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

On November 11th 2016, we had the privilege to have Mark Porter in Hürriyet’s headquarters in Istanbul as our guest. Here’s the 3rd part of his advice to our product and editorial teams. (Click here for Part I and here for Part II)

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

Throughout years, we always used Western designs. But it made the paper and the elements on it look somewhat chaotic. When you walk on the streets of Istanbul, you’ll see that the whole visual language we’re exposed to, is chaotic. So is this something we must accept, this chaos? Or should we keep on trying to make things more systematic?

Rules and systems can be very valuable, if they can help make things useable. One of the words that is used a lot in digital is ‘usability’. It’s kind of a science about how people interact with things, how they navigate, how they find their way around… Although it often gets neglected, this concept is really usable for print too. You should have a system about how you navigate around a newspaper, about headline sizes, how the main story on the front page has to have a particular size of a headline and how another story has to have another size. These rules exist for a reason, which is to make it easier for the reader to understand the hierarchy of information or to find their way around. In that case I think systems are very useful.

When we look at things from a journalistic perspective, we sometimes forget that somebody has to pick this thing up and read it. ‘We’ understand the information hierarchy. But we have to make it clear for the reader, too. So I think systems have a great value. Things that get very quickly designed like newspapers do need to be systematic up to a point. Counter argument is that, the newspapers, by their nature, are messy. We make them every day, we don’t have quite enough time to do them, we’re reacting very quickly to events, they’re often printed quite badly or cheap, people look at them for a few hours and then throw them away… So they’re not these platonic objects like beautiful books, which we can spend months designing and making absolutely perfect. It’s in the nature of newspapers; they have to be slightly imperfect. Sometimes I think that being imperfect is what gives them their energy, dynamics and excitement.

So, yes, systems are great. And we shouldn’t throw systems away. But there’s always gonna be a little bit of chaos in the newspaper. And I think that’s a good thing.

Source: Phandroid

One difference between print and digital is that in digital we cannot predict what device the consumer will use to access our content. What kind of problems does this create? As a designer, do you struggle with this lack of control?

This does create a frustration for designers, as designers like to have control. But we must keep in mind that the most important thing is the best experience for the user. So content strategy, design & tech must work together to be future-friendly.

I think we’re moving into a world where there’s less separation between the developers team and the design team. We can improve things in code, rather than completely designing and delivering them. If you make things on Photoshop, everything looks beautiful. But it looks different on the browser. In my studio, we used to finish the design and then give it to the developers. Now we roughly finish it, build it 60–70 percent, then we build prototypes. We do the last designing stage on the browser. You have to see it on a PC, on a flat screen in order to see how it’s going to behave.

We now have to make things that work on more devices, viewports, browsers, environments, than ever. Promise of responsive web design was to create layouts that adapt depending on viewport size.

Responsive design is now five years old. Mobile pages used to be very pixel/device based, but now with so many devices and viewports, this approach is no longer effective. Future goes way beyond phones & tablets, netbooks, notebooks, desktops. Now is the time for TVs, game consoles, with varying capabilities. We see that there are even smart watches, fridges and cars! Nobody knows where device and Web landscape will go.

Once you have said: “Readers respond to publications because of their unique personalities — which come from the design, editing and writing combined.” Easy to say that, but difficult to apply it in practice. How was it achieved at the Guardian? Which processes did they use to make it possible — at least during the production phase?

Firstly created a design and visual culture so that all journalists as well as designers, photo editors etc, understand value of complete package, and respect each others contribution.
Rearranged the newsroom so that designers & photo editors sat right next to duty editors for newspaper. Lots of reviews during the day discussing layout and pictures along with stories.
Also, leadership from editor, endorsing value of visual journalism.

“Design starts with a vision about who you are and what you believe in. You express that in terms of visual design, UX, UI… And the components that create it come after the vision. But I do think it’s important to create a consistent set of components.”

Do you think the design of a newspaper’s website should be in harmony with the print version?

I can answer that immediately: YES! I think it should be harmonious, but that doesn’t mean that it should be the same. I think The Guardian has quite a rigid translation from print to digital. This partly has to do with the design history of The Guardian. Even in print, The Guardian is very grid based and very modular. So it was easier to implement it to the web, because web pages tend to be modular. But if you take a different print which is not modular, then it’s much harder to translate that onto the web.

One of the things about The Guardian is that it has a particular view of the world. It believes in openness, in sharing information. It’s one of the reasons why it’s still free, when it’s probably quite bad economics to be free. As I understand it, it’s in the spirit of Hürriyet too. The word itself means “Freedom”. So you believe in being open minded and accessible. That should also be in the way people work, design, the way technology department constructs things… Even just making something that loads pretty quickly. That could be the expression of your identity, too. But it would be boring if everything looked the same.

Earlier, we were looking at the new designs of sports and travel sections. They looked a little bit different from one another and they probably should be. Because people have different mindsets and requirements when they come to these pages. What you need is a design system that is flexible enough to be able to do different things, to project different characters on print and on the web, but it’s still recognizable and it still feels as part of the family.

So harmony is a very good word. Everything you do should be harmonious, should feel like part of a family. But it shouldn’t be all identical, because it would be boring.

Photo: Umut Veis

Do you have a visual style book for the Guardian?

There is one, it was formalized after I left. There was a time in The Guardian right before I left. It became so big that one person couldn’t really control it anymore. Up until I left, I have been the creative director. I was overseeing the print newspaper, I was overseeing the web, commercial communications. Up until 2005, it was possible for one person to oversee the whole thing and to be in personal contact with all the teams. In those days, the stylebook was really in my head. But at one point it became too big and we had to set out guidelines. I think an organization on that scale does have to have formal guidelines. I saw some digital guidelines but I doubt there are any for the print version. I think every print organization on this scale, including you, should have a design guideline.

“I’m not a great believer in UI kits or design kits. Although it would be great to create your own pattern library. I think there’s a danger that if things become too formalized, you’ll lose opportunity to do something that is really about you.”

Click here for Part I

Click here for Part II

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