Wednesday, May 14, 2008

These architect's eyes

In a comment below, Roy rightly points out that poor chuckling is an asshole for publicly dissing TBogg when his ship came in. Be that as it may, Roy's comment forced me to revisit my thinking on site design. Chuckling does not have a right wing intellect. I am always happy to revisit my assumptions, attack my premises, question my "logic," wail on my prejudices, etc. Maybe you are right and I am wrong? It's not that unusual.

TBogg is one of my favorite writers. Not just on the internets. He should be in magazines. So why have I stopped reading TBogg? Is the new site design really that onerous? Does the fact that I can't get past it make me even more shallow than I readily admit? Those are legitimate questions.

These are the answers.

You know that I make my living on the periphery of graphic design. I have taken classes, done a little design work myself and spent a lot of time -- way too much time if you ask me -- around designers. I am able to critique a site's design from a position of knowledge, if not expertise. That doesn't make anything I say right. I know that. You can take it for what it's worth.

And honestly, all that's just work. When I read people on the internets, I am not thinking about design. It's very, very rare that a design keeps me from reading a writer I like. This has nothing to do with education. It is visceral. I don't think it. I feel it.

All that also got me thinking about Jane Hamsher's site, FireDogLake, of which TBogg is now, unforunately, a part.

The fact that I'm not a regular reader of FireDogLake is surprising since, intellectually, I have every reason to like it. In addition to agreeing with the political gist and respecting the quality of the writing, Jane Hamsher is something of a hero of mine. Natural Born Killers is one of my favorite movies and I think one of the greatest films of all time. I use it to teach the kids about the nature of narrative and audio/visual creativity. Jane was the producer and responsible for the great majority of the soundtrack. And her book about the making of NBK, Killer Instinct, is very good in its own right. See the movie. Many times. Read the book. I beg you.

So you see? I have every possible fucking incentive to like FireDogLake, but I don't. I can't stand to look at it, much less read it. Why, oh why, is that?

It's the design, that's why.

I sincerely hope that fans of TBogg and/or FireDogLake don't take this as an attack. I'm painfully aware that the left too often eats itself and I don't want to be a part of that ugliness. So please, find it in your hearts to consider this as well-intentioned professional advice, albeit unsolicited; or constructive criticism from a dear, dear friend.

And ask yourselves, if your design is alienating natural allies such as poor chuckling, you can be assured that it is alienating quite a few others. How many lurkers are there for every commenter? A hell of a lot. That's how many.

So what's wrong with it?

The problem is that it's difficult to read. The reader has to think to figure out where to put his or her eyes and which way to go once he or she has settled on something. Why is that? Too busy, way too busy. The eye has trouble finding something to focus on.

Details. Hell, I'll skip all of the details. We all know that advertising is a sucky necessity. Hopefully, we try to work with the advertisers to avoid sucky ads. And if the kids aren't starving and the rent's paid up, sometimes we just say no to the worst kind of blinking monstrosity. Whatever. Poor chuckling, like everyone else in this cruel, cruel world has become accustomed to advertising. Ugly, irritating ads will not stand between me and good writing.

No, the serious problems are these: It's difficult to figure out what's being offered on the site and once you figure it out, you have to click to get to it, usually way, way too soon.

The reason it's difficult to figure out is because too many page elements are roughly the same size and the colors are limited to different shades of blue.

The Headline, the Read More buttons, the links are all very similar shades of blue. The mind does not naturally distinguish among them. One has to think. Readers don't want to think about the design. They want to think about the content.

To draw attention to the content, the headline needs contrast from the body. If a designer must use the same color, he or she needs to use relative size to achieve that contrast.

But you are not worried about the price of ink. You are on the internet. You pay nothing for additional colors. Use a different fucking color.

Burnt orange, perhaps!

That, and the geometric shapes on the page need contrast from one another. Note that newspapers don't have a front page full of single paragraphs with jumps to the inside sections. There's a reason for that. It just doesn't work. Few would read a newspaper or magazine that looked like that. Why would they read a web page?

Look at this:

See, the elements are all blue. They're all roughly the same size. What the fuck are you 'sposed to look at? Where the fuck is your eye 'sposed to go? Who the fuck knows?

And then if you figure it out, you've got to click! Who the fuck wants to click? Don't we all have carpal tunnel by this late stage in our history? The click has got to be worth it. We need to see more text, a lot more text, before we click to Read More. Just like a goddammed newspaper or magazine.

And finally, the page elements should be arranged in such a way as to draw attention to the content. The site logo, the headline, the advertising, the footnotes, the colors -- everything -- should draw the reader's attention to the story. That is the one, the only, the singular, the sacred purpose of the design. To get people to read the fucking story. That's it. That's all. It's really quite simple.

Print newspapers and magazines figured all that out hundreds of years ago. Human cognition as not changed all that much.