New Frontiers

The next generation of magazine websites are making the experience of reading online a richer and more rewarding experience than ever before

For the magazine designer, the web has been a frustrating place. Used to total control over every layout and every letter, the myriad restrictions of working with content management system-driven websites have made translating the qualities of print brands onto the web a trying experience. And then there was Snow Fall.

In late December last year, the New York Times website published a beautifully crafted online story about an avalanche in Washington state. Working outside the site’s regular CMS, Snow Fall took a team of editors, written and video journalists, graphic designers and coders six months to create, and it showed. There were luscious full-screen images, video triggered by scrolling, interactive graphics and maps, all running within a browser.

Snow Fall drew an estimated 3.5 million page views in its first six days while claims were made of hugely impressive dwell times of 12 minutes for the story. In the hooplah which followed, thousands of admiring words were written about the brilliance of its crafting and the beauty of the experience. It won a Pulitzer prize and a Webby. It represented, we were informed, not just the future of the New York Times (which set up a new department to create more such experiences), but the future of journalism itself. Here at last was a way for online to replicate the quality of print brands – and a model for advertisers and readers to fund it.

Well, not quite. Detractors were quick to point out that, impressive though those 12 minutes that readers were spending with the story were, even that wouldn’t give them enough time to read the whole thing. And was the story itself worthy of such resources and treatment? Was it really just a novelty, a triumph of style over substance? Oh, and where were the ads?

Besides, others had been producing similar ‘experiences’ well before Snow Fall. Pitchfork, for example, was already wowing readers (and crashing browsers) with its Cover Stories features which similarly combined full-width images, video and parallax scrolling to great effect. And was it even necessary to throw the kind of resources the New York Times can command at the project? The founders of Scroll Kit, a start-up web design tool, created what they claimed was a replica of the story in “under an hour” – a claim and use of copyrighted material which duly attracted the attention of the Times’ lawyers.

Almost a year on, Snow Fall’s long-term effect on the future of publishing business models is not clear, but the underlying innovations which made it and other ‘immersive’ experiences possible are continuing to influence magazine website design. Snow Fall may not have been the first, but it brought together and highlighted a lot of new thinking and new opportunities online.

At the time Snow Fall broke, the team at digital agency Huge were well into a redesign of the website for Newsweek (see panel below). They recognised some similar thinking informing both.

“Technology in the past was always a limiter, a restriction you were designing into,” says Huge’s creative director Conor Brady. “You would design and build something you wanted, then reduce it down to what was manageable. Things like HTML5 and parallax scrolling mean that the presentation layer can be more dynamic now and less a case of content falling into grids driven by the technology. You can create more of a brand experience than before…. There’s always a design system,” he continues, “but now the philosophy of a magazine designer in print is much more translatable into online.”

Brady’s views are backed up by digital designer Marc Kremers who recently worked with Poke’s Nicolas Roope and an in-house team led by creative director Sarah Douglas on a redesign of Wallpaper* magazine’s website. “There’s been a real push online from so many people to come up with good standards,” Kremers says. “We don’t have to deal with Flash anymore – there are all these new tools and UI methods which mean that the quality of design is becoming a lot more sophisticated.”

The Wallpaper* team were charged by Douglas with translating the concept of ‘modern luxury’ online. The fact that the same typefaces used in the recent redesign of the print magazine could now be used on the website helped enormously in this, as did the ability to break out of what Wallpaper* art director Lee Belcher terms the “optometrist’s chart” style of web design which many editorial sites employ with big features at the top and stories getting steadily smaller as they descend down-page. Instead, Wallpaper* employs a carousel of selected stories to lead off its site plus a ‘bookshelf’ of horizontally scrolling image-led stories surfacing content from throughout the site.

Particularly at the luxury end of the magazine market there has been a tension between web and print editorial teams with the latter bemoaning the lack of sophistication of the former. That tension now appears to be easing, but the new weapons in the digital designer’s armoury are running up against a new sticking point – advertising.

Ad teams are used to selling standard ad slots on websites – banners, MPUs etc. Once you break out of the standard web page grid of stories, how do you accommodate those ads? Snow Fall ignored the problem by not including any ads at all. A recent follow-up feature, Jockey, includes full-width ads for BMW but the effect is jarring and ruins the editorial experience. Huge say they have designed a host of ad slots into Newsweek but, thanks to a recent change of ownership and general upheaval, none of them are currently being used by the site.

“Something very interesting is happening,” says Brady. “That tension between design and editorial teams online has gone. Now the tension is with the sales team. If you design sites that move away from the inventory model, where brands are still creating assets that are standard unit sizes, that’s a challenge for them. You have to think about sponsorships and a new media model.”

Wallpaper*’s Douglas says that her title got around this by involving key advertisers early on and explaining the new opportunities to them. The site launched with a full-width video from Bottega Veneta – not possible with the old format.

But as magazines create richer browser-based content, with longer stories and exciting video and interactive elements, another question occurs. Where does this leave iPad apps? If we can do this via the browser, why have an app too? You solve one problem, another pops up in its place….

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