Home Page Heroics

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.

NYTimes.com on 10 Sep 2006
Above: The NYTimes.com home page as it appeared on Sunday evening, and below, as it appeared on Monday night, modified to present new stories and photos.

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.

NYTimes.com on 11 Sep 2006

Art Direction, for a Change

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.

+
  1. That is some superb work. The subtleties here are really beautiful. Congratulations on working with such a talented team; the web is dying for some more of this kind of thinking.

  2. Nice work. I’ve had these same kinds of discussions with my colleagues at World Online, sort of lamenting the fact that we don’t get to give every page the kind of attention the printer designers give theirs. It’s unfortunate, but I think it’s a necessary evil based on the fact that online news needs to be available right now, as the story breaks, whereas print designers often have most of a day to complete their designs.

    I believe it was my friends and former colleague Wilson Miner who once said something to the effect of, “rather than designing pages, we have to design systems that allow content producers and editors to quickly give their stories the appropriate look, feel, and layout.” I think he’s right, and I’ve dedicated a lot of my time since I started working on news sites to developing extensible frameworks and concepts to work within our CMS product to allow for this.

    Still, I’d definitely like to see more hand-designed pages, as well. With that in mind, one of the things our CMS allows us to do is define custom templates on a per-object basics (for example, one story could have a specific template, designed especially for it, rather than it fitting into the generic story template that everything else is using).

    We’ve mostly taken to the idea of doing one customly-developed story each weekend. These often gets their own templates and design work, but also usually get some kind of “database journalism” enhancement (beyond that of our regular CMS database). Hopefully, as we grow and our tools get even better, we’ll be able to do more of this — and make it easy enough that editors and producers can do a lot more of it themselves.

    But yeah…we designers working on news sites need to find a way to spend more time hand-designing individual pages. I think feature stories and special sections are the real place to start with this, since they often have more lead time than breaking news.

    Keep up the great work at The Times, Khoi. :)

  3. This is great stuff, and congrats and commendations to the whole crew who worked to make this happen. I’d noticed it when I checked out the site on Monday, and recognized the effort that must have gone into it.

    In addition to what Jeff said, I think that the web medium has additional challenges beyond just the need to be available immediately—namely the issue that HTML/CSS and such just aren’t as foolproof to deploy as something that is designed in a more visual tool.

    I consider myself pretty adept at taking a mockup and creating an HTML/CSS version of it quickly and efficiently, but it is never done as quickly and efficiently as I could replicate the same mockup in, say InDesign. Even then, you need to check things across browsers, hunt down any IE weirdisms that might spring up, etc.

    Even if online news designers did have all day to work on a story, I’d say that it would still be quite tough to develop custom templates for a single page with a relatively unique design in the allotted time, and still have time to make sure it works and acts nicely cross-browser.

    This might be different if WYSIWYG editors worked amazingly well—far beyond their current capabilities—and maybe it can be true someday, but for now, it’s not an option.

  4. retty much nothing seems worth thinking about. My life’s been completely dull , not that it matters. I’ve just been staying at home waiting for something to happen.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.