Below: True lies. From left, the home page and a columnist’s archive from the newly redesigned 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.