Monotone Design is an Editorial Failure
The Internet runs on raw emotion. Ironic then, that the Web made the media forget how to emote.
Media should tell readers not only what matters, but how much it matters in context. In print, this is a product of not only reporting and writing, but a matter of architecture. Column inches in a magazine or newspaper are tangible and finite. So is a cover or space on the front page. When print was the predominant medium, there was a subconscious understanding with the reader; "We chose to give this a chunk of our precious space so you should pay attention."
And then came the Web.
The constraints of early browser technology led to templates. The infinite pixel exploded constraints, and the news looked the same every day. "Is God Dead?" TIME.com (theoretically) murmured in 20-something point Arial with a wire picture of the Pope and a "comment now" callout. Newspapers and periodicals became monotone town criers-Ben Stein reading the news.
The avalanche of momentum behind the mobile Web means that every publication should be thinking about responsive (most are already). The technology that makes responsive design work presents an opportunity to make content modular, movable and flexible. It offers newspapers and magazines the chance to disinter editorial design.
The Guardian recently launched a new version of its website to select users. Its website had actually been responsive for some time, and even in the template era offered a pleasing experience. The new site is even better because it captures all the best parts of reading a physical newspaper or magazine. There's the moment where the high-level view of the day's news clicks into place, seasoned with visual storytelling that compliments deeper, more enriching reads. Paradoxically, this is a product of the willingness to push the limits of new browser technology. Built around a flexible grid, the site breaks down beautifully on tablets and mobile devices.
What's exciting is the example of how the push for device parity for has made content modular and how modular content opens up the possibilities for great editorial design for The Guardian.
On the day of the tragic Charlie Hebdo shootings in the first week of January, it splashed a photograph across all four columns, with a large four-column headline. The next day, when nature of the coverage changed, the headline occupied the left column while the image spanned the other three. Days later, the website returned to a more balanced, less intense layout. The nature of the content wholly dictates layout, and this is by design.
"[Real-time layout decisions] are solely made by the editorial staff who edit the relevant pages," Nick Haley, Director of User Experience at the Guardian, tells me. "It's their editorial judgment which determines things like story volume."
Haley described the design process in an excellent blog post last June. He says that editors have a tremendous amount of flexibility in moving modular pieces of content to reflect the news. By changing the "volume" of a story, headline and image sizes change to reflect importance, and stories can be augmented with additional bylines, kickers, images, etc.
Everyday, The Guardian looks and feels different. When it needs to scream, it can scream.
The Web is becoming more flexible and more dynamic. Publications that refuse to embrace that flexibility will continue to speak in one tone and one volume. True reader engagement and real resonance can't be measured in click paths. It's an emotional connection that demands an emotional approach. Responsive technologies let editors present the news in the same emotional context in which it a reader will process it. It can even shape that context. Monotone publications will find themselves met with glazed eyes.