Speak Up Authors Armin Vit, Bryony Gomez-Palacio, Marian Bantjes, Debbie Millman, Mark Kingsley, Tan Le and Jason Tslentis met over a large meal in the most expensive virtual restaurant they could find, for a good old Harper’s Magazine style Round Table Discussion. After several courses of rich food, with their napkins well used and finger-bowls swimming in the oils of squeezed and licked crustaceans, the Authors filled their glasses with some indescribable Nectar of the Universe and turned the discussion to the recent redesign of their second-cousin-once-removed-site, Design Observer.
MARIAN: So, after years of cat-calls and online heckling, DO has finally redesigned their site and moved to a primarily white background. The colour scheme looks, uh … oddly familiar. I can’t say I’m surprised by their timidity, but I had hoped that when the time came that DO might emerge with some kind of graphic personality.
I’m having a lot of difficulty visually navigating it. The low contrast of all elements and especially the 2 narrow columns side by side is causing a kind of elemental “wash.” I feel like I can’t see anything. Interestingly, my favourite part is the big grey box, and the neatly aligned banner—i.e. the last remnant of the old site. It’s certainly the strongest element on the page, which in itself is a bit odd. What do the rest of you think?
BRYONY: I do miss the orange. Such a nice color, so easy to identify with DO. I guess, Marian, it is time to move on to sage green.
JASON: Well, from a heuristics point of view, the site confounds me. The banner sits on the far right, making it the final read when scanning the screen with your eyes.
MARK: Marian, I think the difficulty you are having isn’t a matter of color, but a matter of intent. I preferred reading the weekly “Observed,” and now that it has its own column, the editorial balance is thrown off.
I’ll use fellow members of The Deck as examples.
Frankly, I never read the bits on either side of Coudal’s Fresh Signals. Their “editorial content” doesn’t reward clicking through, and since I don’t know what they do as a company, I’m not as interested in anything other than the links—which are generally excellent and have more personality than Kottke or Waxy.
The Morning News may not be the best-designed site, but it is the best written AND their links are the most interesting of the lot.
Now at times, Design Observer has very well-written posts—usually one of Michael Bierut’s—but their links aren’t at the same level. The best link sites like WFMU or Boing Boing, either maintain a distinctive editorial tone or expound on the links with a degree of personality. These sites are all about the links, and that’s why I visit.
Basically, this is a long way of saying that giving “Observed” its own column takes away from Design Observer’s strengths. If it’s “writings on design and culture,” then make it that and leave the clusterlinked “Powers of Ten” video (for example) to Kottke.
MARIAN: Yes, the focus of the site is split, both editorially and visually. The banner sits over the text on the right, drawing the eye over there, but then my brain freaks out at all that bitty text and comes back to the wide left column, which is where I want to be, but because it’s so weak, I have trouble maintaining my concentration there.
I’m pretty upset about the Observed section, because I don’t get out much to the other sites, so I do read it, or I did. But now it’s in what I consider to be the “website junk zone” and, combined with far too little contrast I just won’t be noticing it any more.
TAN: The new DO is like that bottle of wine we just finished—expensive but pedestrian, insipid but functional.
The masthead and color scheme looks “designed” but is, indeed, still a remnant of the old default, themed template. By keeping it, and integrating it with a more original layout—is it being stolen or reappropriated?
DEBBIE: My my my, aren’t we naysaying. I, for one, think it is fantastic. I think Design Observer is on a real wave of momentum; I think the redesign is well-timed and I think it is a vast improvement over a Movable Type template.
As for clutter—I think that the site is providing information and insight. I like that there is a lot to read and it is fairly easy (for me) to navigate. I have no issue whatsoever with the format, though I do find the Observed items hit or miss. But that is pretty much the way I expect to view anything (including, say, things like the New Yorker). I enjoy having full access to the Observed items 24/7 without having to go fishing for them.
MARIAN: But to me … it just looks like a trade of one MT Template for another …
ARMIN: No, I disagree. The new layout is far more sophisticated than any MT template available. In any case I would rephrase it as “it just looks like a trade of one MT Template for Coudal’s template…”. Which is close to a compliment. There are only so many ways you can skin a three-columned cat.
