Wed 22 Sep
Late in the day yesterday, one of the last major projects that I worked on at The New York Times launched: a major overhaul of NYTimes.com’s Opinion section, now rebranded as The Opinion Pages. I shepherded this project from its inception to the completion of its design, but left the company before its implementation got underway. So I’m really happy to see that in its launch state, it’s still very close to the design that we created several months ago. Kudos to my former colleagues who have undoubtedly done a tremendous amount of sweating the details over the past several weeks to make this a reality. And I’m happy to see their hard work is already receiving complimentary notices.
The Opinion Pages is close to my heart because it started out as a much different kind of project: it was originally chartered as a routine and much-needed clean up of the section, and left to its own devices would likely have taken a more standard approach. But I had long believed that The Times’ online Opinion content was an underserved franchise, and I advocated for a more ambitious approach, something that could re-set the stage for how Opinion works within the context of NYTimes.com. Thankfully, the section’s product manager and editors agreed with me from the start, and we managed to create an opportunity for ourselves to do something very different.
The new section design is a rethinking of how Opinion can stand out and somewhat apart from the company’s straight news report. If you’re familiar with the way news operations like The Times work, the divide between news and editorial/opinion is a critical distinction, but it has rarely been particularly well highlighted on the Web.
So I pushed for the name “The Opinion Pages” as a way of creating a stronger brand identity, something subtly but meaningfully different from other sections, to help make that distinction. In my time there, I generally disliked the company’s habit of creating new brands under the Times umbrella, but to me Opinion was very different. It was already a franchise of its own, and it deserved to stand out more prominently.
Part of the Opinion pages’ reputation, of course, is the wonderful art that appears in the newspaper every day to illustrate the complex concepts discussed in the content. Those illustrations and their unpredictable nature figured heavily into the framework we created here. Over the coming days you’ll see a few different templates at work, each designed to showcase illustrations of various dimensions. It’s not quite art direction, but rather savvy template design, which makes more sense for this kind of production.
This redesign marks a small but significant aesthetic breakthrough, too: it’s one of The Times’ most prominent uses yet of Typekit technology for typography. The serif typeface you see is The Times’ own, proprietary cut of Cheltenham, and soon you’ll be seeing additional Times-only typefaces (some are in the process of being optimized for use in browsers). I don’t know when Typekit or similar technology will be used throughout NYTimes.com or even on the home page, but this launch means that that day is indeed coming.
We also used this opportunity to pursue a very streamlined, aggressively minimalist approach to the presentation, seriously questioning the density of information and promotional content that occurs throughout the rest of the site. Perhaps what I’m proudest of is what’s not there — all the things we managed to cut out (and the fact that at launch, they still aren’t there) and the elegant core that remains. If I’d stayed longer at my job, I would have tried to push the entire site further in this direction.
In many ways this project was a great example both of what was so great about working at The Times and what was frustrating about it. On the one hand, you can’t beat the content: Times columns and editorials drive a huge part of the global conversation, and it’s thrilling to be able to work with that kind of raw material. This project involved whip-smart editors and producers, a fantastic product manager, and crackerjack developers. What’s more, I posed the project as a big creative challenge to my design staff, pushing them through several rounds to create something very different. They responded with great aplomb, as I think is evident. For a design director, nothing is more satisfying than that.
On the other hand, all was not smooth sailing. To give you some idea of what it takes to pull this kind of thing off, work on The Opinion Pages started sometime in the second half of 2009, and what you see on the site today isn’t even everything that was intended at the start. Right now only some of the articles that appear in the section, you’ll notice, receive the same design treatment and branding as the front page.
All of that is due to the complexity of managing a publishing system that serves many different kinds of content, and, I’ll put it diplomatically, some institutional reluctance to fully accommodating all those different kinds of content. There are good and valid reasons why this stuff takes so long to get done at a company like The Times, but taking a year to launch something that’s not even complete was not among the top reasons I enjoyed my old job. (Update: articles now feature the new design; apparently it’s only new articles going forward that will get the new design applied, but all the same it was inaccurate for me to imply that they were not ready.)
Not all of my complaints are the fault of technology, of course. There are some design details here, like the absence of a bounding border around the whole page, that I frankly disagree with. Alas, I was politically outfoxed by a less than trustworthy colleague who wanted the borders removed, and so I lost that battle. That’s another hazard of working in a large company: you have to balance unreliable personalities and thorny politics as much as real requirements, and in this instance I was not on my game and paid the price for it. Oh well. On the whole, the finished design is almost exactly as I and the designers I worked with envisioned it, and so I’ll chalk it up as a lost battle in a won war.
Finally, I have in this blog post done a lot of patting myself on the back for this launch of The Opinion Pages, but that’s only because this is my blog. In reality, The Opinion Pages was the product of a whole cadre of folks who invested much more time and effort into it than I could before I left. In particular I would cite my old cohorts Hayley Nelson, Snigdha Koirala, Paul Lau, John Niedermeyer, Jennifer Brook, Jon Chretien, Andre Behrens and Clint Fisher, among many others. Congratulations to them for their early enthusiasm, dogged persistence, willingness to reinvent, fearlessness of hard work and, perhaps more important than anything, their excellent follow-through in finishing the job. In fact, I heartily thank them for finishing the job.