Nico Macdonald | Spy   Communication, facilitation, research and consultancy around design and technology

Design: the neglected discipline in news online
Friday May 19, 2006
Presentation given at the St Bride Library Newspaper Design Day in Fleet Street, London, addressing newspaper design and the Internet


PDF of my slides [NewsDesignDayMacdonald.pdf 7.4 MB]

  1. Reporting
  2. Annotated talk
  3. Annotated notes from discussion
  4. Event information
  5. Summary


May 23, 2006 Editorial designer Jeremy Leslie has written a comprehensive review of event on his Weblog.

June 16, 2006 D. Crossland has posted his notes from all the talks, including the Q&A sessions. He notes “I type these conference notes for personal use, pretty much stream-of-conscious style, so my pronouns get all messed up and confuse comments from the speakers and myself, and my typing is not accurate so its full of typos”.

Annotated talk


I will talk about online design, Web design, design for the Internet, and interaction and interface design. I use these terms fairly interchangeably, but I wasn’t to be clear that I don’t believe the Web – particularly not the desktop PC-based Web browser – is the future of networked and digital media.

It is also clear that the barrier between broadcast and the written word is coming down, and that designers will more and more find themselves working in multiple media.

Image: Media Guardian pod cast home page [MediaGuardianPodcastSub.jpg]


We are stuck in version 2.0 of design for online media, with the printed page still the dominant metaphor. As John Belknap has indicated, the form of a medium is shaped by the technology used to produce it. We can thus be sure that the form for online won’t be the page.

Image: typical online news page [TheTimesSportStory.jpg]

More than any other area of online design, online news design has been informed, and constrained by, print design. Sadly, it has only drawn on the most basic aspects of this rich tradition, which we have reviewed today, and not its richer and less obvious strengths.

See my chapter in Rick Poynor’s book Communicate on the indirect influence of British graphic design on design for the Web[i]

Image: CommunicateCover_120x140.jpg

As US computer scientist David Gelernter has pointed out “Space is newsprint’s domain; time is the Web's” [ii]

While print really has two dimensions, the Web also has depth of ‘pages’, as well as temporary change (both in real time and over time), and response to user interaction.

See my Communicate-related talk at the Barbican Art Gallery[iii]

See my draft article ‘A graphic lesson for digital design

In this country, with its wonderful practice of graphic design, graphic designers have not embraced interactive media to the extent their US cousins have. There are many objective reasons for this, which I addressed in an article in PRINT magazine[iv].

Image: Jessica Helfand [JessicaHelfand.jpeg]

Image: Roger Black [RogerBlack.jpg]

I believe that graphic design, and graphic designers, could inform and drive the needed developments in online design.

New news

‘Readers’ are changing, and they don’t see things as designers see them.

News design for the Internet is very different from news design in print.

Image: Newspaper reader outdoors [NewspaperReaderOutdoors.jpg] Image: Newspaper readers on subway [NewspaperReadersOnSubway.jpg] Image: New York Times front page leading on assassination of Bobby Kennedy [NYT_BobbyKennedyDead.gif]

Image: Man sitting with laptop on steps [ReadingLaptopOnStoop.jpg]

Here are some of the ways that readers (if we can still call them that) will see your editorial:

  • In PC Web browsers with basic fonts image: Times op ed piece from 2000 [TimesOpEd1.gif]
  • On small screen devices such as the Palm Treo image: Usability News Web version [UN_AllTheLatestPalm.jpg] image: Usability News opitmised for small/mobile browser [UN_AllTheLatest.jpg] image: Usability News viewed with RSS reader on mobile Palm device [UN_AllTheLatestRSSPalm.jpg]
  • As printable pages on paper with other basic fonts
  • Syndicated to an RSS ‘news’ reader image: NetNewsWire software on MacOS showing feeds from my favourite news publications [NetNewsWireNewsOrgs.jpg] image: the same story opened up in a Web browers [BBC_NewsSportStory.jpg]
  • Excerpted in Yahoo! image: MyYahoo! personal portal page [MyYahoo.jpg]
  • ‘Mashed up’ with maps and other related material image: Google Earth on MacOS X combined with BBC News in David Burden’s NewsGlobe project, created using image: Google Earth with BBC News overlay [GoogleEarthBBC_NewsMap.jpg]
  • On book-sized devices such as the Sony Reader image: Sony reader in hand [SonyReader.jpg]
  • Microsoft Times Reader, developed in conjunction with the New York Times and built on the Windows Presentation Foundation. PC-based software application for news distribution called Times Reader. Includes ability to annotate and clip documents. image: Times Reader demo [04-28timesreader.jpg]

