develop a sharp, subtle sense for design opportunity.
(It would have been pretty bad-ass to like, design this post in exactly the way I’m proposing, huh? Ohhh well.)
But let me expand on that a little bit more, because it’s important. The idea is not to wrap meaty, thoughtful posts like this io9 insta-classic in fancy design. Those are the posts that need it least! It’s like, “yo, get out of my way, let me read.” Rather, the idea is to come up with a new class of content entirely. Again: design opportunity.
Now, it’s not immediately obvious what this new class of content gets you (besides, you know, approving links from Snarkmarket) because… Google doesn’t index design! I mean, stop and think about that for a minute: Google doesn’t index design. Even though it has informational content of its own, and even though it contributes to clarity and utility: Google doesn’t index design. It doesn’t know how. When I search for “how to tie my shoes,” Demand Media’s semi-literate blob of instructions is probably going to show up above your lovingly-designed diagram. Ugh.
But Gawker Media is already past this. They’re not just playing the Google game anymore; they’re playing the uh-wow game. And that is what this class of content gets you. It gets you more uh-wows and more daily impact. It gets you content that screams to be shared. (Not unimportantly, it probably gets you some interesting advertising opportunities, too.)
Okay—the point of this articulation is not to convince Gawker Media to hire a bunch of designers. Rather, it’s get you to imagine what blogs like those would look like if they bothered with bespoke design every day. I think it’s a super-interesting vision.
And it would be even more interesting if RSS aggregators could preserve that design and display it inline. No more random content shrapnel! Instead, Google Reader starts to look like some crazy scrapbook, with pages pulled from hundreds of different magazines and pasted together into a seamless scroll.
Okay, until Gawker gets wise, go read Pictory. And let me know if this makes any sense. Can you imagine the designed content at Lifehacker and io9 the way I can? Crisp, coherent chunks of rich imagery and clever typography—like rocks in the stream?
Semi-related: trying to understand how people navigate rich, designed content… with graphs!