The web's reading platform.

And what of art direction?

As Readability’s popularity continues to grow on the web, we often catch the occasional grimace from designers, art directors and the like noting that Readability’s “slash and burn” approach is unfortunate for design on the web.

We have to admit, when you click that button, Readability moves in aggressively and thoroughly, flattening everything in its way. It’s partly why readers love it so much. Readability hands control back to the reader at the expense of the original design of any given web page. One could easily argue that designers and art directors have every right to wince at the presence of Readability. It takes their work and puts a lit match to it.

Then again, save for a few thoughtfully laid-out sites, it’s hard to deny that things have gotten a bit out of hand on the web.

Let’s take a look at a web vs. print example. Here’s a fairly brief Q&A session with the actor Samuel L. Jackson from Esquire on the web:

Now here’s the same article in the December 2010 print issue of Esquire:

The difference is, to say the least, dramatic. On the web, art direction has been shown the door. The content succumbs to the tyranny of the CMS and its allies. Not only is art direction absent in the web view, there is no room for it. The print version stands in stark contrast. The content – the copy and bold photograph – stand alone with design integrity fully intact. It is no wonder that publishers are looking away from the web – to proprietary platforms and devices – to try to reclaim the elegance and readability of print.

As with any argument, we’re generalizing to make a point. There are well-designed sites out there that attempt to strike a balance between utility and a good reading experience on the web. Still, this tension between design integrity and getting that next click persists.

At Readability, we view our tools as a reboot: a new opportunity to wash down the canvas and start again. Today, we’ve made some modest efforts to hand some control to writers and publishers with our Article Guidelines. Still, we’d like to do more. We’d love to recapture the beauty and austerity of thoughtful art direction in print and marry it with the convenience and flexibility that readers have come to enjoy with Readability.

We’ve always believed that the web is capable of delivering a world class reading experience. The “reading view” doesn’t have to be spartan and utilitarian. From beautiful photography to pull quotes to stronger brand prominence, we’re convinced that comfortable reading and great design are not mutually exclusive. Maybe what the web needs is a new type of “standard” or guidelines that live alongside the “regular web.” Guidelines that ensure an optimal reading experience for readers and a fresh new canvas for designers and art directors.

When control over an experience is redistributed, even partly, new opportunities arise. Rather than being viewed as a unilateral mandate to force a particular experience, we view Readability as a spark that can hopefully kickstart a conversation between developers, bloggers, designers, art directors and publishers. While Readability works as advertised today, we recognize that reading isn’t just about “data in.” Just as a great article can evoke strong sentiment and emotion, so can a great visual experience around the text.

Looking ahead, we plan to experiment with and share new ways of enabling designers and art directors on the reading view. We would like nothing more than to see great design meet a great reading experience.

Rich Ziade is a founding partner and CEO of Readability. You can reach Rich at rich@readability.com or follow him on Twitter.

13 Responses »

  1. The “reading view” doesn’t have to be spartan and utilitarian.

    But sometimes, that is art direction. I’ve argued that art direction is as much about “feel” as it is “look.” Readability provides a focused reading experience; that’s the promise, the concept, the art direction. Though I do believe in meaningful imagery to support powerful content, I’d hate for that to dilute Readability’s core just because some designers miss colors and pictures.

  2. One site that has redefined how I think about art direction on the web is http://thebolditalic.com/ Reading through that site, it feels much more like a magazine than any other site I’ve come across, and makes me want to read each article, just to see how they lay it out.

    I agree about the need for better art direction on the web, and I hope that when that day comes, Readability is there to support it, but I get the feeling that we’re a long way away when Esquire (who obviously know how to properly lay out an article, as demonstrated by their print mag) can’t figure out how to use less than 2/3 of their page for ads.

  3. “content succumbs to the tyranny of the CMS and its allies”

    If your CMS dictates your layout, you’re obviously using the wrong CMS.
    A layout like the Esquire magazine example is dead simple to port to a webpage, if they weren’t
    stuffing every inch of screen real estate with ads and visual noise.

  4. Erwin: It doesn’t really matter if you’re using “the wrong CMS” though. The fact is that you’re using it, and moving off of it isn’t usually within your easy control. For a small blog, sure… but for an enterprise site like Esquire, ESPN, NYT, etc etc, moving off of a CMS is usually a major undertaking. Not saying it can’t be done… just saying that it often isn’t done, out of pure inertia.

    Also, I read the phrase “the CMS and its allies” a bit differently that perhaps it was even intended. The CMS’s “allies” include all of the things that it enables, such as giant ads in the gutters, the affiliate links all over the place, the interstitials, and everything else that cruds up pages.

    To me, the overarching point of this article is that while Readability may be technically stripping away art direction, that art direction — in most cases — has already been stripped by other forces.

  5. Readability, art direction, design, usability, accessibility… it is all a result of good design where art directors actually have knowledge of web making and not only think of how things look. As well as developers need to understand that, there are a perfect solution for everything and to put some extra effort into trying new solutions and to be flexible can be the key to perfection.

