What does good design mean for a website? If I am asked the question I too often rush to argue that usability (that is how people use a website) and optimisation (how the content is organised to get to the top of the search engines) matters more than design.
But perhaps my regular patter is also a product of never having been particularly inspired by many websites. Until now.
The shortlist for the Online News Association’s 2008 Online Journalism Awards has thrown up some really cool looking sites, some of them suggesting a new approach to what a website should look like. Let me put that in some sort of context – what a feature might look like on a website because I do not think any of the shortlist resolve the issue of what a site should look like dominated by news.
But back to those great ideas. The message here is that US media is developing a visual language for the design of news features that carries both multi-media experiences (video, podcasts, picture galleries, Google maps) with a layout that directs the user to what’s next in a remarkably efficient pattern – note how all but one of the sites locates the content above the page fold.
Blogger Craig Stolz, of Web 2Oh….really? makes an even more important comment about the shortlist - that digital, so often dismissed as shallow and ephemeral by the traditional media, really shows just how deep and meaningful it can be:
True to the claims of those who insist there is a future for capital J Journalism in the digital age, the projects often provide a deeper and richer and fuller journalistic experience than projects whose toolkit is limited to 26 letters.
Take these examples from the shortlist.
Mauro’s Shift, by the University of California, Berkeley (top) is a video diary of a San Francisco taxi driver. Although it breaks the cardinal rule – that text should only be seen on a white background, the striking yellow and black design is so clear, it just does not matter.
Virginia Tech: One Year Later from ORoanoke.com, website of the The Roanoke Times (second from the top), presents a moving testimony of those who survived the campus killing the year before. A scroll of those included appears along the top, which, when clicked, easily upload themselves into a screen imitating a photo negative. Each person is then interviewed standing against a white background, underlining how alone some of these people were on that day.
South of Here by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill & Universidad de los Andes (above), analyses the culture and customs of the people of southern Chile and Argentina. The navigation drops down to reveal a small box with hinting at what is to come before a video interview is played.
The Soldiers Wife from Arkansas Online, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (above), tells the story of a wife waiting for her soldier husband to return from Iraq. The period is presented as a timeline along which we follow her as she celebrates Christmas alone with her children or deals with such banal events as the dentist. A picture gallery and podcast are threaded together to tell the story. This is the only one to go below the page fold.
And, finally, if you were thinking that such artist freedom was only possible for students or as features outside a website’s commercial core, there is Unequal Justice from the DallasNews.com, The Dallas Morning News’ website (above). The report is a series of interviews and shocking facts about Texas – so no soft editorial there then – accompanied by a banner advertisement for The Slim Track. It even shows how an ad can be added to such designs.
Want to see another cool site design, read “what should a well designed website look like, part II”?
Now find out what blogs will look like in the future, click here.