What would Mark Porter do? Our day with Guardian’s former creative editor (Part II)

On November 11th 2016, we had the privilege to have Mark Porter in Hürriyet’s headquarters in Istanbul as our guest. Here’s the 2nd part of his advice to our product and editorial teams. (Part I and Part III are also available)

Mark Porter at Hürriyet’s headquarters. Photo: Umut Veis

In publishing business, we operate on a daily basis. Bombs go off, crises emerge… In times like these, we may need different products but we also need to be fast in producing them. How do Guardian and the other media companies you worked for balance these needs? And how do you design for speed?

It’s still very difficult to do that on web. When you look at the front page of a newspaper, if you want to reinvent the front page everyday, it’s very easy. You’re using flexible tools. But it’s difficult and dangerous to do that on the web. You can’t recode a web page everyday. Templates could be useful at this point. You could have a template for a boring day, one for an exciting day, one for world war 3… Things have to go through quality assurance and need to be rigorously tested. So it’s not very realistic to respond in that way. The great thing is to have as many templates as you can. The challenge is to make it look good on all sorts of screens, make it flexible. It’s not impossible to imagine a day when designers and developers and journalists are working side by side, actually creating live, bespoke digital design. But at the moment, it’s still not quite there, is it?

There are several different aspects to designing for speed. The first one is performance, in short the load time. Fast loading is good design. 
Second one ise using well-designed navigation, information architecture, etc to aid the fast access to information.
Third one is the need to be easy for editors to create news quickly. So CMS design is very important. Editors tools are usually really badly designed.

“The thing about digital design is, it is never finished. The launching is the beginning. You always learn from the data and your users. You need to keep improving it.”
Source: Frontalizer

What are the challenges, disadvantages and advantages of creating a new typeface, as you did for The Guardian? Do you suggest everyone to do exactly that?

Guardian typeface came about through a series of circumstances.

It was 2005. The Guardian had recently embraced the digital part as an important part of their business. They wanted to send a message that they were very forward looking. But on the other hand, they wanted to try and look back to recover some of the values of traditional newspaper journalism. Because there was a feeling at that time that the quality of newspapers were going down. They were becoming more tabloid mentality. So the design project had to do 2 almost contradictory things. We had to look backwards and try to bring back the English newspaper tradition. But we also had to look forward, say that we care about digital media and that we are interested in the future.

In the previous design, they used Helvetica 95 Bold. It was a very heavy, very round and black typeface. It was very identifiable, but it had been introduced around 1998 and felt quite outdated. We knew we wanted to do something completely different, which is quite unusual in publication design. Most of the time, we take what’s there and change it a little bit, evolve it. We almost never throw everything away and start again. But in this case we made a decision. We were gonna throw it all away.

Typefaces are not the most important thing in design. There are lots of other factors like use of spaces and images. But I think typefaces are a little bit like people’s voices. Some people have deep, booming voices. Some have high voices… And typefaces are not the most important thing, but they are important. We thought that there’s no existing typeface that we felt that really did both of those things: To look back and celebrate the history, but also look forward and be engaged with the future.

It’s a lot easier to design typefaces now, than it was 10–15 years ago. And it’s a lot less expensive. But it’s still quite a big process. It took over a year to develop a typeface. It cost quite a lot of money. But that was because we decided to get a lot of different versions of it. In the end we ended up with 200 different fonts for using in specific places. For example we developed a special font that was very small. It was used for things like sport results and stock market tables. We had one set for headline, one for text, we had a whole new family made for the advertising department. So it became very complex and typeface design doesn’t have to be that complex. But we did it as in a wholeheartedly way as it is possible to do. I think it paid off for Guardian, because it’s part of Guardian’s identity now. And it’s one of the things that makes Guardian really recognizable.

In an ideal world, I think every media organization that cares about projecting a special personality of its own, should have its own typeface. It would be great if other brands could follow and do the same thing.

“I believe very firmly in a consistent identity. How you express that identity, could be varied. It could be part of your visual design, so it could be about using the same typefaces and colours. It could be about space, or grid based approach to design… But it also could be about how easy it is to share things, or how easy it is to navigate.”

Is the architecture, or other visual properties of a country directly implied on a newspaper’s design? Is this something you have observed?