There is one main problem with their banner: it’s too big. And the repercussions are not worth the size. Most importantly, the Recent Comments get pushed very far down, and Recent Comments is one of the areas that is most looked at. Once a discussion is up, you return to the site to see how the discussion has progressed; scrolling to see the comment count is a drawback. I would offer the advice to cut the masthead in half, align the logo and tagline with the the author and the underline on the main posts to its left. The grey background is strong enough, they just need a pinch of it, not a pound’s worth.
MARIAN: Yes! Yes! I want the banner over the meat of the site!
DEBBIE: I like that it is retaining some of the brand equity of the original design. It isn’t perfectly integrated, but this is one of the issues with redesigning anything that has established identifiers.
BRYONY: Do you think Recent Comments should be above Observed?
ARMIN: Not necessarily, but I would put Recent Comments at the top of that third column.
MARIAN: Yes. I mean we care who writes, but not that much.
And Armin, it’s not just the columns’ width and placement. For instance, you’ve managed to skin this 3 column cat very well, and while Speak Up may have more personality that DO would want, there is an appearance of … laziness to their lack of style.
ARMIN: Oh, but it takes a lot of effort to appear lazy. It’s the curse of the un-designed: It’s hard work to look so simple.
MARIAN: In print, yes. But on the web, I think it’s harder work to stand out; especially when you start off confined in the template box, with limited fonts and predefined sizes.
JASON: I find the background is far too bright, and blinded me when I revisited the site after being away for so long.
MARIAN: Jason? It’s white. Just like this one …
MARK: By the way, I never had a problem with the reversed type in the original and I thought all those who complained about it to be dull, pedantic people. But then, I’m old-fashioned: I’m more concerned about the content.
I’d read shit smeared on a piece of tree bark if it was interesting.
MARIAN: Well, that is old-fashioned … but I also I never minded the dark background and I encouraged Bill Drentell to stay with it just to be perverse. They’ve changed it, I guess because they’re not perverse, but one tragic loss, to me, is the way the images for each post no longer have any presence. That was the one thing I was actually envious of about the previous site, is how appealing those images were, glowing out of the dark background.
Personally, for the colour scheme, I would have started with dark grey, orange and white, and taken it from there. It was a kind of signature thing for them; now they just look like a Martha Stewart enterprise.
MARK: That’s an interesting observation Marian: the appeal of a glowing image against a dark background. I’ve browsed the DO archives to see how the images now look against white. With a few exceptions, they have less gravitas or (in an attempt at neologism) “anti-gravitas.”
But I do like the light greens against the grey “masthead.” It’s an unexpected, yet sophisticated, color combination.
BRYONY: Where I do like the use of subtle colors is in the links that are embedded in the posts. While I did not mind the reversed type, I found the links obtrusive and distracting. But by the time you overlay the green on the two gray columns with grey type for the headers and darker gray for the copy…Combined with the amount of short snippets… All in all busy, almost like a sofa pattern.
MARIAN: Yes, I agree with you here, but I still think something needs to pop out. For instance, when I went to scan the 120 comments on the “Innovation” thread, I was peeved that the names of the posters were blending in so much that I couldn’t pick them out easily, and pick up where I left off.
ARMIN: A simple bold tag on the commenter line would make worlds of difference. Worlds.
And now let me introduce another problem: The lack of a rollover state for the links. They chose a low-contrast color for all links, and it starts to dissapear in the two right columns with the light backgrounds. A rollover with a slightly different color, or the same color with an underline would give it that extra level of feedback that users on the web are accustomed to.
I suggest: Orange rollovers baby!
BRYONY: Is anyone bothered by the following order:
Entries: author, title and post
Comments: comment, author.
Why reverse them when they are so discreet and blending?
ARMIN: That is actually the default and common order on blogs. The first blog I saw change the order to author/comment was Todd Dominey on his own What do I know?, and that’s where I
stole it from got the inspiration from.
On the entry order… I’ve seen it both ways. The author/entry order seems more magazine-like.
Can we go back to The Deck? I am very surprised that they chose to participate in this. The ads in The Deck are highly targeted towards young(ish) and hardcore web designers—hardly DO’s target audience. The products seem oddly out of place in DO. On the flip side, this might be the push that graphic design products and services would need to join The Deck.
Also, in regards to the context of The Deck, DO has to be careful not to repeat all the links from Kottke and Coudal, which make recurring Via appearances. Share ads, not linkage.
