Back in July, a designer named Andy Rutledge stirred up a debate online by writing a manifesto about the suckiness of news websites–and by mocking up an unsolicited redesign of the New York Times homepage on his own. Rutledge’s redesign was undeniably easier on the eyes. But as many other designers (including NYTimes.com’s former design lead, Khoi Vinh), information architects, and news-biz commentators jumped to explain, a beautiful visual experience is but one of many, many competing concerns that newspaper homepages have to contend with.
Now Rutledge’s cri de coeur is being resurrected in an interesting way–as a WordPress theme from WooThemes called “Currents.” After all, there are plenty of blog-like sites peddling news that aren’t subject to the pressures that the New York Times homepage is–why shouldn’t they be able to offer a pristine reading experience according to Rutledge’s ideas?
The move is savvy for Rutledge, who gets to make a bit of coin off of an online tempest that in many ways turned against him. But more importantly, he gets to see how his ideas about optimizing news-style headlines and copy fare in the real-world marketplace. A site like Nieman Journalism Lab–which already has a quite nice layout–or the Columbia Journalism Review might benefit from road-testing “Currents,” since they are in the news business but don’t have to display a daily firehose of hundreds of items.
In fact, Nieman’s own response to Rutledge’s redesign was one of the smartest. In the second decade of the 21st century, offering a “beautiful” reading experience is more critical than ever as a means of retaining attention–the success of Instapaper and Readability (as well as imitators like Evernote’s Clearly, which just launched) are testament to that.
But the rub, according to Nieman, ” is that no one has figured out a way to present lots and lots of constantly updated information in a way that (a) is beautiful, (b) is effective at story discovery, and (c) privileges editorial control.” Rutledge’s redesign largely left items (b) and (c) unaddressed in a realistic way. Tools like Scroll–which let news editors and layout designers break free of the strictures of their CMS’s–may address (a) and (c), but not the equally crucial problem of story discovery.
The point is that the suckiness of news homepages doesn’t have a “magic bullet” solution. If fixing news design was as easy as Rutledge surmised, Khoi Vinh probably would have done it already. But experiments like Rutledge’s do drive the conversation forward, and when they’re repackaged as products that can succeed or fail in the attentional marketplace on their own merits, even better.