Infographics: Not Dead Yet

As the one or two dedicated readers of this blog can attest, my affection for infographics waxes and wanes on a regular basis.

Of late, I’ve been rather down on this graphic approach to conveying complex information. Too often, what information value is contained in the graphic is overwhelmed by cuteness, triteness, or both.

So when one Allison Morris inquired via my contact page (rarely, alas, a reliable source of useful interaction) about promoting an infographic she’d worked on, I was skeptical.  (It was a good sign, though, that she had in fact read at least one post on this blog.)

My fears, happily, were unjustified. I don’t know anything about, but I do like their  flowchart for young jobseekers about what to post or not on their social media accounts. Well done, Allison et al!

A Word Every Publisher Should Know

Skeuomorph. It’s one of those words you have to look up several times before you can remember it. For those unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia defines it nicely: “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.” Some of the examples the entry cites are helpful: fake stitching on a plastic product once made of leather, spokes in an automobile hubcap, or, one of my own bugbears, tiny, useless handles on small maple syrup jugs.

The skeuomorphic design of iCalWhy should publishers care about skeuomorphs? Because as they shift themselves and their products into the digital age, one of the most important questions they must ask is whether to evoke the functionality of the old forms of their output or leap wholly into the new ones. There isn’t a single right answer. But if they don’t ask the question, they will probably get it wrong.

Though it deals with computer user interface design rather than publication design, one of the most helpful discussions of skeuomorphism I’ve read is from John Siracusa’s landmark review of OS X Lion. In it, he describes the odd nostalgia of Apple’s design of its iCal and Address Book applications. They evoke the look of their old analog counterparts so faithfully that they include stitching, torn paper, and a leather look. Though it might give users a sense of familiarity, the look actually impairs functionality, as Siracusa says of the Mac calendar:

 Usually, each page contains a month, but there’s no reason for a virtual calendar to be limited in the same way. When dealing with events that span months, it’s much more convenient to view time as a continuous stream of weeks or days.

Even worse, says Siracusa, is Apple’s Address Book, which “goes so far in the direction of imitating a physical analog that it starts to impair the identification of standard controls.”

For traditional, analog publishers, the most immediate application of skeuomorphism is to the process of going digital. As I noted last week, one challenge for companies like Ziff Davis Enterprise in going digital-only is whether they should retain the old functional metaphors of print—the page turns, the layouts, the display ads—or drop them in favor of inherently digital functionality.

But even for natively digital publishers, functionality will evolve, perhaps more rapidly than ever. As new ways of delivering and presenting content arise, will they look backwards and mask the new with the familiar veneer of the old? Or will they look resolutely forward and ask readers to adjust to the new in order to gain its full benefits?

The point here is not that skeuomorphism is inherently bad. It can be a useful and even compelling way to help people understand new functionalities. But in going digital, you need to consider the difference between when looking backwards is really helpful and when it’s just a sentimental gesture. So on your next digital product design, don’t just think different—think skeuomorph.

The Future of Content Is Not Destination but Identity

MUD day 8:

There’s been a lot of excitement in the past week about the new Web publication The Verge. Founded by Joshua Topolsky and several other former Engadget staff, it’s been praised for its dynamic design and for features like StoryStream, which aggregates the site’s content into timelines. But if it succeeds, will it be due to great design, or inherently great stories? Does its future lie in becoming a great destination site, or in creating a unique identity for its content?

The Verge

When Topolsky appeared last Sunday on This Week in Tech, host Leo Laporte asked a key question. After suggesting that The Verge is what magazine design should be on the Web, or rather, what should replace magazine design, he asked whether it mattered. “You’ve made a great destination, but I just wonder: Do destinations matter anymore?” How he and many others now read content, he argued, was in aggregation: “So if there’s a great Verge article on the Jawbone Up, I will see it in my Twitter stream or in my RSS feed, I’ll read the article, but then I’ll leave the site.”

Though the design, usability, and coherence of site or publication design are still important, they matter less to the success of content than they used to. In an era when content is increasingly atomized and ubiquitous, the identity of that content becomes increasingly important. Traditionally, magazines were a collection of disparate items that relied on the container to give them a coherent identity. But containment doesn’t work on the Web. So how then can content serve its publishers?

The answer, I think, is that identity must be stamped into the content itself. More than ever, to rise above anonymous commodity content, it must be personal, individual, unique. People must be able to see immediately, for instance, that this content, wherever they find it, could only be from The Verge. The content must be imbued with the brand.

