"If we don't focus on content, readers will remove our designs."
In April, Jeffrey Zeldman radically redesigned his personal website, creating something bold and divisive. Inspired by beautiful type and read-it-later services, he ripped out anything he considered unnecessary and enlarged text to the point Andy Clarke quipped: "Just saw the new @zeldman.com (wip) site for the first time, FROM ACROSS THE STREET!"
Zeldman kindly talked to us about the reaction he's got since, why large type is of increasing importance to him, and why he wrote Web Design Manifesto 2012.
.net: You say you got responses from people who seemingly didn't think you knew what your site looked like. Did this surprise you, not least given your reputation and history within the industry?
Zeldman: I am grateful to the person who contacted me via Twitter to show me a screenshot of my redesigned site, on the assumption that I hadn't tested it in a desktop browser. I'm grateful because her comment made me realise that I needed to write a brief manifesto about how mobile on one side, and apps like Instapaper and Readability on the other, are changing the game for designers.
If we don't focus on the content the reader came for – if we continue to bombard and bamboozle our users with cluttered interfaces that satisfy stakeholder committees but frustrate the people who actually want to use our sites – our users will retaliate by removing our designs altogether. It's the web. Now more than ever, the user is in control of what she sees and when she sees it. We web designers need to get with the program. We need to adapt. I've been thinking and lecturing about these issues for a couple of years now. I'm also an advisor on the Readability app, and so I'm constantly reminded that users want to navigate by content, not by destination.
.net: So read-it-later services inspired the design, but what else was behind it?
Zeldman: It was a natural consequence of my thinking over the past few years, and it was also partly a response to the success of the responsive web design movement led by my friend Ethan Marcotte. I wanted to see if I could address all these issues in a new way – to see if I could combine the thinking behind responsive design with the antithetical thinking behind fixed-width layouts: 'One Layout To Rule Them All', but different font sizes depending on the device width.
.net: And yet this seriously divided your audience…
Zeldman: To me it was so obvious why I had done these things, and I assumed the design would speak for itself. That was a mistake. Design does speak for itself, but new design ideas always need someone to speak for them. When we present work to clients, we don't just point to a screen and say: "There it is!" We talk it through. I needed to do the same thing here.
The wide misunderstanding about my redesign, and in particular that one Twitter conversation by the well-intended – and quite intelligent – person who assumed I had no idea what my design looked like in a browser, convinced me it was time to get the thoughts out of my head and into words on my website. So, to her, much thanks.
.net: In your manifesto, there's an underlying theme of experimentation. Do you think more designers should experiment with their personal (non-business-oriented) websites? And do you think there's a lack of experimentation these days, compared to years ago?
Zeldman: There is less experimentation than there used to be. In part it's because designers who used to do a lot of experimenting on their personal sites are busier these days – busy with client work, or creating products, or branching into areas such as publishing and conferences. Ten or 15 years ago, maybe you were single, with not much work and no family. You had loads of time to play with the design of your website. Now, not so much.
As for younger designers, there are so many brilliant ones now. I'm constantly impressed and inspired by them. But many younger designers are more into social media than blogging – "social media killed the blog star," as my friend Jeff Croft put it in a comment on my site. So they're less likely to have a personal site that needs redesigning and experimentation.
Also, it's a different time. Companies such as Twitter and Google and Facebook are snatching up young web designers. They don't have time to experiment on their blogs – they're too busy helping Mark Zuckerberg get rich. Then, too, a lot of younger web folks are more into UX than designy-design, or more into coding than design, and so if they have a blog they may be satisfied using a default Tumblr or WordPress template.
Finally, the web is no longer 'underground', no longer 'the wild west'. It isn't the province of a few crazy rebels. It's filled with professionally professional professionals who follow widely endorsed best practices and standards. That's very good in a lot of ways, but it tends to create an environment where there is less experimentation.
.net: In your manifesto's comments, John Corbin seemed to suggest web design has too readily followed newspapers in optimising for advertising space rather than readability. But surely the point of the web is we have 'infinite' space and all kinds of usability benefits over other media? To that end, should more designers consider larger type v if, perhaps, not necessarily as large as you've used?
Zeldman: I absolutely believe that our challenge is to surface and focus on the content our users came for. That may often mean bigger, more readable type, but it also means less cluttered interfaces, fewer distractions. We need to rethink navigation and advertising.
The responsive design community has raised the issue more than once of a need for responsive ad spaces, and that is true, but it's only a beginning. We've priced advertising such that the only way to pay for content is to fill every web page with a million ads. The cluttered layouts that result don't serve the advertiser, because nobody reads them. Our cluttered layouts have trained users to ignore ads. Therefore we charge less and less and stick more and more ads on the page. It's a futile, vicious circle.
.net: But advertising remains the lifeblood of many sites, and so how can it be fixed?
Zeldman: The Deck ad network – disclaimer, I'm a co-founder – may hint at one solution, in that there can only be one Deck ad per web page. And with less clutter comes more attention. But we're not even at the point where we can have that conversation with major advertisers.
And very few editors are ready to talk to designers about eliminating whole swathes of navigation and bumping up font sizes for the reader's sake. I'm afraid it may take a wholesale loss of page views before magazine editors will realise the trouble our current design practices are creating for them. But if we don't design for readers – increase font sizes, reduce clutter v then apps such as Instapaper and Readability will do it for us.