For publications as old as the Harvard Law Review, design is the thread of continuity that runs like a seam through over 125 years of history. But while the Harvard Law Review‘s famously image-impoverished design, typography, and layout carried it through the late 19th and 20th centuries, the digital era has changed the game. How do you get people to read 3,000-word articles when they’re most likely to be doing it on their smartphones?
To help the Harvard Law Review appeal to a digital audience, Boston-based web design and branding firm Upstatement redesigned the Harvard Law Review‘s website. And the smart-looking result does not sever the journal’s seam of design continuity.
For the redesign, Upstatement had to solve a unique challenge–the nature of the publication itself. It’s a text-heavy publication composed almost entirely of heavily footnoted articles that run thousands of words. So it sorely needed an update that made it responsive, and readable, on a wide range of modern devices. In an age of ubiquitous multimedia formatting, the Harvard Law Review also needed to be visually arresting–a difficult get, considering the fact that the journal has not published a single image or photograph in 127 years.
To solve these problems, Upstatement took a typography-based approach. First, they replaced the Harvard Law Review‘s font. Previously, the journal used a serif called Old Style 7 as its signature typeface, but it was ill suited to a digital-first approach, and looked clumsy in larger sizes. As a proxy for Old Style 7 on the web, Upstatement chose Hoefler & Co.’s popular Hoefler Text font, which not only looked virtually indistinguishable from Old Style 7, but which ships as a system font on many modern devices.
Next was the issue of the text itself. To make articles on the Harvard Law Review easier to read, Upstatement came up with a responsive design custom tailored to the journal’s long-form content; they tackled readability challenges with hierarchical headers that break each article down into more manageable chapters.
Taming the Harvard Law Review‘s penchant for citations, Upstatement also designed a clever footnote system for the journal’s writers and editors. Instead of being buried at the bottom of a story, footnotes on the new site are hidden in an invisible drawer, which slides open and shut to the right of a footnote when you click or tap on it.
Finally, there was the issue of images. Having gone more than a century without arting their articles, the Harvard Law Review had no intention of starting now. But digital readers expect modern websites to be as dynamic in their visuals as they are with their content. To solve the problem, Upstatement teamed up with designer Carol Liao to create more than 50 colorful background patterns. Coded by color and texture to a specific issue, the system is beautiful in its abstraction, while it conveniently groups articles according to their publication dates.
The new Harvard Law Review is frankly a stellar piece of design work: The 127-year-old legal journal looks every bit as at home publishing long-form content on the web as Medium does. You can read more about the redesign here.