Wed 13 Sep
Notwithstanding my own lack of clarity regarding the five year anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, I’m not immune to the occasion’s obvious significance. It’s as moving a date for me as anyone, and as it approached, I personally wanted to make sure that the NYTimes.com design team should make our own, humble contribution in honoring it. That’s why I wholeheartedly agreed when one of the designers in my group suggested he put some extra hours over the weekend towards some special presentations of the home page for Monday.
Times reporters and editors had prepared a slate of truly superb pieces to mark the anniversary (not the least of which was Deborah Sontag’s amazing, epic-length “Broken Ground”), and we felt it would be a disservice to publish them using just our standard toolbox of typography and layouts. So, working together, our designer and the home page editor crafted a series of customizations — new CSS rules and XHTML markup — to the top portion of the home page, unique designs that we hadn’t used before. They started appearing at NYTimes.com on Sunday evening, rolling out the pre-planned September 11th articles alongside breaking news coverage.
I didn’t have a direct hand in designing these, but they still make me feel really proud of the work we’ve done at the Web site since I arrived. Though these custom designs look modest by comparison with the way the newspaper’s own talented art directors are able to design the same content — which is to say, the range of expression on the site is somewhat modest in contrast to what’s possible in print — this still represents, for me, a nontrivial advancement in the kind of design we practice at NYTimes.com.
When I try to explain what it is exactly that we do in our design group, the point I try to really bring home is we focus on designing the NYTimes.com platform, rather than on art directing the NYTimes.com content. There is so much demand for designers’ skills and smarts to be applied to complex new features and functionality for the site, that we’re consistently preoccupied with developing new sections.
This work largely consists of developing design templates into which our editors and producers pour new content; rarely do we get to design in a way that responds directly to a specific piece of content. This is a function, as I said, of the design needs for our ever-expanding platform; but it’s also a function of the state of Web design today. We simply don’t yet have the tools or the business model to support art direction.
That’s why it’s so satisfying to see work like this done, to see the Web site — if only just for twenty-four hours — start to reflect the nature of the content it’s presenting in a very specific manner. It took a bit of extra effort and it’s not without its own difficulties, but for an event like this fifth anniversary, it seemed worth it.