    New possibilities with HTML5 and CSS3 are very promising but still, it will take a while until we fully can use it and implement it. Thanks to web standards, we can also make very similar feel and look cross-browser websites.

    Btw. This particular page had very low readability and i had to try to get closer and zoom in order to read! That is bad regarding the issue for this article!!

  6. Mike D hits the nail on the head:

    “while Readability may be technically stripping away art direction, that art direction — in most cases — has already been stripped by other forces.”

    There are a few sites out there, the Bold Italic and Pictory being two in specific, that do a great job with art direction. A service like Readability would certainly take away from those sites. Readability, along with other services like Instapaper and Safari’s Reader mode, will eventually help the folks in charge of such sites as the one exemplified in the article above to see the light and design a more user friendly and aesthetically pleasing site to begin with.

  7. Another important difference between the web and print versions is that someone has paid for the print version, and though most of the profit comes from ads rather than subscriptions or newsstand sales, I bet a reader with the magazine in hand is more likely to read several articles and ads. The web site reader is more likely to read one article and leave, hence the need to shove as many other things as possible in front of him in hopes that he’ll click through. I’m not saying that’s a good strategy for retaining visitors, but it’s certainly a common one. Most CMS’s are bad, but they aren’t the root of the problem. I think Readability uses excellent print design and I look forward to seeing how they integrate the more graphical elements of pages in the app.

  8. Magazines don’t put ads on the front cover. Don’t even start in with “the web isn’t print” and all that.

  9. I has nothing to do with Art Direction and everything to do with not allocating enough money to the process of crating and maintaining a website, with these all-important chores often delegated to overworked secretaries/interns.

    The web is an afterthought to most businesses – incredible but true. They realize they must have a “web presence”, but once that “presence” is stablished, it becomes a chore to maintain it and soon it is all a downward aesthetic spiral…

  10. With all due respect, some of the comments here really stretch the bounds of what is art direction.

    As one comment rightly points out, a reader made an investment with the purchase of the print version of the magazine. The pages in that print version are dedicated to ads.

    On the web, you cannot have pages simply dedicated to ads while your story has their own dedicated pages. Consequently, ads and content share the same space. Art directors aren’t making all the decisions when it comes to the web experience- the sales/marketing directors are.

  11. Richard,

    As a web professional with a design background and a dedicated reader, I really value what tools like Readability are all about. But I also appreciate how we’re still in the midst of a process in trying to figure out what is best for content accross a variety of contexts, and of course, for readers.

    Last July, I started trying to beat this drum among web designers–specifically that we should stop taking our cues from the big players on the web that have, for the most part, sold out any possible understanding or value of design for advertising and other promotional activity. For the most part, the pages of mass media websites (any news, entertainment, etc. website) tend to contain more “extracurriculars”–ads, widgets linking to “related” content, etc.–than the main content itself. In an article I wrote that month called “Simple Design is Good Design” (http://www.newfangled.com/the_case_for_simplifying_webpage_template_design), I tried to make the case for resisiting the follow-the leader mentality and simplifying webpage templates in order to provide better user experiences. I followed that up in August with an article on attention-focused design (http://www.newfangled.com/designing_for_attention) and even included full-length screenshots of various mass-media sites showing how the extras account for far more space than any actual article content. This is a travesty, in my opinion.

    More recently, I had the opportunity to spread the word on this in Print Magazine, in my article called Folly of the Flock (http://www.newfangled.com/the_folly_of_the_flock), again, the big points were that the leaders can afford bad design, but the followers can’t. I ended with this, which I think you’ll appreciate: “If you’re the little guy, the smart thing to do is realize that the audience you’re after has already given some of its attention to the big guy. To win (and keep) their attention, you’re going to need to do things differently from your competitors, things that fall in line with the unique purpose of your website, which is where good design starts.”

    Thanks for a great tool and for helping to shift the culture away from clutter and toward consideration for attention.

    - Chris

  12. @Keith Petersen:
    You suggest that a “web site reader is more likely to read one article and leave, hence the need to shove as many other things as possible in front of him in hopes that he’ll click through”

    I wonder how much the cause and effect actually works the other way round …

  13. The subject is interesting and exciting. I believe that art “rules” and “standards” are different or at least should be different among the media and the different media consumption devices.
    I think the missing art direction is a fact. I believe that it is needed, too.
    But I think that the main reason of that lack is the age of the medium. If we compare art direction for print and the one for the web taking in consideration the same age, I believe that the web has been far more advanced and sophisticated.
    I bet that hundred of years ago, Samuel’s Jackson article would have spanned across five pages with hundred of thousand of words and tiny fonts, may be even hand written… and that would have been okay to readers of those times… :)

    Now, let’s fast forward a bit. A dial up connection would make Picaso give up to display those big frames in his online gallery… But now, he can dump those in Flickr or host those for $4 a month and afford to have them full resolution, too… Is he dead already? Sorry! Pick your preferred artist for the example.

    I think this new medium is going to fast to be able to draw standards and rules for it. We need it to stabilize and we need those #$%^$%^%$ C.M.S. developers to learn a bit about users, readability, and art and then, we should be happy with the look and feel that we can throw to these (don’t know how long they will live) articles…