I recently came across an interesting article by Simon Owens on the Nieman Lab’s site called “It’s small touches that can make a difference in New York’s layouts.” The piece starts with a simple observation:
“In a recent long New York magazine interview with Jon Stewart, the Daily Show host made an offhand reference to a man named Conrad Murray, whom many likely recognized as the doctor who was convicted of manslaughter for prescribing the pills to Michael Jackson that eventually led to the singer’s death. But if you’re like me, you either never knew the name or had long ago forgotten it, and you would have either needed to open a new browser tab to Google him — or, more likely, just kept reading the interview without getting the reference. But on this particular article, I noticed a red line under Murray’s name, and when I hovered over it a box popped up on the side of the page informing me of his significance.”
The referenced Jon Stewart interview is an example of one of New York’s weekly features that gets a little extra online love. As Owens notes, “each week, [Digital editor, Ben] Williams and his designers choose one of the feature articles set to appear in the print magazine, usually the cover story, and brainstorm ways they can add visual design elements that improve the storytelling process.” These design elements can run from the beautifully subtle like the above to the more extreme. Either way the reader is treated to a completely unique experience that is a sometimes strange, sometimes fascinating, always engaging exploration into what can be done in the digital realm.
I’ve been keeping an eye on different publishers’ approaches ever since the New York Time’s first big splash, “Snowfall.” The problem with “Snowfall” was that it was a mammoth — very expensive — effort to put that story together, forever relegating it to the “one and done” category. This is fine but not a true step forward for digital publishing. That’s why these small details are particularly intriguing. They offer attainable alternatives to the standard content presentation fare and hint at how robust and rich online publishing can be without breaking the bank.
I shared the Nieman article with colleague Kemp Attwood, and he responded:
“Small interactive details are the ‘tactility’ of the web, in the same way that the format and paper are the tactility of print. We’re on the cusp of bringing a similar level of ‘art direction’ to the web that print has. In print, *everything* is designed whereas on the web, the platform is designed. We’re moving in a direction that will allow for individual stories to be ‘art directed’ and not just the publication. Flexible CMS systems will allow us to get there. We will soon be art directing individual articles the way we do in print — that is exactly what these publishers are aiming to do. The fact is that in print everything gets individual design love, but in digital, the CMS is a limiting factor. Let’s design a new CMS for a new internet.”
As we progress toward truly flexible publishing platforms the trick will then become to stay true to writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s guidance, which AREA 17 technical director, Luis Lavena, is fond of quoting: “Perfection in design is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.”