What would Mark Porter do? Our day with Guardian’s former creative editor (Part I)
Remember how Guardian used to have a very boring web page like 10–15 years ago? And remember how one day they started to improve all their subdomains and eventually every single page they have? Well, Mark Porter was the creative director behind that project. Altough he has done many other projects all throughout Europe and the US, this is probably the most known project of his.
If you ask him, Mr. Porter would answer that he is “a designer based in the UK” in a very humble way. He worked as the Creative Editor of Guardian for 13 years, between 1997 and 2010. During the time he was there, they have redesigned the newspaper and the website and started towards mobile app. In the beginning of his presentation, he explains the process as “a journey of translating a brand from print to digital”.
He has left the Guardian on 2010, and now he’s working at his own studio called the Mark Porter Associates, based in London. In his words, they do “international projects, working with publishers, newspapers, magazines, TV stations.” The firm is designing identities, products and sometimes consulting.
On November 11th 2016, we had the privilege to have Mark Porter in Hürriyet’s headquarters in Istanbul as our guest. Obviously, we were pretty excited to have him in the house and had maaa…ny questions for him. In all his Mark Porter-ness, he answered all of them with enourmous patience and we made notes as he spoke to us. Here, you can find some of the advice he gave to our product and editorial teams at Hürriyet Newspaper.
What was the biggest challenge when working for different companies in different countries, cultures and backgrounds?
One of the questions we ask ourselves is: How do we change the way we design in response to the local culture? And then we have to ask ourselves; how much do we trust the universal rules? And how much do we design for the local culture and moderate what we do in response to the things we see around us?
I didn’t go to a design school. I went to Oxford University and studied Modern Languages, Spanish and French. Before I was a designer, I was interested in language. I do believe that language really influences the way people think. Different cultures have a different way of communicating.
So it’s impossible for me to design like a French person, or an Italian or a Turk. Because I don’t live in those places. But we can attune our eyes by spending time there, going around and trying to take in some of the visual communication culture. What we do is a balance between those two. Making things readable, navigable. You have to have a text, typeface and a text size which everybody can understand. You have to be able to find your way around on a website or a publication. Those things never change. It’s a constant challenge, trying to find the right solution.
But nowadays, there is a universal language of design. We all live in a world where we are all surrounded by the same brands and products. Particularly in terms of mobile devices… iPhones and Androids were designed in California, and are used by millions of people from different cultures. However, I’m not sure that having an international design language is a good thing. Because if I come to somewhere like Turkey and I look at the printed newspapers, certain kind of approaches to the use of color, imagery and density of it looks very different to Northern European eyes. So if I was to do a design project here, I would have to adapt to the visual culture. This is one of the biggest challenges we face.
How is the user affected by different languages used on website typefaces, in terms of affectability and usability?
It’s less about usability and more about aesthetics. Unless you’re using a completely different language like Arabic or Greek. The flavor or the character of it really depends on the language. We designed a French magazine once. We did the typefaces in English and it didn’t really work. But when we changed the language to French, we’ve seen the results. So we thought ok, if we have to make aesthetic judgements on the design, then they should always contain the proper language.
“Languages look very different in different typefaces. Things would feel very different, depending on the language used on the pages. For example I find it very interesting how English looks very different from Turkish. In my firm, we used to do our English speaking designs using Latin phrases, but now we changed that.”
What’s your experience with overdiversifying apps versus focusing on just one?
I’m not a strategist, I’m a designer. ‘You’ will know what is right for your business. Some of the things you try would prevail and some would fail. But you will learn from your failures as well. But I do feel that everything should feel like it belongs to one family. That doesn’t mean that they should all look the same. I think it would be great to move toward a world where there’s a bit more dynamics in what we’re doing.
There should always be a balance between maintaining the core identity and creating products that have a personality of their own.
Is there a difference between being design-oriented and reader-oriented? How important is reader/user research to good design?
Short answer is that all good editorial design is focused on the reader. Much more important in the digital world. In digital you can actually observe and measure user behaviour. Professionals in the industry tend to assume that readers are like us. But they usually aren’t. Advantage of digital is that we can base design decisions on real data.
We use sliders on most of our designs because Turkish users like using a slider. They look for it in all the websites they go. But European users don’t use it that much and so European websites don’t use it. What do you think about that?
I didn’t know that, that’s interesting. It might be cultural. a few years ago, everybody in the UK had carousels and sliders. Then everybody got rid of them. I think there was some evidence that people weren’t going through and seeing all the content. So, not all the content was seen by readers and everybody felt it was better to expose those contents. Scrolling down through stories was more satisfying for them. Giving you better access to the content than going through horizontally between things that are hidden. But I guess Turkish people like interacting with pages. On your mobile page, I saw that there are a lot of elements in the carousel.
I find these kind of things really exciting. When you go somewhere and find out that people have really different habits and behaviours. It shows that there’s no universal solution in design. You have to adapt to the environment and the culture. Personally, I’m not a fan of carousels. I don’t find them aesthetic. But on users’ point of view, it is very economical. Because they need to get a lot of information from a very prominent position, don’t they?
This is a much more natural gesture on mobile. Swiping through carousel is more different than clicking through it. So I am much more sceptical about carousels on desktop pages, than I am on mobile pages.