And they come to them via:

And they discuss them in their own publishing environments, primarily Weblogs but also email lists. image: Khoi Vinh’s personal Subtraction Weblog [SubtractionLinkToObsStory.jpg.jpg]

Neglected design

Editorial dominates design, and design is neglected.

Image: mid-C20 publisher William Randolph Hearst [WilliamRandolphHearst.gif]

Image: Hearst’s screen portrayal [CitizenKane.jpg]

An interview with a member of the Web team at the Financial Times confirms that site design is lead by editorial. The team’s jobs with respect to editorial is:

“to implement what they want”, doing ‘look and feel’ around showcasing elements/sections of the site and to “make it look attractive and as easy to navigate as possible”

Customer feedback is dealt with at a higher level/steering committee.

And print and online design are disconnected: “Newspaper and Web site are different entity [entities], different skillsets, [with] little crossover”

Max Gadney, Head of Design & Audience Insight, BBC News Online notes the need for an emancipated design team, not stuck in a corner somewhere.

“It helps if there is a wing of the management team that thinks a bit differently” he says, implying that this is the case at BBC News. And on that doesn’t see designers as just cutting up photographs all day.

And there is more positive news.

Khoi Vinh, Design Director, reports of his management team that:

“They really believe design has a role to play in imagining new products. They have actively sought our involvement.”

He notes that projects are a real collaboration between design, editorial, technology, and product manager (the business side).

“When we sat at the table we were all equals”

eg: in user testing. The designers who sat at the table were stakeholders who happened to be designers. For instance in the Times Reader project or the recent site re-design.

Design and business

But innovation must be measured vs business needs, says Gadney.

And today Peter Baistow has noted that “Newspapers are there to make money for the people who own them. We are lucky we have jobs.”

But I believe that design is critical to newspapers attempt to retain the loyalty of readers.

In recent lecture given by Alan Rusbridger at the RSA, he cited the news rating site Digg, and the free classifieds site craigslist as examples of services that are profoundly challenging newspapers. But these services are poorly designed and don’t scale (imaging a millions people ‘digging’ a story). Newspapers understand design and can use it as a strategic asset.

Image: Digg front page [DiggFrontPage.jpg]

Image: craigslist for New York City [CraigsListNYC.jpg]

See also the discussion this morning with Simon Esterson and John Belknap on the impact of design on advertising and circulation, around, for instance, the monthly theme magazines produced by The Observer.

Graphic and interaction design

Interaction design is still not a natural skill, and has been a challenge for graphic design. We need to approach it more self-consciously. But graphic design could be a key inspiration for future networked media. Here are some guiding themes.

Quality of experience

When evaluating the products and services we should ask: was the users’ experience successful and satisfying? This is characterised as the ‘quality of experience’.

Image: Lauralee Alben [LauraleeAlben.gif]

Image: Quality of Experience paper[v] [QualityOfExperience.pdf]

Interaction design

Web sites are software with content. We need to think about how people understand them: what they can do, how to do a particular task, when the task has been completed, and what to do if there was an error.

For an in depth discussion of interaction design, see my article ‘Action, interaction, reaction’[vi]

Example: the International Herald Tribune site allows users to adjust the layout to multiple-columns with a simple interaction [IHT_StoryOneCol.jpg]

Understanding readers and writers

Max Gadney, of BBC News Online, comments that graphic designers are less concerned about the human impact of products, while product designers better at finding out and acting on human impact.