They used to be. There’s been an interesting history of newspaper design. When newspapers were made out of pieces of metal, 50–60 years ago, things used to look quite similar all over the world. When computer age came in and it was possible to design things in a much more flexible way, newspaper designs seemed to diverge and look very different. I think there was a period in the ’80s or ’90s, when newspapers around the world looked very different from each other. Those variations persist in how Turkish newspapers look to me. They still look pretty strange to me, having Anglo-Saxon and Northern European eyes. But that’s very print based. We have the tools to make things different in print. But when you start looking at digital products, they tend to look more like each other. Having a clear structure, making it obvious to people how they interact with the information is extremely important in digital. These regional characteristics exist much less in the digital world. Personally, I feel a little bit sad when I see that. I would like to see things swing back maybe a little bit more towards the variation and divergence we used see in the newspapers. I think it would be lovely if we could make a website that feels a little bit more Turkish and a little less like something that was designed in Silicon Valley.

One of the big advantages of digital design is having a massive amount of data. How was your relationship with data while designing Guardian? Also, is it more important to track the activities of users on the web site, or should we actually ask them what they want?

It’s interesting that you said “a big advantage”. Some people would call data a disadvantage. Because it makes us behave in a different way.

You can’t argue with the data. No matter how brilliant you think you are, what a great journalist, designer, artist you think you are… If people aren’t using it, or are unhappy about using it the way you thought they were gonna use it, then you have to just look at the facts. It took a while for me to learn to respond to data. Eventually I found out that I have to listen to it. You have to let it have a strong influence on what you do.

I’m extremely sceptical about asking people about their opinion. People often give answers that they think will make them look good, important or cool. I’m interested in actual behaviour. About what people are really doing, how they’re really using things. I’m a little less interested in artificial user testing set ups where you’re standing behind a glass, watching the user. But when it’s hard data about whether somebody went to a page, how long they spent there, where they went afterwards… That’s the kind of thing that we have to take really seriously. That should influence our journalism and our design.

One of the things user testing is really good for, is a kind of reality check on your thinking. You’re a professional. You know everything there is to know about the technology and developments all over the world. One of the dangers when you do this for a living, is to think your users exist in this world too. A lot of users have very outdated equipment. They probably use very few of the features that we sweat over, that we think are fantastic.

“Journalists tend to act with instinct. We tend to have a feeling about what is a good story. When Analytics really became an important thing in business, it challenged one of those assumptions. People have to get used to the idea that they couldn’t trust their instincts anymore. But that’s dangerous too. Because it could drive the content too much. If all you’re doing is going for high traffic, you end up with click bait. It builds traffic, but it could take you away from your mission and principles.”
Source: Playbuzz

How do you see the next generation’s design preferences? We see that they’re using many emojis and have strong visual communication skills. But a recent study published in Pew Research, which showed that they also like to receive the news by reading it.

I’m not familiar with the research but I’ve been surprised that how young people are prepared to interact with text. I have a particular client in Italy, Rome. They publish some very long articles. Their audience mainly consists of people of 15–35 years of age. They read a lot of long articles on web and on mobile. It seems that content still is important and has a value. When it’s properly researched and written in depth, people would be into reading it in text. I find that quite encouraging. But I think that’s gonna be the exception more and more, rather than the rule. The general rule seems to be that the generation that gets most of the information through text, is us.

Where do you see the place of digital publishing in the world of VR/AR?

I’ve seen some interesting stuff on the New York Times. They gave away Google cardboards this year. At the moment VR glasses are not affordable or accessible enough for most people. The take up of things in Google Cardboard is still very limited. But I think we are on the verge of a VR, particularly AR explosion. We had the first massive AR usage with Pokemon Go. My kids were playing it like crazy. I think there’s direct application to gaming, entertainment, education is a really interesting area. But I’m unsure about media, because I partly wonder about the devices. I’m not sure everybody will be willing to drop their phone and put on glasses. So I’m not sure if it’s gonna be a part of our everyday life. And at the moment, I still can’t see really compelling applications for media. If you can do onspot reporting, if you have a reporter in Aleppo and you’ve prepared an amazing piece for VR, that’s gonna be amazing content. But still a little number of people would be interested in engaging with it and put their glasses on. So for media, I’m waiting to see what happens.

“I think we are on the verge of a VR, particularly AR explosion.”

How important is it to create new content formats that respond to changing consumer needs in every platform?

It’s very important to keep developing new ways of delivering content which are relevant to a modern audience. Technology platforms and social media apps are more important in people’s lives, influencing behaviour, media companies need to respond.

What do you think about the delicate balance between the news content in a newspaper and the design? And how do you establish the relationship between the newspaper and web teams in designing for the digital world?

People increasingly short of time, so if stories are not made easy to read and attractive to read, the audience will out their attention somewhere else. 
Editors must think visually as well as in text, and work closely with designers and art directors. In digital need to involve more people — developers, technologists, experience designers, video editors etc. But all united in serving brand and content. In my firm, we always use real stories when we design. I would like to see headlines that belong to the pictures on the prototype. This way, we can bring the editing process into the design and bring them into the design process.

Click here for part III

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