We Need Design That is Faster and Design That is Slower

Posted 1 month ago by Jeffrey Zeldman

During a recent conversation with David Sleight, Design Director at ProPublica, I found myself realizing and saying “we need design that is faster and design that is slower.”

Who are we and what is this thing called design?

When I say “we,” I mean our whole industry, when I say “our whole industry,” I mean design, and when I say “design,” I mean: web design and development; digital product design; digital user experience design; digital user interface design; digital interaction design; “mobile” design (which is the same thing as web design and development); graphic design as part of UX, UI, interactive, digital, and web design; publishing and editorial design; and other design practices specifically empowered by the internet and digital technology and built largely around reading and interacting with words on screens.

A mouthful, isn’t it? Some people mean all the above when they say “UX.” I generally mean all the above when I say “design” and call myself a designer.

I exclude from the category, for this specific discussion, tactile, conversational, and passive design powered by the internet of things. Not because those practices are uninteresting or unimportant — on the contrary, they are fascinating, exciting, and fraught with critical ethical questions — but because they are not specifically screen- and reading-driven. And it’s our screen- and reading-driven design that needs a reset.

Our whole industry, as I’ve just defined it, needs design that is faster for people who are trying to get things done, for they are our customers and should not be burdened by our institutional surrenders. We need design that is slower for people who are trying to comprehend, for they are our only chance of saving the world.

This porridge is too fast

Derek Powazek’s {fray} (1996) was an early site that practiced art direction on the web.

Our news and information sites have succeeded so well, they are failing. We’ve designed them to be quickly scannable — at a glance, I take in the headline, the key visual, and the lead paragraph. But today’s news is anything but simple. The truth cannot be reduced to visual sound bytes. That’s how we got in this mess in the first place.

Imagine that! Typography and whitespace can encourage thoughtful reading.

As a society, we’ve replaced thinking with slogans, listening with wall-building. Our best news publications are doing a better and better job of reporting beyond headlines — getting down to the details that really matter. But we designers have so trained readers to scan and move on — Pacmans scarfing dopamine hits — that they no longer have the instinct to sit back and take their time with what they’re reading.

Our news designs must work to slow down the reader, engage her more deeply, encourage her to lean back and absorb. The good news is, we’ve long had the tools to do it: typography and whitespace.

Larger type — type that actually encourages the reader to sit back in her chair — plus radically uncluttered interfaces and (when budget permits and the story merits it) art direction are the way to do it. Derek Powazek’s late lamented {fray} (1996 — remnant here) and Lance Arthur’s Glassdog were the first sites to do real art direction on the web. Jason Santa Maria’s personal site was a later, brilliant exponent of art direction on the web. (See “Previous/Embarrassing Editions.”)

You can see these techniques working in the recent designs of The Washington Post (but not its homepage), The New York Times (but not its homepage), ProPublica, Slate, Smashing Magazine, and Vox — with inspiration from predecessors including the Readability application, Medium, and A List Apart.

To a great extent, the ability of news publications to pursue slow design depends on their ability to finance themselves without overly relying on race-to-the-bottom advertising. Not all periodicals can free themselves of this dependency.

On the flip side of the news experience, which must be savored and digested slowly, comes the challenge of our corporate and organizational sites, which must become faster — not just technically, but (even more importantly) in terms of their content’s comprehensibility.

In the beginning, there was shovelware

As the once-vital blogosphere recedes from the equation, and as traditional periodical publications struggle to retain solvency and relevancy (and wrestle with readability), the web becomes the turf of stores like Amazon, powerful networks like Facebook, and traditional corporate brochureware. It’s this brochureware that most needs fixing—most needs to be designed to be faster.

In the 1990s, disgruntled computer buyers coined the word “shovelware” to refer to the second-rate games, fonts, and software that came pre-bundled with many PCs. It wasn’t stuff you had to have, carefully curated by software wizards who cared for you — it was garbage presented as value. Early web designers, including your present author, soon used “shovelware” to refer to the reams of corporate copy that got thoughtlessly dumped into the first corporate sites. The corporate overlords thought of the stuff as content. The readers didn’t think of it at all.

Getting easier to publish and harder to communicate

So we spent years preaching that the web was not print, finding ways to design words on screens so they could be scanned and used. We learned to inventory our old content and develop the will and the sales ability to toss the dross. Only content stringently designed to satisfy both customer and business needs would be permitted onto our excellent corporate websites. At least, that was how we did it when it came time for a major redesign (and only when astute stakeholders permitted it).

But most of the time, and constantly between redesigns, junk still got shoveled into our websites. We even made it easier for the shovelers. We developed CMS systems and gave everyone in the organization the power to use them. It was easier for us to let people publish the stuff their little group cared about than to stop and ask what mattered to the customer. And it was also easier for the organization, as it enabled warring fiefdoms to avoid difficult meetings.

It was easier. But not better.

And the CMS systems multiplied, and the web-savvy middle managers were fruitful, and the corporate site was filled with documents nobody but those who posted them ever read. And the corporate site sucked. It sucked harder than it had even in the earliest shovelware days of the 1990s. It sucked deeper and wider and more frequently and with better algorithms. For all our talk of user journeys and mental models, most corporate sites are mostly pretty garbage.

Shhh! Don’t tell the client. They still owe us a payment.

Beyond pretty garbage

Ethan Marcotte’s 2010 article, “Responsive Web Design” not only changed web layout, it pointed the way to more meaningful content.

Gerry McGovern’s “Top Tasks” method showed how to prioritize the information the customer seeks over the darlings of Management. Ethan Marcotte’s responsive web design and Luke Wroblewski’s mobile-first strategies pointed the way to restoring the focus on what’s most essential. There’s no room for pretty garbage on the small screen. Now, before it’s too late, we must fulfill the promise those visionaries and others have shared with us. If we want to save our brochure sites, we must make them not just faster, but relevant faster.

Designing with the content performance quotient (CPQ) in mind is how we will take the next step. We’ll ruthlessly prune the inessential, cut our sitemaps down to size, slash our bloated pathways, removing page after unloved page, until there’s nothing left but near-neural pathways from the user to the information she seeks.

In short, we will sculpt the design, presentation, and amount of content in our brochure sites with the same scalpel we take to the shopping carts in our e-commerce sites.

Evaluating speed or relevancy for your site’s content

How can we tell which sites should be faster, and which should be slower? It’s easy. If the content is delivered for the good of the general public, the presentation must facilitate slow, careful reading. If it’s designed to promote our business or help a customer get an answer to her question, it must be designed for speed of relevancy.

A conversation with David Sleight – The Big Web Show No. 171

I’ll continue to explore both these themes in future articles here. My thanks to ProPublica’s David Sleight for the remarkable conversation that helped give birth to this piece. David is a web designer, creative director, and leader at the intersection of publishing and digital technology. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces “investigative journalism with moral force.” To hear the complete conversation, don your headphones and listen to Episode No. 171: Art Directing the News — with ProPublica Design Director David Sleight on The Big Web Show.

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This article was originally published on Jeffrey’s Medium page

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