Thursday, 1 October 2009

A Beautiful Failure

Front page of the New York Times on Armistice ...Image via Wikipedia

My post earlier this week about the days of makeup and SprayMount drew a couple of starry-eyed comments from fellow ancients who could remember the smell of galley being pasted down onto board, which was lovely. But a link I got from Nieman Labs yesterday night really made me stop and think about these things. Bear with me, this might just be relevant somehow, in some way.

Digital design agency Information Architects took part in a pitch to redesign Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger and lost the pitch in what they describe, rightly IMHO, as a ‘beautiful failure’. They had applied ‘new world’ design thinking to a newspaper. And golly, what an interesting set of ideas they presented. Their piece on it is linked here and I do recommend a read.

Newspaper design has long been predicated on the need to control the readers’ eyes, big bold headlines scream important story, type is arranged to give the reader a progression through the page, elements are balanced so that readers’ eyes find information in a logical, flowing way. Typography is used to denote importance – a bold cap in white space draws attention, an italic caption under a picture is an element we recognise and expect. In fact, if the text floating immediately under a picture weren’t a caption, we’d be wrong-footed by the discontinuity.

But Information Architects did a brilliant thing. They designed their newspaper as a paper for a digital age reader, recognising the fact that our habits, our expectations of the format of content, have changed.

The first thing that really got me going was that they had put important text keywords in blue. I thought that was amazing. Although, obviously, paper doesn’t hyperlink, we now know what blue means – it means a keyword. Together with their decision to go for a big body text with big leading, this meant their proposed body copy didn’t look like a newspaper. But IA had already realised that: they took the conscious decision to throw out ‘conventional’ newspaper design – the idea that a newspaper should somehow follow rules that made it look like a newspaper.

They did a lot of other cool stuff, too – mixing column formats and using infographics, big pictures and left to right, top to bottom prioritisation of stories, much of which was informed by using a ‘web-centric’ approach to design. But it’s the blue keywords that would have been a ‘beautiful’ revolution.

While you obviously can’t click on the blue words in the paper, IA’s idea was that by scanning these keywords, you should be able to read the basic, core, news on the page in 10 seconds. The paper’s website would mirror these keywords with a link to a series of sub-links arranged chronologically. That’s a huge decision, meaning that the journalist, or in this unfair world the sub-editor, would have to pick out the keywords for the reader – a new skill in itself. And then the web team would have to work with those words to provide depth and context behind them (something you could see a technology like Zemanta taking a role in). It’s an exhilarating idea that links print to web and challenges the way that information is presented, managed and prioritised by the ‘traditional’ medium because it recognises the way we have changed in the way we browse, consume and identify information.

(Zemanta is a cool plug-in I use to provide me with contextual information related to blog posts - it selects copyright-free images for me to use and provides 'autolinks' for posts. I don't usually use the links but I did in this post both to 'blueify' it and also to show how a technology like Zemanta could be used to help automate the production of links for a project like Information Architects' newspaper. Okay, okay I'll be a good boy and get back to the snarky, goofy stuff next week, promise.)
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Lisa said...

Please could you explain or link for us technically challenged older folk how to bypass the flickr ban, I would love to see IA pitch. Ta :)

Mother Inferior. said...

is as the 'beautiful failure' that it is. However, at risk of sounding like my Granny, I feel it's absolutely vital that print continues to follow it's traditional 'norm'. Why? Never one to stand in the way of progress, the likelihood of us being able to pick up a newspaper or magazine in the future is so slim, and the likelihood of our children being able to concentrate on text no longer than 140 characters is as likely - I say leave them as the museum pieces they will surely become.

alexander... said...

Lisa, the IA pitch is linked in the post - click on the words 'linked here' in the second paragraph.

There's no flickr stuff in the post, I thought!

Mo Inf - the newspaper, IMHO, could certainly extend its life by changing. It's the lack of change that's not helping. BTW, the format of newspapers has changed immensely - I have a copy of The Times from 1964 and you almost wouldn't recognise it as a newspaper!

the real nick said...

I am not sure if the blue highlighted words aren't just a trendy-ish gimmick. Actually, I AM sure they are. They are supposed to be keywords to grasp the succus of the article? Let's put this to the test and see the first two para's of the article about Obama then (via IA's website):
Highlighted are, under the headline "Obama annouces his American dream": "44th president of USA", "Capitol", "Crisis", "economy", "Education & Health service".

Clearly, this tells you everything you need to know about what Obama annouced and how he intends achieveing it...Not.

If you indeed highlighted all the important keywords the page would be half blue half black font.

I am sorry; don't buy it, not even as a "beautiful" failure.

Newspapers won't survive by aping the web but by complementing it. Online reading lends itself to quick scanning of content, but even so the blue links have a completely different purpose. And they are often misused: who hasn't followed links and never returned to the original page but instead embarked on a wonderous browsing journey down a chain of new links and pages? And that is exactly the beauty of the internet, no?

Mita said...

I agree with Lisa - tried the link for IA pitch. The blog explained in detail but had a link to visuals where I saw the lovely Freej character - still don't understand why Flickr gets blocked here.

What a shame - would've liked to have seen the visuals.

Seabee said...

Sorry Alex, I have to agree with Nick.

Forget all their reasonings, the high-flown explanations, the how and the why. It looks to me very much like the old-style creativity - do the design first and then work out the reasoning afterwards to impress the client.

Nick's comment on the highlighted words vs their reasoning for them illustrates where they went wrong perfectly. It was just a gimmick, the words chosen at random.

The highlighted words don't give the essence of the story nor are they keywords for a search. Words like 'economy' 'crisis' 'education' are far too generic and will give you millions of options.

At the end of the day they're guilty of the cardinal sin, they came up with a very boring design.

susan said...


Cheeky sod!

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