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275. Print may be dead but digital lacks a pulse.

While traveling this summer from city to city trying to find a suitable job, I came across WIRED Magazine's August issue. On the cover was Brad Pitt and it looked like normal WIRED fare, which although geeky and wonderful in its own way - isn't usually a magazine that I buy. Luckily I opened it up and found the featured article, The New Rules for Highly Evolved Humans. It covered new issues and questions raised by technology and were answered with a bit of humor and satire. Pitt was featured in the article as a provider of bad advice for contrast, which fit his alter ego from the summer film, Inglorious Bastards.

Opening Spread:

The issues raised and the rules given were interesting and timely considering how much our lives have changed due to technology. Topics covered included things like, "Should I friend my boss?", "Should I leave my wi-fi open?" to more casual matters like "Can I text while dining out with friends?" and "Can I exaggerated my salary on a personals site?".  The bad answer to that little ditty is below:

But I would never have read this content - or even stopped flipping - were it not for the wonderful design work. Designed by art directors Maili Holiman, Walter Baumann, Wyatt Mitchell, and CD Scott Dadich, with illustrations by Jason Lee; this is no ordinary editorial layout. It's full of infographics, wonderful photography of Brad Pitt acting badly shot by Dan Winters, well chosen and well set typography, excellent use of color, and is crafted in such a way that guides the reader through the content while at the same time encouraging them to look around at their own discretion. A nice balance. It's a complicated and detailed approach that avoids being overwhelming. It's simply a joy to read. (Some of the content isn't my cup of tea per se, but there's enough stuff that most people would find something interesting. Another charming attribute.)

Here's a sample spread (click for larger version):

But this post isn't meant to critique the editorial design. It's excellent and has been covered pretty well over the last two months—perhaps best by this behind-the-scenes article with the WIRED Creative Director mentioned above, Scott Dadich. It's really nice. But my problem is this: online, this content falls flat and is a chore to get through. The hard copy is clearly superior. If print is dying, I certainly hope that this type of digital content isn't to be the replacement. So in the spirit of the printed article, I'd like to present:


Some caveats. firstly, you can if you are so inclined download a pdf of the article via WIRED's website, so it's not as if you can't get the hardcopy version, digitally. And secondly, I paid for the hard copy and there is still a you-get-what-you-pay-for factor here. I don't pay to view the article on their site and maybe it's okay that its presentation is a second thought when compared to the actual magazine spread. The publisher may very well want the web version to be inferior, figuring more will buy the printed pieces. And thirdly, I'm by no means a publishing expert but I want to talk about my issues (pun unfortunately intended) with the online version and what I think could be done to improve it using this article as an example for the industry at large. WIRED does enough things right that they can certainly take a little punch from our humble design blog. Let's be honest, it would be far to easy to pick on some other publications' digital offerings.

Rule #1: Organize the experience in a way that complements the content.

In the magazine, I get a little order to the information. The art direction team has arranged things and ordered things for good reasons. And they've used design to differentiate between the type of content (or rules.) Online, I'm presented with a standard hyperlink list. Sure, I have the freedom to go where I want, but there is nothing in the navigation of this article that is nearly as thoughtful as the magazine spreads. I have to click and read and click back to click on something else, unless I notice the tiny previous and next buttons which reduce the clicking a bit. Keyboard shortcuts don't make it any more pleasant. Sure, this is indicative of the medium, but I'm just saying this takes away from the experience. I wish the navigation had more thought and love put into it. As is, I get one piece at a time without really feeling like I have a good idea of the overall picture. To use a metaphor, it's like looking at a quilt one piece at a time, but without ever seeing the entire blanket. By breaking the article into tiny pieces, the parts become less than the sum.

Doesn't exactly scream fun does it?

Rule #2: Whenever possible content should drive the online experience. In other words, design the online information in a way that honors the content.

The theme for this article was interesting, New Rules for Highly Evolved Humans. But design-wise, there was nothing done to the presentation that supports the content the way it does on the print version. The content has very little impact on the design of the information and it's a let-down. It could have been AND should have been so much more. It's a great subject to design around and would have been a nice challege to make the content sing. Maybe the rules could have been a presentation given by Pitt. Maybe it's a book we can flip through. Maybe each rule and answer is read by a WIRED contributer to give a realistic touch to it. Perhaps they are designed as a simple slideshow with a gadgety / modern template. It could have been anything, much better than these quick thoughts with a little effort, but it was nothing. The article was simply coded and slapped into the main site's template, which brings us to the next rule.

