The Times Has a New Opinion

The New York TimesLate 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.


Everyone’s Entitled to Their Own

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.

Above: Two opinions. The new Opinion Pages design, as seen today, left, and yesterday evening.

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.

Everything In Its Own Time

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.

Credit Where Due

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.

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  1. Heaps of tweets came down promoting the excellent use of Typekit, and I was surprised how slight the implementation was. Perhaps subtle is a better description. It’s not meant to be perceived I wager.

    The missing boundary looks odd for interior blocks retaining their padding and discontinuity with the other sections, but seems less crowded overall. I don’t mind seeing fewer stories per fold.

  2. I love the redesign and the write-up.

    Was there not concern/uproar from the business regarding the Ajax UI (w/r/t Pageviews, ad impressions). I’m guessing the page isn’t sold on CPM?

  3. I just read The Opinion Pages for an hour and didn’t realize it tell I remembered I hadn’t finished your post yet. Does that say something? Fantastic work!

  4. As a web watcher, it’s nice to see a major organization step up and fly the flag for current, exciting tech in web design. But as a reader it’s even nicer to find a major news organization that respects the amount my eyes want to see on a given page.

  5. The new section is beautiful. Congratulations!

    I’ve always loved NYT Cheltenham (though I remember it looking a bit softer in print than it does online) and its use here elevates the page a lot in my opinion.

    Another feature I love—which, as far as I know, NYT is the first big news site to implement—is the gray background behind the right-hand sidebar. It unifies all the sidebar panels and makes them recede, so the page feels considerably less noisy than it would if all the panels were independent. (This effect is most noticeable when comparing the Opinion story template to the News story template.) To be honest, I also like the feature because its use on NYT is very validating: I created a news site a while ago which employed the same concept.

    The name differentiation was also a great idea.

    My only suggestion for the page would be to add a News link (with a down-pointing arrow) to the right of the Home Page link in the masthead. Hovering over the link would reveal a dropdown menu with links to the various news sections. I think this would strike the right balance between making the other sections easily accessible and still making The Opinion Pages feel like their own thing.

    Last, I’m curious Khoi: why did you want the bounding border? I see its value in making the page consistent with the rest of the Times and it does reinforce the “newspaper” idea somewhat. However, I don’t think those benefits outweigh the added visual strain it causes by boxing in the content (as opposed to letting it breathe) on a still-fairly-busy page and by adding another element. Am I missing a benefit? Or is my assessment/weighting of its harm wrong?

  6. Ethan: Thanks for the kind comments. I think the gray bar adds a lot. Normally it’s not the kind of thing I would do, but John N. and Paul L. came up with it and it was a very smart addition.

    Re: the bounding border. I thought it would help keep the page feeling more contained, and also provide some subtle consistency with the rest of NYTimes.com without impinging on the new brand.

    But really, that kind of thing is very subjective. Some might like it just the way it is, which is completely valid. There’s always some sour grapes whenever a designer (and especially a design director!) doesn’t get his/her way, so take my complaint for what it is.

  7. Khoi: Yeah, I agree it’s subjective and I can understand the frustration with the politics. I was worn down negotiating three opinions for a project, so I can’t even imagine what that must be like at an organization as big as The Times.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.