[Addition: This may be a product of the maturity of print, where the framework for usable ‘products’ has been in place for years.]

In the spirit of approaching the medium more self-consciously, graphic designers need to learn about and use user research, usability testing, and personas and scenarios

In the area of user research, see the Poynter Institute Eyetrack III study 2004, which was a successor the the studies undertaken by Mario Garcia and others, referred to earlier by John Belknap.

Getting technology in perspective

Graphic designers approaching the Web are too easily intimidated by technical issues and too focused on tools not techniques, process and design models.

See my article in Creative Review on subject of graphic designs relationship to interactive media[vii]

Gadney notes that the typical graphic designer is not ‘T-shaped’, referring the concept most closely associated with the founders of IDEO of designers who have broad knowledge that is deep in a particular area.


At this stage, it is important to follow a clear and agreed process. And use a variety of techniques. I always encourage Web designers to start out with a pencil and paper, for reasons Peter Baistow mentioned in the discussion following his talk.

In fact, we should think about how to design the process!

See the ‘Web design project workflow’ in my book What is Web Design?[viii]. This workflow is not fixed, but should give you a sense of how to design a process. image: Web design project workflow [FlowDiagram09.pdf]

Design challenges

Where should news designers be focusing?

Interface design

Include improving navigation and appropriately using visualisation.

Image: BBC News Online Poll tracker Image: BBC News Online Thatcher years in stats Image: the Thinkmap-based Visual Thesaurus [ThinkmapVisualize.gif] Image: BBC News Online Born Abroad [not shown]

And see C|Net’s use of LivePlasma Discovery Engine to show the context of news stories.

Cross-platform use

Supporting cross-platform access to content and context of use.

Wall Street Journal research found readers though that the perfect news Web site won’t be just a Web site. “It will literally be in the palm of our hand”[ix].

And from print to Web. How would I send a reference to this news story about Steve McClaren being appointed England football manager to a friend who might be interested in it? This seems like a realistic scenario Image: story in the printed paper [gdn_060505_spr_1_7978670.pdf] Image: story on the Guardian Web site [GuardianSportMcClarenStory.jpg]

The product and service which epitomises good thinking about cross-platform use is the iPod with its PC-based iTunes software for synching, the iTunes Music Store for buying music (and more), and the ability to share music with friends, for instance by burning it to CD. Image: iPodNanoBlack.jpg Image: iTunesMusicStore.jpg

Another example of cross-platform is the venerable Ceefax service.

User-generated content

Incorporating reader-created content and commentary (also known, rather clumsily, as ‘user-generated content’)

See the Guardian’s recently launched opinion-Weblogging site Comment is Free [not shown].

Filtering and personalisation

Representing personalisation and user recommendation

Image: New York Times forthcoming My Times service [NYT_MyTimes.jpg]

Khoi Vinh at says for My Times they are ‘building the platform’ and laying the groundwork for personalised content. This will include content from other sites and blogs.

The Wall Street Journal research reports one interviewee saying “I would like to receive only news that is news to me, not news that I have already read or heard”.

Reader manipulation

Facilitating reader manipulation of material

Max Gadney notes the importance of allowing people to manipulate information graphics, eg: election data, and find patterns for themselves, rather than having to present many different views of a large data set.

Image: BBC News Online Election maps [BBC_NewsElectionMap1.jpg]

Image: BBC News Online Election maps [BBC_NewsElectionMap2.jpg]

Image: BBC News Online Swingometer [BBC_NewsSwingometer1.jpg]

Editorial design

Developing real editorial design

Earlier today Simon Esterson noted that “Art direction is about asking what the idea is, interpreting it, and inventing something”.

At, Khoi Vinh talks about starting to see the platform element merge with the active design of the news, towards more flexible, expressive publishing. No longer shoe-horning content into a template but creating more improvisational design that responds to content on a case by case basis.

System design

Addressing meta and system design issues

For instance, error pages (‘edge cases’ in the language of scenarios)

Image: an un-designed error page from Guardian Unlimited [Guardian_GatewayErrorPage.jpg]

More generally, designers and publishers need to better understand the real people using their publications – including their own staff.

