The trend towards big and beautiful online article design is becoming more common. This past year, the New York Times went through a large redesign, focusing on bigger type and giving every article a command of the page. Just this last month, Time.com did the same, rolling out a new, bigger layout — following the same large-article trend as the Times.
Although these new layouts bode well for readability, Felix Salmon, writing for Rueters, argues that the change in design removes important visual cues that determine whether an article is important or not:
More to the point, news websites have always struggled with any one-size-fits-all approach to stories. A format which works for a 6,000-word feature is not going to work well for a 150-word brief. Web designers have known this for years, but still news sites tend to put all of their stories into exactly the same template — and increasingly that template is designed for ambitious longform storytelling. Which, of course, generally accounts for only a tiny fraction of the material on the site.
He goes on, explaining that the new design pulls a bait-and-switch on the reader, ruining expectations:
The result is a cognitive disconnect: why is the website design telling me that this short blog post is incredibly important, when in reality it’s just a blockquote and a single line of snark? […] It’s time for websites to put a lot more effort into de-emphasizing less important stories, reserving the grand presentation formats only for the pieces which deserve it.
All valid points, but I think Salmon misses the mark.
I would argue that the readers of today don’t notice, or care all that much, that all of the Times’s articles have the same layout. For a generation that has grown up getting their news on the internet, a literal smorgasbord of different layouts and designs, bigger text and full-width images doesn’t always imply importance. Where Salmon calls for the web designs to “bring back a little bit of noise and clutter” for the sake of visual hierarchy, I would rather do without.
The new designs used by the New York Times and Time may not cater to those readers who relied on visual cues to curb their reading. However, the new layouts, from what I can gather, are a strong attempt to make reading experience a priority, regardless of what piece you may be viewing.
In an world where your readers will be using hundreds of different devices to read your content, ensuring everything looks good everywhere is worth the annoyance of change.
—Monday, 31 March 2014