BRYONY: Yes, Linkage is great up to the point when you start having the same items pop on every site you visit regularly, a total turn-off for me and I do hope they will swim carefully in this area.
DEBBIE: This is the one thing I agree with you on. The ad space surprises me. How lucrative is this type of advertising?
ARMIN: I don’t think it will make anyone involved a millionaire, but enough to make it worth putting it there. Apparently they charge a set amount, $4,400.00 per month. Divided by 8 sites, it comes to $550 each.
MARIAN: It really bugs me that the ads don’t fit the grid.
ARMIN: Also, do unto others as you don’t like done unto you but that you knoweth it’s good karma: I was once blasted for our lack of W3C compliance and I went to pains to correct it, so I now would like to point to DO’s 223 errors. If you follow the instructions on the W3C site, it’s pretty easy to fix. There is no time like a redesign to lubricate the engine, if you know what I mean.
MARIAN:OK, shall we wrap it up, here, people?
In all, as a regular DO Reader I feel like I’ve lost quite a bit. I really won’t be reading the Observed sections any more (and DAMN—I’ll miss counting up those roman numerals!), I’ll miss the way the images looked, and I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of beach-house colours. I need more visual clues. Someone throw me a bright orange life-jacket, please!
BRYONY: The way DO is working now makes me want to pick up and curl up on the sofa with some classical music in the background, maybe some rain and a cup of tea. Relaxing and informative. But that is not what I want from DO, I want the dialog, the fire and the energy that I could sense in the past; images popping, links galore and frames and sections all over. I want to take it to the dinner table with a bottle of wine and a bunch of close friends late into the night.
ARMIN: Despite my minor concerns and grievances—most of them fixable with targeted CSS tweaks—this is a major and beneficial update for DO. Moving out of the MT template is like buying brand new clothes at Barney’s New York rather than wearing hand-me-downs from your relatives. It fits and looks better. Moving Observed to its own column will diminish the shock-and-awe quality it once had, although it will allow them to beat us to the punch on breaking news and cool design links. (Let’s face it, it’s nice to be first, even with minor linkage). My biggest criticism at the moment is their involvement with The Deck—unless they can draw some Design Observer-related products and services to the rotation, the ads will look painfully out of place and semi-gratuitous. Overall, this redesign was long due, and it was nicely done. I know first-hand the pain and effort this takes, so heartfelt golf-claps all around for Bill, Jessica, Michael and Betsy, who I’m sure is sick of all the MovableType rebuilding.
JASON: Design Observer shall be trendy no longer, this redesign could signal a “rebirth” of sorts. Will we be seeing better writing, or new guests? There has to be something more than a changeup with the MT system and its templates. Yes? No?
DEBBIE: I’ll still listen to the same music I did before when reading Design Observer, or for that matter Speak Up or Be A Design Blog or UnBeige. And at the end of the day, I will just be that much more grateful that there are so many good—and diverse—design blogs that are making a difference in the lives of so many designers.
MARK: I’m left with a small, small worry about motivation. The daily presence of Observed and the involvement with The Deck seem like a desire to hang with the cool kids on the web. They have made the occasional announcement here and there about hitting certain numbers of visits, which is common blogging behavior: “Link to me! I’ll link to you!” and all that.
In my mind, the reason for DO’s popularity is the strength of the writing, not necessarily the comments; which usually are either pseudo-academic or as inane as those found on any other blog. Interpreting the motivation behind daily links and the tacit connection with Kottke et. al. worries me that the evil number-of-visits-obsession genie is being given attention—which can subtly affect choice of subject matter, etc.
Now I bet that either Bill or Michael, upon reading this, will respond with a pat on the head and say “Don’t you worry about that, little feller. We know what we’re doing.” Perhaps, perhaps. But one of the few axioms that stayed with me from Dr. Nadin’s class was “the intentions of the programmer are expressed in the program.”
I admired Design Observer’s willingness to stand alone, confident in their inner nerd; but now I sense them embracing—perhaps chasing—“cool.” And as we can learn from that great morality play Revenge of the Nerds III: The Next Generation, strength comes from being confident in who you are.
Go ahead Lewis, cut off that pony tail and put that white short-sleeved shirt back on.