It seems to me that this is the biggest challenge for traditional publishers in adapting to new media is to rethink the value of their publications as destinations. Consider, for instance, what Ziff Davis Enterprise CEO Steve Weitzner recently told Folio: about his company’s move to digital-only publication: “”We will publish [eWeek] in the same way—it will go through the same editorial process, the stories will get vetted, they’ll be laid out by art, we just won’t print it or mail it.” Is that the way to go digital? To simply plop the magazine model into a digital space? Somehow, I doubt it. The container doesn’t matter anymore. Only the content counts.

Will Mobile Formats Change Web Design Habits?

Back in July, I wrote in this blog about how Reader, a new feature in Apple’s Safari browser, called attention to the proliferation of clutter in most Web page layouts. My hope was that tools like Reader and its peers, Readability and Instapaper, would encourage cleaner Web design.

It was, admittedly, a faint hope. But I was heartened this week to read an article on The Media Briefing that suggests a much stronger corrective is on the horizon. Its author, Martin Belam, notes how, as computer monitors have grown ever larger, publishers have happily stuffed all kinds of buttons, icons, ad formats, link collections, and other flotsam into their browser pages.

With the exploding popularity of mobile form factors, whether phone or tablet, that approach to design will change:

“There simply isn’t room for 15 related story links, a most-read panel, and 100 ways to share an article on the screen of a smartphone or small tablet—not to mention advertising. This forces a concentration on what the user is most likely to want to do next after consuming a story. It means carefully thinking about whether uniform global navigation that can take you from any one section to all other possible sections is appropriate. It also means thinking about what are the real interactions you are hoping to encourage from the reader—to share the story, to comment on the story, or to dive deeper into a specific topic?”

Though he doesn’t quite say it, Belam strongly implies that the design habits required of mobile content producers will spread to Web producers. The mechanism behind this influence is unclear, but I’d guess it has something to do with readers’ preferences. Faced with a choice between the clutter of the Web and the simplicity of mobile, they will choose mobile. And as that trend accelerates,  Web designers will respond with simpler, streamlined designs.

So maybe it’s time for all of us to think mobile. As Belam says, cutting back on “the bells and whistles that make up so much online furniture” encourages “deeper and more engaged reading.” As content producers, why would we want anything less?

Saving Your Content from Web Clutter

Until very recently, Safari, Apple’s Web browser, has for me always come in a distant second to Firefox. But with the latest update to Safari, that may change.  A new feature in Safari 5.0, Reader, is a compelling tool for reducing an article on the Web to its essence: the words.

That such a tool is necessary underscores just how unfriendly to readers most Web sites have become. Why is it that online publications make it so hard to read the articles that are their main reason for existence?

Granted, a certain amount of clutter is inevitable. Without devices like logos, in-line links, and navigational aids, the Web isn’t the Web. (Witness the debate Nicholas Carr set off when, weary of those “little textual gnats buzzing around your head,” he modestly proposed trading inline links for footnoted ones.)

But as sites start to accrete banner and text ads, e-book downloads, affiliation badges, boxes highlighting related and popular articles, and far too much more, the story gets increasingly hard to find, and difficult to read when you do find it.

Take, for example, a recent article on, “The Fifth Wave of Computing” by Trevor Butterworth. If you set out to make an article unreadable, you couldn’t do much better than this.

Click to enlarge

It doesn’t get better as you go further down the page, either (especially considering that when you get to the bottom, you have to click a “next” link to read the remainder of the story).

Screen capture of Forbes article

To  our rescue comes Safari’s Reader.

Screen capture of Forbes page using Safari Reader

Instead of heaps of distracting clutter, we get nothing but the essential article content, and all in one page—no page jumps to deal with.

Safari’s Reader is not perfect. It may leave off by-lines or author photos, as in the above example, or struggle to place images correctly. That’s one reason why, if you value your Web content and hope for meaningful engagement with site visitors, it’s in your interest to reduce clutter to a minimum. Your goal should be to design your site for real readers, not Safari’s.

Nerd-note: Safari’s Reader has its roots in a browser bookmarklet called Readability, which works in almost all browsers.  Though it produces equally readable text, it doesn’t integrate into the browsing experience as smoothly as Reader. In addition, it seems not to load all the pages in a multipage article, as Reader does.