The Web has fostered an explosion of new ideas about information design – the art of arranging text, graphics, and data to make reading more pleasurable or advertising more diverting. Not all of these ideas have been good ones, as anyone who has been assaulted by blinking pop-up ads knows.
But the newest feature of Microsoft’s next-generation Vista operating system, due in 2007, attempts to clean up the Web, restoring some of the best principles of graphic design from the pre-Internet era. On April 28 Microsoft and The New York Times Company unveiled a prototype of the Times Reader, a browser-like program that gives New York Times designers the ability to more closely reproduce the newspaper’s distinctive look and feel on a computer screen, regardless of the screen’s size or format.
The software takes advantage of WinFX, a completely new system for rendering user-interface graphics that Microsoft is developing for Vista. It’s distinct from the Times’ recently redesigned website, but the Reader nevertheless has many of the features of a Web browser, including hyperlinks, navigation buttons, and a search function. It’s also designed to stockpile content for offline reading and to make it easy to annotate, e-mail, or blog about the stories displayed.
[Click here for images from the Times Reader.]
“We are trying to make a product, a news experience, that more fully engages our readers, that allows them to want to spend more time with us,” said New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. at last week’s conference of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, where the announcement was made. “We must be platform agnostic….We must follow readers where they want to be.”
The design of a newspaper is an indelible part of its identity, and while the New York Times, long known as “the Gray Lady,” added color in 1997, its print edition is still distinguished by a somber, restrained design and dignified serif typeface for text (Imperial), which are perhaps the most recognizable in the newspaper industry. And the Times’ website has sought to mimic that flavor, most recently with a redesign that uses serif fonts, and which is intended to take advantage of larger computer monitors. But with the advent of the Times Reader, the paper’s online version will bear a much greater resemblance to its print product.
And, indeed, print designers argue that the old-fashioned print newspaper boasts one of our culture’s most elegant and highly evolved user interfaces. A newspaper’s narrow columns, for example, make it easy to scan an entire story. Text is usually placed on a consistent “grid” that guides the eye horizontally and vertically. And varying type sizes, along with the placement of stories, headlines, and graphics, convey each story’s relative importance.
The Times Reader recreates those aids to understanding using Microsoft’s new Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) and other WinFX tools intended to make Vista visually richer than Windows XP. One of WPF’s key features is the ability to make documents “reflow” and auto-hyphenate, so that multi-column formats are retained even when a user resizes the Reader window. “Basically, designers from the print world are able to regain the control over their content they lost when content started to gravitate to the Web,” writes Nick Thuesen, a Microsoft programmer who publishes a personal blog about his work on WPF.
Do readers actually care whether a publication’s website resembles its print version? Perhaps not. Growth in online news reading has been robust, despite the cluttered and unpredictable appearance of most online newspapers. Some 43 percent of people with broadband Internet connections at home turn to the Internet for news at least once a day, while only 38 percent pick up a local newspaper, and a mere 17 percent look at a national newspaper, according to a 2005 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. On the other hand, online viewership might have grown even more briskly, and penetrated other, older audiences, if websites looked more like print publications.
It is known that the Web’s limitations are a huge bother for designers, who have struggled for a decade to create print-like layouts within the generally meager limits of HTML, written by computer scientists, which was never intended to support sophisticated graphic design. “PCs may have opened up the door for anybody to be a designer, but they’ve also put in some huge restrictions, in terms of HTML and what somebody can actually do,” says Sarah Quinn, a member of the visual journalism faculty at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, FL.
There are many ways to convert print layouts to electronic form. The most popular is Adobe Systems’ Portable Document Format (PDF), designed to ensure that a page of text will have the same appearance whether it’s viewed on a computer screen or printed out on paper. Technology companies such as Zinio use PDF as the underlying format for online periodicals. (Zinio produces Technology Review’s digital edition.) But PDF-based documents have their own limitations; text does not reflow when a window is resized, for example.
To some commentators, the Times Reader project, Zinio editions, and other efforts to replicate the look of a print publication online are throwbacks to a pre-Internet past in which newspaper editors spoonfed news to the public. “Why not design the next frontier for the sharing of news [to take] advantage of all the new opportunities technology permits – linking, conversation, multimedia, search, selectivity, depth, currency? Oh, yeah, it was already invented. It’s the Web,” writes Jeff Jarvis, a critic and columnist who writes the popular blog BuzzMachine. Jarvis characterizes the Times Reader and alternatives such as the British Guardian Digital Edition as attempts to “grasp desperately onto a past that is disappearing.”
But with Microsoft’s new presentation technology, Web-like interactivity doesn’t have to come at the expense of the design wisdom of the past, say designers. “If a newspaper or a book or a magazine or a billboard follows the classic principles of design – dominance and hierarchy on a page, and particularly designing on a grid – that’s very helpful to anyone looking at it,” says Quinn. “This new technology enables the flexibility to use some of those principles online.”
Microsoft says it will eventually release software development tools so that other publications can create their own versions of the Times Reader. Test versions of the Reader will be available to Internet users this summer, the company said.
Home page image courtesy of The New York Times.