Wed 31 Aug
It’s been so long that I’ve been wanting to write this weblog entry that I almost don’t even know what to say anymore. So I’ll be blunt: earlier this year, Behavior was fortunate enough to have been selected to redesign the online edition of The Onion. Our assignment: a major overhaul of the satirical newspaper’s online presence from top to bottom, and to help their Web team open up the entirety of their online archives — previously subscription-only, now freely available to everyone, gratis. A huge undertaking.
That wasn’t the whole of it though, as we were also enlisted to perform a comprehensive overhaul of The Onion’s pop-culture review section, The A.V. Club, including a complete rethinking of the way that publication expresses itself online. It’s never garnered the attention that the satirical content has, but the A.V. Club is sometimes my favorite part of the paper — in any given week, they run some of the most intelligent and engaging reviews you’re likely to read on any new movie, album, book or video game.
We actually launched the A.V. Club several weeks ago — you can see it now at — AVClub.com — but wanting to keep things hush hush until both redesigns went public, we kept it mum. The Onion, by its nature, was more complex and more involved, and we’ve spent the intervening weeks working with their Web team to make the new site a reality at a pretty intense rate. And now, tonight, it’s finally done; it launched earlier this evening and you can go see it at TheOnion.com.
The editorial staff told us that The Onion was at its funniest when it was deadpan and straight-faced; as a longtime reader, I concurred wholeheartedly. The design challenge, then, became somewhat more complex than creating a Web site for a weekly newspaper with a fairly low page count, but rather how to create a site that might pass for a legitimate news organization on the level of The New York Times or The Washington Post.
So an enormous amount of thought and energy went into determining a look and feel that was unflinchingly “newsy.” The writers run jokes that make perfect sense in the context of the The Onion’s print edition, but online, they threatened to compromise the pretense of The Onion as an almost plausible Internet news source — unless we treated them with just the right care. A lot of my original ideas of what an online news source should be were rightly shot down by the editorial staff — it was probably one of the toughest design challenges I’ve ever taken on because it was a first, furious exposure to satirical information design. None of my prior experience was quite like it.
If the results look suspiciously like a green version of The New York Times Online, it’s because we spent a lot of time studying how the Gray Lady delivers news — but I like to think we were conscientious enough not to steal crassly. The entire design approach was built from scratch, including a fairly intense grid system at the heart of every page that is a direct response to the myriad requirements unique to The Onion: a singular mix of content types, past, present and future, and an influx of advertising inventory that finances the newly opened archives. (There’s lots to say about the mechanics of this grid, and I’ll write more about it in a forthcoming weblog post.)
All in all, it’s a solution tailored expressly for the delivery of The Onion’s particular kind of content — fake news — but I like to think that it would also make for a credible delivery platform for the delivery of any kind of news. Our design team at Behavior worked long hours and hard nights basically building an online news operation in miniature, and a lot of what we learned in the process would translate smoothly into “real” news organizations, I’m confident. In the end though, the litmus test of whether we did a good job will be whether or not the always hilarious articles that The Onion publishes continue to be hilarious — if we got out of the way of the writing, then we did a good job.