It's time for Design 2.0

Art direction (the sort you get in magazines) has always been a bit absent on the web, and for good reason. A lot of people around the world use the internet to publish content, but only a fraction of them are actual designers. So it makes sense that most of the content on the web is being spooned into pre-designed moulds, to make publishing quick and easy. Such is the beauty of the internet; anyone can publish whatever they want without any special skills or knowledge. However, as a designer of the internet, I have no excuse to carry on publishing content via the same old templates. Designer Greg Wood.

I’ve never seen design as something separate from the editorial process. But I have always seen it as a specific skill. This morning a very thoughtful post entitled Why the designer holds the key to the future of journalism by Adam Westbrook on Journalism 2.0 helped bring a few thoughts together.

When I came into the trade, desk top publishing was the big deal, and we were all in awe of a computer with a tiny screen and 1MB of memory called a Mac Classic. Many people thought that knowing how to use Pagemaker, the layout software then standard, made them designers. But they were wrong. DTP did bring many parts of the process into the grasp of in house editorial teams, and offered greater control over the finished product to those who created it. But I still shudder at the memory of being told by a colleague at one trade paper I used to work at to “stretch that typeface to 150% to make it look a bit funkier”. And, having lived with a designer for the past 18 years, I’m always guaranteed to be reminded of the limitations of my faltering design efforts.

Creative differences

My wife is not being the type of “precious” designer it was always fashionable for the “word people” to sneer at. There is an important difference between laying out and designing. Design is a more creative process, and there are different skillsets and considerations involved in the job. Of course, subs can now do what compositors used to and designers now implement much that used to be done at the repro house. But while technology offers the chance to reduce costs by combining many skillsets into one job, questions of quality, time and expertise have to be considered. That is always assuming the people running the show think these things are important.

Unfortunately, the view that design is just a matter of assembling “stuff” has tended to become more common. The growth of web publishing means this misguided view has to be reconsidered. As Adam says in his post, “if people are going to pay for journalistic content in a digital form, it’s going to have to look good, not just read good.” I’d go further and say that, paid for or not, good design should not be an optional extra.

Inflexible working

There are real problems to address here. Several editors I’ve worked with have expressed frustration with the constraints of content management systems that force material into grids, instead of allowing the kind of flexibility to break out and innovate that DTP packages offer. The technical constraints of how work is rendered on screen rather than in print are given. But the time devoted to getting to grips with them and trying to move them on isn’t. Because companies tend to see technology primarily as a way to save money, they are too eager to implement mechanical processes which rely on journalists fitting material into templates quickly. ‘Get it up simple and quick’ may well be the optimum way of presenting news online. But more skill and time could be applied to much of what’s currently on the web in order to produce a better reader experience, and greater retention on site.

When I visited Reed Business Information for a feature I was researching a few months ago, the general view of those at the brainstorming session I attended was that design and production staff had not been involved early enough in the process of changing the way RBI’s titles were published. That’s an encouraging recognition, because too many companies see the editorial process increasingly as something performed by technicians who churn out ‘stuff’ to predetermined templates. Cheaply.

Time means motion

It’s accepted that there are a greater variety of tools on offer, that journalists need to learn new skills. But we need time to develop and apply and refine those skills if the quality of the product is to improve. Although I’ve always been interested in design, I’ve had to get to grips with it much more since I started getting stuck into web work. My journey has taken time. I learnt how to use Rapidweaver to design my website (see link at the top of the page). It’s a great piece of kit, and nowhere near as expensive as the upgrade to CS4 I need in order to use Dreamweaver. It’s also much simpler to use than Dreamweaver and helped me understand the basics. But, flexible as it is, it’s still template-based and I haven’t got the total control over look and structure that I want.

I started blogging on Rapidweaver, but it’s not the most searchable kit to use. So I went for WordPress, starting with the hosted version. It’s what this blog is created with, and using WordPress has taught me much more about the basics of using a content management system, driving traffic, search and all the other now vital skills we need. But I’m starting to get to the point where it’s not flexible enough for my needs. And I want more control over the look – especially the elements of this theme I’ve never liked. To do that I need to move to WordPress.org. That involves learning a whole new set of skills, and really getting to grips with coding and structure issues.

It’s all very useful and very interesting – although I must confess learning how to use and implement self-hosted WordPress is proving very complicated. Adding to my frustration is the realisation that learning and trialing all this new and stimulating stuff has led to a situation where I am creating less than I used to. I’m certainly writing less than I used to. Because while my level of skill is increasing, the time I have available isn’t.

New landscapes, greater value

It may be that much of what I want to do comes easier to a designer than it does to a writer and sub-editor. But I’m not arguing in favour of strict demarcation. What I am saying is that rather than seeing technology as something which gives everyone the chance to do most stuff to an acceptable standard, the business also needs to recognise the value of developing specialist skills. Not doing so has led to the current neglect of design online. As Adam Westbrook says, “making your website look pretty isn’t just style over substance. It opens up a new landscape of narrative and storytelling to the journalist. It adds untold value to your content.” This means giving people such as Greg Wood the room they need to develop, and not seeing it as a luxury. Or as Greg puts it;

Creativity is like a big pair of bollocks, and regular releases are required if you want to avoid an awkward situation.

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Contact me at martincloake@mac.com

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