In Defence of the Newspaper Layout

After week 2's lecture for the University of Technology, Sydney’s Digital Literacies course, I have to admit, I left a little disappointed. While informative, I felt that it did not provide enough information in a number of key areas.

The biggest thing that I think was overlooked is the fact good design is invisible. Nobody notices that a well-designed object is designed well. We only notice the design of something when it gets in the way of using it. Katrina Krampani’s series The Uncomfortable highlights this.

My toes clench at the thought of wearing these on a rainy day.

This is the reason, as stated in the lecture, users look at the content of a web news article first. Because that’s how it’s been designed. The article is foremost front and centre, as it should be. The article is, after all, the sole reason the page exists in the first place, so it makes sense that it takes front-and-centre of the user’s attention. It is also the reason why navigation is noticed second — design standards set over the last 22 years have placed menus in the logical position that the western eye travels for reading — to the top and the left, in a compact and inconvenient way that the eye is not immediately drawn to it.

in this aspect, it is also important to consider design language. This is what troubles me most. Since 2013, when Apple traded the skeuomorphic design language (imitation of the real-life objects in the digital form, e.g. remember how Apple’s notes app used to have yellow pages and marker font text, complete with faux leather?) of its products to the drastically simplified, flattened version of its modern products, we have seen the rest of the world follow suit, in everything.

Any hint of a reference to the physical world has been deemed a negative thing.

This rang true especially in this lecture. I am deeply concerned by the fact this lecture condemned the “newspaper-esque” styling utilised by many websites. The lecture pulled up The Guardian as a perpetrator. It should be noted that The Guardian’s website is also a nominee of the 2016 International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences’ Webby Awards, the most esteemed web design accolade.

Even more interestingly, this year’s winner in the news category was The New York Times, a website which would arguably be even more guilty of the stick-in-the-mud approach of behaving like a newspaper. In fact, by the content of week 2's lecture, The New York Times would be considered the Black Sheep of the design world. Its front page is a montage of articles akin to a newspaper page, it uses significantly more than two fonts (I counted a minimum of five different font families on the one page, not including the infamous logo), and the only skerrick of muted blue invited me to sign up or log in. By the content of the lecture, how on earth did this win its category of the most prestigious web design award?

Because it looks like a newspaper.

It sounds bizarre, but it’s the fact the layout is in the style of a newspaper that makes it easy to navigate, easy to use, and well designed. Everybody knows how a newspaper works, so it’s as simple as using one. The New York Times understands this.

It uses big, bold headlines like a newspaper. It has ruled separators like a newspaper. The page is laid out exactly as a newspaper — it has the thin gutters, margins, whitespace, and even the serifed typeface (though much leaner and more refined for easier reading on digital screens) of a traditional newspaper. Humans can understand the physicality of the newspaper, and that translates well here.

This is important. A news website cannot eschew its origins entirely, or it loses both its credibility and its ease of use. A news website that looks like a product page, or a social media site, will instantly leave the user feeling suspicious about the source. This is why many people do not consider Buzzfeed, despite its position as a member of the Australian Press Gallery with an office in parliament house, as reputable a source as the likes of the New York Times.

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Furthermore, a news website has to put its content — the story — front and centre, and it has to put it in a way the user understands and is not distracted. And the most effective way of doing that — which almost every news website, from stalwarts like the New York Times, to the more modern Buzzfeed — is in a logical, top-to-bottom linear layout that takes its cues from a newspaper.

What separates a mediocre news website from a good one is how it incorporates web design standards into its layout. While visual design is important — how it looks — it is the User Experience, or how the website behaves and responds to the user, that is the vital aspect of a good news website.

This is what makes the New York Times so impressive. Its designers understand the importance of having continuous access to navigation, and so make sure they’re always present on-screen. It uses the single centred column standard in web design, and a simplified layout on mobile. It supplements its articles with links to more information without distracting the user from what they’re reading. It provides easy access to more articles at the end of the current one.

And it does so while keeping within the visual design language of muted colours, seriffed typefaces and the visual structure of a newspaper.

Put simply, we cannot eschew the layout of the newspaper, because people understand it, and because it works. Rather we must utilise it and incorporate the standards of the web to allow it to adapt and jump to modern screens. It must be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

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