The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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The future of designed content

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:

Gawker Media.

Here’s why:

  • 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!


Would that make much of a difference if you’re reading it from an RSS reader, which is pretty devoid of style anyway? How about mobile reading?

No, this is what I’m saying: I don’t want RSS readers to be so studiously style-free!

And yep, mobile too. That’s a great point. What’s a perfectly-designed iPhone screen-full look like?

From my experiences with my Nokia n96, design elements usually get in the way of what I’m after on the website – if I’m checking something on my phone, I probably don’t have a lot of time, money, or battery power to try to thumb past oodles of broken images just to get to the content.

As for RSS readers: similar principle – I read blogs for the content and find it annoying when a font colour or font size changed up means that the stuff’s unreadable through my feed reader. No point having fancy design if I can’t read you!! Also with things like download quota (in Australian Internet), if you’re relying on design to relate information, but then make design = pretty pictures, you’d be costing people money.

As it is, I find a lot of what counts as “great design” overrated…they all have the same “uber web designer flashy new” look. yawn.

I’ve been sitting on the fence with designed blog articles for a while, and am finally going to try and implement them with the redesign of the little blog network I help run ( and I (like the majority of readers I suspect) don’t come via RSS, they come via a browser, and that wow-factor is much more spreadable than a catchy google-juiced headline. It’s not something you can do with every post, but for those important ones, I think it will add a lot.

I seem to live on Kotaku / LifeHacker / io9 at the moment, and I’d love them to be more magazine-style – so yes, I can see the potential as I suspect you can – if they can do it, it’d be awesome…


And RSS readers are more likely to click through if they start hearing people talk about the design on the page. I assume, for instance, Jason Santa-Maria’s subscribers click through when new posts show up in their reader. An easy way to cue this behavior by default is to include a short, say, italicized, footer at the bottom of the post itself (so it shows up in the feed) with a design credit for the post. “This post’s candy wrapper was handcrafted with love and grids in New York City by Khoi Vinh.” And I click.

A minor alternate news example (not counting, y’know, a century of printed pages): — While I haven’t known them to design individual stories, other than multimedia packages, they’ve long experimented with changing their homepage layout on a regular basis to properly present featured stories. The effect can be an “uh wow” moment or two if you’re a regular visitor to the page. And sometimes they just go into Drudge-mode with breaking news and 14 headlines in a row. If it drives traffic, they’ll try it.

Oh, you had me so excited at the prospect of Jason Santa Maria heading up that whole Gawker media deal, bravo sir!

It’s a great idea, although I’d say to do it right, you’d want visual designers and, depending on the subject matter, someone who can take a real pretty picture wouldn’t be a bad idea either. The freedom to concept without being bound by what imagery you can currently find on Google Images would add a lot to the design desk’s repertoire.

Two more points in support of the overall design desk/bespoke content idea:

1.) So much of a site like Gawker’s bread-and-butter is increasingly breaking news; traffic’s much better if you’ve got the exclusive. But even then, a lot of the blogs out there would take a Gawker story and make it their own, giving a paltry link credit. With bespoke content, there’s a much stronger visual brand element to every bespoke story. There’s no way to co-opt that content without giving the Gawker site its due, brand-wise.

2.) One of the best places to see this in media today — The Daily Show. The little visual gags that they custom curate each night often times get the biggest laugh. Of course they’re a bit raw and rough, which only adds to their effectiveness within the context of a half-hour comedy show about the absurdity of the day’s news.

Have been thinking along these lines for some time now, so glad someone articulated the ideas so well… in my estimation, Twitter is all the shrapnel we need, particularly as people become more familiar with it. Blogs/websites should absolutely evolve in the direction of being a bit more stock-y, and having a richer visual dimension.

Maybe this is the future of magazine design? And maybe it’ll become more prevalent with this new Apple tablet device that would allow us to manipulate the data in simple ways?

Either way, I’m in. Editorial passed through design = compelling content.

Some examples of “bespoke” blogs:

And I agree this is the future of “magazines” as defined as highly visual, highly produced timely (on the scale of weeks & months; not hours & days like the “news”) content.

I think I’m going to give this idea a spin on my own blog. I’m trying to figure out the best way to do that.

It’s funny, because it seems dropping a CMS and “blogging engine” all together seems like the easiest way to do what I want. Type in a text editor, go and hand code some HTML, and we’re back to the classic personal website of 1999. Trying to get “bespoke” with a blog post is more hassle than it’s worth with a CMS because the system is built for modularity, not customization.

Another interesting thought. Whenever discussing this topic, I frequently hear the description saying these efforts are to make “websites feel more designed like magazines.” That seems like a bad description, or at least when drawing a comparison to modern magazines. While a small segment of web designers are trying to make websites look more like magazines, there’s a large number of magazines that look more and more like websites. Content filled up in columns, text on every page, metainformation overload, and covers filled with linkbait.

I think there’s a couple really wonderful examples of editorial design out there right now, but very rarely does something take my breath away as much as a spread from an old Harper’s Bazaar issue that Alexy Brodovich art directed, or an Esquire cover from George Lois. The main quality is, yes, concept, but also, the design has room to breathe.

There’s a lot of things fighting for space on a magazine spread, mainly advertising versus content balance. With the web, I think we can get away from that, and really give the idea and a design room to breathe. You’ve got as much space as you need. And that is what’s appealing to me.

Designed blog = mag? Google “mag search” to give a head start to bespoke content?

(Full disclosure: I settled for the URL That said, I don’t think its a bad term for an online magazine or designed blog. How often do you call a print magazine a “mag”?)

