[Update] Thinking Re/Design

Posted by on 17.02.2009 in art, business

I’ve been watching Macleans.ca gradually evolve for the past few months from a circa-2001 disgrace to something that (at least) signals their commitment to (at least) the idea of good design and social functionality.

And it hasn’t escaped my notice that Macleans.ca is “Powered by WordPress” – just like the site you’re reading now.

Their present iteration bears almost-a-little-too-much resemblance to The Daily Beast, a site founded by Tina Brown (ex-The New Yorker and Vanity Fair) with help from the deep pockets and business acumen of Barry Diller.

Specifically, they’ve adopted a From Everywhere Else column of items aggregated from around the web. It’s pretty obviously derivative of what The Daily Beast is doing, but at least it’s another step towards what webmedia is gradually becoming…

The Daily Beast strikes me as the first great demostration of web-based media is capable of in its own right, based on the inherent (but still largely untested and unrefined) capabilities of the web. 

Media sites until now have essentially tried to do what their paper ancenstors have done — with a dose of hyperlinking and flash interactivity and crowdsourcing built on top of it as an afterthought, rather than being conceived for the web from the ground up.

Site-services like Digg and StumbleUpon – and sites like Alltop and PolyMeme that I “like to love” but honestly don’t have enough time to visit after I’m (never) done with Google Reader, Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook… and every other site on the web with social functions (which is to say, any site worth visiting) — these are great examples of social power unleashed on the web, but to me they lack the kind of character and integrity you get from hands-on, deliberate human curating and editing. 

We need an educated balance.

NYTimes.com adopted “meme” functionality when they recently introduced TimesExtra – a feature that automatically generates lists of related stories from around the web, listing links to other sites under their own headlines. 

I never used TimesExtra (the New York Times is supposed to be a definitive source — why would I want to go from there to some blog for the same story?).

I don’t like the way Macleans has executed their aggregation (yet) on their main page. I don’t know why — it just doesn’t draw me in. Other complaints I have are that the WordPress grid stuff towards the bottom looks incongruous — like it almost always does on any blog/site — when the boxes each have different amounts of text. Fortunately (though unintentionally) the immense whitespace below the Need to Know columns indicates the sight is very much still a work in progress and all of this could be resolved in a few days, weeks, months… — so I’m willing to overlook just about anything that’s a genuine attempt to improve.

By comparison, The Daily Beast’s concept and design has great integrity (but I have to tout WSJ.com as my absolute favourite news/info design): all the parts are properly composed and arranged in relation to one-another; the result is that it provides a fairly intuitive sense of what’s what and where we ought to look and what to expect when we look/click deeper.

Their “Cheat Sheet” stands out as the first area to examine (after a brief retinal flirtation with the flash feature on the left, which seems to say “this is the best suff here but take a look around first”) and establishes The Daily Beast as the place to go if you want to know what’s happening “everywhere” — kind of an “only source you need” thing. Meanwhile the list is very easy to scan and compels the reader to scroll nearly to the bottom of their homepage. In the process we’re seeing attractive teasers for their original content and it’s pretty hard not to build up a considerable list of interesting prospects that say “gotta stick around, or come back asap.”

(I’m not a UX or IA professional — or even much of an amateur designer — but I love thinking about design. I’m totally opening myself up for a whipping here — talking over my own head, trespassing on other people’s turf – so feel free to let loose: the whole point is to learn.)

Now, I don’t actually read The Daily Beast very much — and the Cheat Sheet list mostly just reiterates what I’ve already intuited or roughly compiled for myself from my reading feeds, Twitter, etc…

But it’s a great example of exactly the kind of site I’d love to build for myself (er, I mean, have built for me). 

I’m about an inch away from moving past the traditional single-thread blog. (If I haven’t already: I’ve started building a little more depth into the static page structure.) I don’t see myself ever coming back.

The challenge I’m wrestling with is that there are a few conflicting (but not un-complementary) things I must do online, in no particular order:

  • I need a content management system for longer essays.
  • I need a wiki-like platform for mashing up the ideas from my essays into something more systematic and unified – like “growing a book.”
  • I need a way to promote (not just share, but really advocate) must-read articles and items of interest I find around the web. At least a couple of times per week I find things that are, like, “I freaking love this and it drives me crazy that I’m the only person I know who thinks this is even remotely interesting!”
  • I need a way locate and relate with people who do share the same interests.
  • All of this has to be integrated into the same, um, I don’t know (“site” seems outdated… platform? experience?… I’ll say “presence” for now — a coherent presence). I can do all of these things with separate services — in fact, I already do — but I’m not satisfied with the lack of integrity.
  • It has to look good, I have to take pride in it.
  • And I have to have a fairly good understanding of how the hell it works. I have to be able to tweek and change and update it myself — or at least be fairly conversant in the nuts & bolts aspect — with my fairly untechnical background.

And I’d love it if I could seamlessly and effectively integrate music and videos into that too — not just as a widgety-looking box in the sidebar.

A little demanding? Maybe. But I don’t think WordPress is too, too, too far away from that…

Well, it’s fun to dream about anyways — and work towards.

One last thing. I’m on the cusp of getting into video and podcasting. I started thinking about doing a “weekly wrapup” video (2 – 5 minutes of casual remarks to “humanize” what I’ve been working on and where it seems to be heading), and it was amazing how quickly my attitude changed from having never posted a video to being all arrogant about it, like “gee whiz folks, if you’re not using video then you’re only using 1/100th of the web’s potential” a lá Scoble (before I’ve even got into video myself).

Much to do. Much to learn. Much to enjoy…

[Update: minutes after publishing this I finally realized my point... I want to look at my website and see myself -- I assume everyone else wants the same thing too. We all want that but we all want it in different ways: our online presences should be as different as we ourselves are. For me that means a lot of things happening at once -- not in a linear order but in a mashed-up, super-associated, simmering pot of gumbo. The colours and flavours all blend but the different ingredients stay somewhat distinct. There's a lot happening accross a wide surface but I also need a long ladle to go deep, to keep stirring the bottom, or I'll start to get burned and bored and brown and tasteless and (even more) boring...]