I’m in the process of redesigning my old website, Grosse Pointe Today. Erase and correct: I am a spectator and occasional consultant at the redesign of my old website, etc. It reminds me once again that nothing is more confusing, unrewarding and otherwise maddening than design in general and web design in particular.
This is no knock against designers. Some of my best friends, etc. But designing for the web is sort of like being asked to design a tire that will work on every vehicle now on the road, some of which are pulled by horses. There are standards, yes, but there are many more conflicts. What works on this version of Firefox will not work on that version of Explorer, vice versa and double on Wednesdays. Don’t even get me started on the users, who range from bleeding-edge early adopters who won’t use the site until we roll our own iPhone app to those who believe Google is the portal to the entire web.
Add to this the cacophony of expert opinion weighing in on what is and isn’t correct/respectful/smart, and you can see why I sometimes lie awake nights staring at the ceiling. I’m a content person. I respect design, even love it (see above, best friends, etc.), but I have firm opinions about its place in the world, cultivated after years in the newspaper business, years that coincided with the rise of design. Over the past couple of decades in ink-on-paper, there have been many versions of The Thing That Will Save Us, and for a while it was design.
I should pause here to state my prejudices: Design is a package. The package must be attractive or no one will pick it up and unwrap it. But equal attention must be paid to the contents of the package, and that got pushed aside during this era. I tell people I knew things were different when I noticed what would happen when a big story was breaking on deadline. In olden times, the top editors would come out to the city desk and stand behind the editor as the story was written and polished, reading and making suggestions. Then one day I looked up and they were all standing behind the design editor, watching the page being laid out. Their main interest in the story was how long it would be, if we could break out the background grafs into a sidebar and whether we had a locator map.
As the physical size of newspapers shrank, designers were really in their ascendancy, because every reduction required a redesign. God, top editors loved redesigns. It was good for months and months of their favorite activities — having meetings and offering opinions. It would be rolled out with everything from free doughnuts on the copy desk to a front-page column by the editor in chief, touting how the new design would make the newspaper so much easier to “use.” I don’t use newspapers, I read them, so you can see why I remained cool to these events.
It’s not unusual today to pick up a major metropolitan newspaper and find no more than three stories on Page One, especially if a new Spider-Man movie is opening that weekend, because the flag will have been pushed down three inches by a giant Spider-Man who’s hooked a line to the T in “Times,” promoting the six-inch “review” inside. That page will win a design award. The movie critic will be furloughed.
But that’s yesterday. Today it’s all online. Websites are both read and used, and so things get really complicated. What we’re striving to put together at Grosse Pointe Today v.2 is — will be — a community news and information website, and I’ve already accepted it’s the “information” that people really want, not the city council coverage. Fitting it all into one easy-to-navigate package is proving to be a huge job, and I don’t envy our designer one little bit, although she has her own things she likes about it, i.e., “the pictures don’t have to be high-res.” But putting together a one-stop shop for All Things GP is not easy.
Of course, as the saying goes, nothing worth doing, is. And, truth be told, it’s fun to make it up as you go. For all the civilization out there, the web is still a lawless place, and that’s what makes it interesting.
Anyway, this is one reason I’m so distracted of late, as our launch date draws closer and I plow my way through copy, photos, coding and more e-mails than you can possibly imagine. I look forward to throwing chunks of the AP stylebook out the window, however. I plan to utterly ignore the difference between “convince” and “persuade.” (You watch, though — I’ll be lecturing contributors about less and fewer before the first week is out.)
When we get the site all the way up and running, I will invite your opinions, especially from you journalists. We’re told there must be mad experimentation in our field, and that’s what we’re doing. Emphasis on “mad.” So I’m off to plow through that 39-page bolus of copy once again.