I like “mag” better than “zine.” When zines were ragged little photocopied bundles passed hand to hand, or discovered in comic book shops in lower Manhattan, say, the name seemed apt. But calling a Web site a zine always seemed overly coy, to me. “Mag” sounds offhand, an antithesis to coy (maybe because it rhymes with “rag”), and so to apply it to an online compilation, a gathering of content, seems unpretentious.

Back in the 1990s we had Feed (, an early project from Steve Johnson. I always liked that URL because it evoked a feedbag, and a horse contentedly munching — which it like what I do with a good magazine.

Pictory is a beautiful mag, by the way.

Tangential, unfinished thought: Using an RSS reader still feels like turning on a shower with the plumbing exposed in an unfinished basement. I want to see the next level, where the plumbing is just plumbing and the experience isn’t such a literal translation of the machinery.

I like the idea of naming it, Laura. It’s like a lesson from the Old Testament: naming something gives you power over it.

A few additional thoughts: If you hand-code your page, you don’t have an RSS feed. I’m not sure what my fixation is with ditching RSS, but I think introducing a bit of friction (having the user have to actively go out and fetch the content), and providing a satisfying reward feels like it kind of flies in the face of how we perceive we should consume the web today. You might have less eyes on your work, but not all eyes are created equal, right?

The truth is, since almost all of our content comes to us instead of the other way around, we have less invested, and we absorb content at a cursory level. There’s really very little interaction happening on the internet now. (At least, between the visitor and the website itself.) It’s mostly just comment boxes. (I get the irony.) Remember the Donnie Darko website by hi-res? People were digging into that. Sure, the novelty of flash and of how to use the web has waned, but I lament the loss of people being consumed by what they were doing. It was participatory. Also, it was narrative.

I’m also getting more and more drawn to projects on the internet that have a “done” state. Meaning, if I’m making it, I can have a logical place to finish. If i’m consuming it, I get the satisfaction of finishing. That doesn’t happen often on the web. We don’t get to kick back often enough to celebrate a job well done.

Editorial shouldn’t be “passed through” design, though.

The best design is always baked in, part of the fundamental recipe. People who think of design as the last phase or something added to an otherwise autonomous “product” miss the essential point.

Apple gets this better than anybody. They don’t apply design to their products. Their products are designed.

(I wish “Objectified” had done a better job articulating this in talking with Jonathan Ives. I think it’s one of the paces editors and writers most often fail.)

Matt Penniman says…

Maybe Google *does* index design. Isn’t PageRank sort of a proxy for design? Or at least intended partially as such? Great design attracts attention, which online means links. The whole point of PageRank is to outsource “quality” judgments — like design — to human brains.

If you think rss should be full of design cruft, then you really don’t understand rss.

How exactly is bespoke design supposed to translate into the million different outputs of an rss feed? Given that the content would be designed for viewing in a browser, why not just direct people to the ideal place to view the design elements if they want to see them, rather than booching up rss? Your magical scrapbook sounds just like the web we already have.

Although an RSS feed has a million different ouputs in theory, *in practice* the Snarkmarket RSS feed (for example) has primarily one output: Google Reader. (We know this from Feedburner stats.)

So I’m thinking about that reality, and trying to respond to the real use case: There’s a desire to aggregate without homogenizing. There’s no format or tool that allows you to do that today. You’re right that a plain-vanilla web browser is probably the closest thing! But it doesn’t really do what I want — yet.

Quick quantitative remark: I launched Pictory last month without an RSS and had many people ask for one. I now have a “tease” RSS and the following stats:

1,300 feedburner subscribers
2,600 email newsletter subscribers
3,500 twitter followers

The webprint version of Radiolab’s mini-piece from Morning Edition today does this in a mild way. Would expect it from Krulwich and Abumrad, as they do it aurally in their shows.

I hope someone from Gawker is listening, Robin. Great idea and a pretty clear-cut way to make already-great blogs like Lifehacker and io9 better.

My apologies for my last comment sounding so angry.

I think my problem is this: not everyone using the internet is coming from the same place of privelege with regard to bandwidth, data, and hardware.

For some, plain vanilla rss actually affords them access that would otherwise be out of reach. So when others want to modify that technology to serve themselves and their own fortunate position it really rankles.

So, Google Reader, desktop or mobile? Images on or off?

+1*infinity to this comment. Not everyone has superfast broadband, and even those that do may not care for fancy design. There’s already things like Stylish if you want a different visual for your websites (my Facebook’s in purple and black).

To those arguing against this idea because it will get in the way: good design doesn’t always mean resource intensity. Look at the articles on Drawar:

Many of them have distinct layouts, but none (as I recall) have any decorative images whatsoever—that is, what you’re seeing is exactly what would show up in your RSS reader. But it’s all laid out quite thoughtfully in a way that aids the reading experience without becoming a nuisance.

Very cool example—I hadn’t seen Drawar. Thanks!

It’s especially nice when people who don’t specialize in the web are giving their web content the attention to detail it deserves:

Um, isn’t there an essential contradiction in the phrase “bespoke design every day?”

I don’t think so. When I say “bespoke design” I mean “design that is specific to the content it presents.” And I’m mostly talking about graphic design, layout & typography (vs. interface design or overall information architecture).

So, some newspapers produce this sort of design every day; so do many TV shows (via motion graphics).

Sorry for the late reply — no doubt I see your point about bespoke. And if we use the analogy of say, suit making, I can promise you Gawker is paying rates that might get you Men’s Warehouse quality design, rather than Saville Row. And that is not changing anytime soon.

Wonderful article, Robin. Have you seen the iPhone app from McSweeney’s? It is distinctly designed — for small-screen reading.

It’s one of the nicest things on my iPhone.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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