Real innovation

A respondent to the Wall Street Journal research noted that “Your reporters… find out all sorts of things when writing an article or cover a business, but these don't always fit into the form of a news article. They should be dumped into an encyclopedia.”

Designers should be going beyond expectations and thinking in non-lateral ways about news publishing.

Bigger challenges

Convening communities

As the My Times project demonstrates, community is becoming more important to publishers as a way of retaining reader loyalty.

Internationalisation and localisation

For new countries and markets

See John Belknap’s examples of newspapers from around the world, in different language including non-Roman scripts.

Advertising and marketing

Allowing for more promotional slots and tying things in with marketing/promotion

And as Peter Baistow noted this morning, “Make sure you get to see the ads!”.

Creating greater expression

Overcoming the limitations of current tools and formats to allow for greater expression.

Accessibility issues

With greater audiences and, in the case of the BBC, pressure to include all audiences, basic issues of aaccessibility for people with learning difficulties, and physical and motor limitations, will become more important.

Taking a lead

Designers needs to take more of a lead the future of publishing, and design needs to promote innovation over Darwinian evolution.

They should also focus on understanding the bigger picture, such as the social trends that are shaping news consumption and creation.

It could also take more of a lead in the area of system development, such as pushing meta data development.

Graphic designers have an important role to play here.


Practise, don’t preach’ Nico Macdonald, Creative Review, September 2005

[i]British Web Design: a brief history’ in Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties [information on], Rick Poynor (ed.) (Laurence King Publishing/Yale University Press, 2004)

[ii] Quote from article ‘The Next Great American Newspaper’ David Gelernter, The Weekly Standard, June 23, 2003

[iii] Nico Macdonald: 4D space: from aesthetics to interaction in Web design, 8 December 2004 (Barbican Art Gallery, London)

[iv]British Evasion’ Nico Macdonald, PRINT, LVIII:VI, November/December 2004. How they missed the boat in yet another revolution led by the Americans.

[v] See the paper Quality of Experience: Defining the criteria for effective interaction design Lauralee Alben, interactions, volume III3; may + june 1996, pp. 11-15

[vi]Action, interaction, reaction’ Nico Macdonald, Blueprint, August 2001. Overview of interaction design, including an extensive reference section.

[vii]In with the New’ Nico Macdonald, Creative Review, September 2004, pp49-52

[viii] pp164-165 in What is Web Design? Nico Macdonald (RotoVision, 2003)

[ix]The Perfect News Site 2016, Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2006

Annotated notes from discussion

To come on request. Please reply accordingly.

Event information

Information on the Newspaper Design Day on the St Bride Library site.

The other speakers and themes were Peter Baistow on newspaper design history, John Belknap (replacing Ally Palmer) on newspaper redesigns, Guardian creative director Mark Porter (subject to be confirmed), Paul Barnes on the new Guardian and Observer typefaces, and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on the editor’s perspective.

This event is of particular interest considering the decline of trust in newspapers, the rise of ‘reader-generated content’, developments in editorial and reproduction technologies, the pressure on newspaper business models, and (of course) the impact of digital and networked media.

Tickets cost £50 (£35 for students).


We are stuck in version 2.0 of design for online media, with the printed page still the dominant metaphor. Editorial dominates design, and design is neglected. Meanwhile, readers arrive at stories via Yahoo!, read articles syndicated using RSS in ‘news readers’, and discuss them in their own Weblogs. Design is critical to newspapers attempt to retain the loyalty of readers. Challenges include improving navigation and appropriately using visualisation; supporting cross-platform access to content; incorporating reader-created content and commentary; representing personalisation and user recommendation; facilitating reader manipulation of material; developing real editorial design; and addressing meta and system design issues. More generally, designers and publishers need to better understand the real people using their publications – including their own staff. Above all, design solutions need to be successful and satisfying for their intended audiences. Designers needs to take more of a lead the future of publishing, and design needs to promote innovation over Darwinian evolution.

Last updated:
Nico Macdonald | Spy 2006