Another spread from the printed magazine.

Rule #3: A web template is your friend. But it's also your enemy. One of the great things about a publication is that each issue can have a theme. A design, content, and perspective that is a bit different from the previous issue and helps tie the whole publication together. It's focused. Sure the masthead and title treatment are kept uniform, but everything can be open for discussion. Online, this seldom happens. Usually the issue's feature gets buried under the website's template and loses it's heft. I'm not saying that a web template is bad — it's necessary to keep the structure of the whole site from breaking apart into chaos — but I think there is room to give a feature article more prominence on the page. This will allow for design cues to come from the article itself. One way to improve the template is actually to remove more competing stuff from the pages in which the feature resides. Treat the feature like a feature and less like just one more article you've published.

Rule #4: Online there's no page count, so post accordingly. Sure when you print something you have to worry about the cost of the publication but the digital realm's costs are insignificant. This means a publisher can post all sorts of related information. The behind-scenes-article linked to above, should have been posted by WIRED as a supplement to the story itself. Why not have a video intro by Pitt and the Creative Director. The magazine did do something cool with this, they started a forum where readers could post their own rules, but it's a little buried and not the most exciting interface. But there is an opportunity to either extend the printed piece or simply expand the scope of the iniital written piece and this should be done as often as it can be interesting. Yes, the article was informative but primarily it was about entertainment and the digital version lost its entertainment value along the way. Give me something you can't possible supply in print and give me a reason to come back next time.

Rule #5: If you can't add to the content, at least don't cut back. Okay, so if Rule #4 proves difficult, time consuming or expensive the least a publisher can do is supply all the article's content online. In our sample article we lose a lot of the photography that was shot for the print version. Actually it's kept separately and is difficult to find besides being out of context. The photography should have been included with the rest of the content, and be able to view larger versions of them just like the real magazine.

Another of Dan Winter's Shots for WIRED:

Rule #6. Keep the Design Details - They Really Do Make a Difference. The print version had a lot of little design cues. Beautiful little borders around sections that contrasted with the modernity of the content. The bottom of the pages had additional small rules in mice type that rewarded the reader for finding them. And by now you know what happened: they were dropped online to the detriment of the entire piece. The small things added up to a cohesive quality that went unmatched on the website. This need not have been the case. You could have been presented the additional rules when rolling over an image or button, maybe a little easter egg that when found would delight the user. And the border treatment prevalent throughout could have been carried over easily with a little optimization.

Some of The Nice Design Details That Were Only In Print:

And online you get the content but without the style:

I know some of these rules may seem simplistic but I think they'd go a long way in making online content worth a subscription fee. I realize WIRED has incentive to persuade you to purchase their print version but if things are going the way we've all been hearing, we'll all be consuming more and more media online. Which is fine except that digital publishing still has a long way to go to match the experience and presentation of the hard copy. And no, I don't believe that print is dead. On the contrary, I think it will become more important over time.

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Reader Comments (2)

No ordinary editorial - that's for sure.

I got that WIRED issue a couple months ago and loved that article.
It was beautiful! Nice & rich. I spent several days going back to
it re-reading and re-discovering all the type, texture, satirical,
details - rare indeed.

WIRED consistently incorporates intriquing info with unique
illustrations of demographics & data - sometimes it takes me several
reads to understand it all. I liked the humor and satire in this article...
another treat. And of course, Dan Winter's photographer is nice too.

So, great observations - swell article J.
Agreed. If the caveats you expressed are not the case, then my biggest
qualm is simple: 'Make the online article as fantastic as the magazine one'.
December 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSavannah Jane
I agree with Sav the online article needs to have the same impact as the print. Especially in a world that is pushing save the trees, make online articles (of which I don't agree on, even though I do enjoy trees). The print version of the article was amazing to me. I normally do not read an article multiple times but this made me not just want to read it again but just to look at it again. The combination of photos mixed beautifully with the humor and design.

I think your article Jason was awesome and to the point.
December 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndy

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