Cheer up, Gawker readers! On the plus side, the redesign of the popular blog network offers users a thought-provoking new way to experience news. On the down side? The design itself sends these websites headlong into an identity crisis.
Innovative enough to change the way I read news
Normally, when I read a news website, I spot headlines that interest me and open them in a new tab in the background. Then I find another headline, and open that tab in the background. Before long, I have an entire row of tabs, all lined up, ready for me to read.
That works great for a traditional web page, but the concept of web applications represents a promise to users, that web pages don’t have to feel like web pages. This promise challenges designers to break from old traditions, and imagine new ways for users to interact with online content.
Gawker’s redesign succeeds at this very well, by dedicating a the majority of its column grid to content—all the time. The right hand column is devoted to navigation between articles, and it horizontally scrolls—much in the same way modern email clients use a narrow, scrollable column to display a list of emails, or Google Wave lists a user’s waves. The article listing may have been more intuitive to users if it lived at the left, but I can imagine a designer pitched that idea at least once, ant it was shot down.
At any rate, the end result of this innovation is that I no longer open Kotaku articles in individual tabs. I spot a headline I like, I read the blog post right away, then I continue to scroll down the list. Kotaku now only lives in one tab, and the activity of reading posts on Kotaku feels more streamlined and efficient than ever before.
Form should follow function
Unfortunately, all of the redesign’s strengths are overshadowed by too many fundamental graphic design decisions completely neglecting the fact that these sites are where people go to have fun. The serif type face for body copy tries to present the sites’ content as more serious than it actually is. Big graphics attempt to add impact to content that benefits more from a concise punchline.
Between ads and these big graphics, the content often ends up occupying an embarrassingly small amount of screen real estate. One morning, I literally took a screen shot of how Kotaku appeared on first impression, made some measurements in Photoshop, and busted out a calculator. Body copy took up 12 percent of the layout. Ads took up 25 percent. It’s bad enough that the ads took twice as much real estate as copy, but the truth is, there was a giant graphic for a post with very, very little content.
Even more frustrating: I can’t copy a URL from a Gawker site an post it as a link on Facebook. Sure, I can click a “share on Facebook” link on my favorite Gawker site, and post it to my own wall, but I often prefer to post a link to the wall of a specific friend. That way, I can suggest to that friend that I’m interested in their comment, and I also limit the number of people who see the post to just me, that friend, and our mutual friends.
I love Kotaku, and I like Nick Denton’s innovative spirit, but this redesign makes me think of George Takei’s description of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Naked Now” when he said it looked like “young children putting on their parents’ clothes and trying to act like grown-ups.” These sites make information consumption fun. Gawker shouldn’t ruin the fun by taking itself too seriously.