There’s a small but meaningful number of really, really good user experience designers in the world. I’m talking about the sort of individuals who can create a highly effective, truly immersive architecture around the way real users interact with software — and who have the skills and wherewithal to roll up their sleeves and get it done. Those types are not abundant, but they’re not uncommon either.
There’s also a reasonable number of really, really good editorial designers in the world, thanks to decades of publishing tradition and best practices. I’m talking about designers who know how to enhance and even maximize an audience’s understanding of published content. They’re comfortable working with writers and editors to help shape what we read, and they create unique value out of the combination of the written word and graphic language. Even given recent difficulties in the publishing industry, there are still lots of these people out there.
But there are very few designers who have both of these skill sets.
One or the Other
I would guess that there are less than a few dozen people in the world who can create superb software for editorial products, who can combine the holistic, systems-level thinking of UX with the incisive storytelling instincts of editorial design. I’m not even talking about a designer who can ‘do both,’ who can create a great digital publication one day and then create a great print publication another day. There are almost assuredly even fewer of those in the world, if any.
Instead, I’m talking about the kind of person who can build a great digital product out of great editorial content, a difficult enough challenge on its own. For lack of a better term, I call them editorial experience (or ‘ed-ex’) designers. A few of them include Marcos Weskamp from Flipboard, Oliver Reichenstein from iA, Ian Adelman from NYTimes.com, and the now-independent Mark Porter, formerly of The Guardian. There are more names than just these of course, but not very many.
And yet, the demand for this singular combination of talents is high. Magazines may be on the decline, but in the digital world there’s more publishing going on than ever, both from newer independent sources and well-established publications. At least three job openings — two at brand name publishers, one at a new startup — have been mentioned to me in just the past week by employers looking for referrals to possible candidates. And it wasn’t all that unusual a week, to be honest. Everyone is looking for good editorial experience designers, but there are very few qualified people that I can name, much less recommend.
I’ve been doing a little thinking about why this is. In the past I’ve written and lectured about the idea that we’re leaving an era where design operates in the narrative mode, in which its fundamental purpose is to create canonical, highly controlled visual stories. We’re now in an era — the digital era — where the new paradigm is designing for behavior: creating stateful systems that are responsive to user inputs and environmental inputs, where presentation is not just separated from content, but where presentation is volatile and continually changing by nature.
These two modes of thinking are so different and even so in conflict with one another that to find a nexus between them is very difficult. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” and that, more or less, is what’s required to be a great editorial experience designer. You must understand users and their expectations, and you must also understand authors and their expectations, and somehow, by hook or by crook, you must reconcile these wildly divergent worldviews into a single, coherent whole that looks and feels effortless.
This requirement that one should possess a kind of harmonized schizophrenia is also the reason why we can’t easily turn many editorial designers out there into editorial experience designers, as convenient as that might be. We tried this on several occasions while I was at The New York Times, and the results were dissatisfying at best. The levels of both technical understanding and user empathy required to create software made for too big of a hill to climb for those accustomed to the print designer’s prerogative of unilaterally deciding what a user gets to see or do. It was fun for no one involved.
The Children Are Our Future
There has to be a solution here, though, because the need for editorial experience designers is not going down, it’s going up, and the law of markets dictates that such a vacuum is unsustainable. These job openings will be filled soon, whether or not the people hired are truly good ed-ex designers. We’ve already seen plenty of bad ed-ex design in the form of the current crop of magazine apps for the iPad, and we’ll probably see even more as the drought in this kind of talent continues.
So where will we find truly superb editorial experience designers to fill these positions, both today and in the future? In spite of my lackluster experiences in the past trying to convert print designers to digital, I still hold out some hope for finding some great digital talent among great editorial designers in print. It would be phenomenal to see what kind of digital experiences a young print designer like Francesco Franchi could create, for instance, if he fully embraced the new paradigm. In any event youth is most likely the key. Young designers who possess an open mind, a respect for the best traditions of both user experience design and editorial design, and a healthy disregard for the dogmas of both are the ones most likely to succeed in editorial experience design. Those who think of publications as digital things first have the advantage over those who think of publications as print things that merely get translated into digital things. It may just take a while before there are enough of the former to go around.