Questions for the New Design Observer

Written by Stephen Coles on July 2, 2014

I was intrigued to see the tweet yesterday announcing a new Design Observer. The venue is widely recognized as an authoritative platform for graphic design criticism, but the design of the site itself always felt a bit out of touch with the modern web. This wasn’t helped by the impression — just mine? — that its founders represent in some ways the “establishment class” of design. Whether or not that judgment is valid, the founders have a long, proven record of solid work. And much of their Design Observer writing was good. Which is why, stylistic preferences aside, I could overlook the conservative typography of Arial, Verdana, and PNGed Gotham squeezed with inconsistent spacing into narrow columns. (Heck, my own site lived on steady diet of Verdana and Georgia for seven years.) You could read the text. It worked.

A page on Design Observer before the July 2014 redesign.

A category page from the previous Design Observer, before the July 2014 redesign.

A redesign, however, offered an opportunity to embrace the modern web, to stretch out a little, to try new things, to recognize that the audience for design criticism has evolved, and so have their screens.

As I visited the new site last night, though, all I could think about was missed opportunities. Instead of stepping forward, Design Observer stepped meekly to the side.

The new Design Observer design, launched on July 1, 2014

The new Design Observer homepage, launched on July 1, 2014.

Just as before, the overall landscape of the page was fairly attractive from a birds-eye view, but things fell apart once you got closer. Elementary principles of current web design — especially typography — seemed to be ignored. At every turn, my questions mounted. How many of these missteps were conscious decisions and how many were simply overlooked? Some of them could have been the inevitable hiccups that come with any site launch, but many were fundamental choices that I just couldn’t understand. The questions weren’t answered by the anonymous blog post announcing the new site, in which “dates at the top of each article page” and “a homepage link to our Twitter feed and easy access to our social media” are mentioned as key design improvements. To be honest, the only bit of that post that really made sense to me was the wise addition of three able contributors: Véronique Vienne, Adrian Shaughnessy, and Erik Spiekermann.

I wanted to ask these questions in a comment, but the registration system (part of a new “social platform” touted as the most important addition to the site) was broken. The comment button did nothing and the register link led to a “Page not found”. Frustrated, I fired off a harsh and inarticulate tweet to @designobserver.

I immediately regretted it. Twitter is a poor medium for serious critique, and DO’s account shows that they never reply to mentions anyway.

An article page on the new Design Observer.

An article page on the new Design Observer.

So, I’m posting my questions here. I hope they are constructive. I want to see a great Design Observer because the writing (especially with the new recruits) deserves it.

  1. Why is the logo so tiny and in such low resolution? Archer’s small lowercase does not survive this treatment. With more pixel density at least Retina users could see the type as it should be seen. Update: The logo is still small, but now it’s an SVG which looks crisp and clear on my Retina display. Good move!
  2. What is this ominous warning that Chrome issues on every page load? Later answered by Richard Westenra Update: This must be resolved now because the alert no longer rears its spooky head.
  3. Why is there no margin between images and captions? The caption size is also far too small — again, especially for Archer.
  4. Why Archer for body copy? It’s a fine typeface, but it’s a tad quaint for anyone who wants to project a strong voice. And it is far too thin and monotone for long reading.
  5. Why pack so tightly the lines of some paragraphs, like those of author bios? This is especially detrimental to a delicate face like Archer, which needs room to breathe.
  6. Why on earth is there a scrolling marquee at the top of the site? This kind of useless animation navigation is strangely reminiscent of the ’90s web. Update: The marquee is gone, reducing empty space at the top of the page and bringing more of the main content above the fold. Better!
  7. The “Related” article teasers that slide in as you scroll down the page are nifty. But why do they make their appearance so near the top of the page, distracting the reader from the current post?
  8. Why is the site not responsive to screen size or pixel density? I’m sure your logs show a nontrivial percentage of visitors reading the site on their phones. And if they are not, the inflexible design may be why. (This question makes me a hypocrite. Typographica is sorely in need of a responsive update and it’s the first item on our agenda when Chris and I redesign.)

Perhaps the new Design Observer actually is embracing a new design philosophy: launch early, iterate often. One hopes. Otherwise, what was once a beacon of design thinking may slip into irrelevance.

Stephen Coles publishes Typographica and Fonts In Use, writes for type foundries, and consults with various organizations on typeface selection. He is author of the book The Anatomy of Type, and serves on the board of the Letterform Archive. He lives in his girlfriend’s home in Berlin and his cat’s home in Oakland.


  1. Max Phillips says:

    So…Véronique Vienne, Adrian Shaughnessy, and Erik Spiekermann are the fresh new faces?

  2. Nick Shinn says:

    If the goal is to reach out to a wider audience, well-known brands like Spiekermann are on strategy.

    I haven’t been approached yet as Canadian contributor. I should start tweeting.

  3. Agree! It reflects a poor design process completely ignoring the contemporary web. In an attempt to explore their archive I clicked the tiny menu in the left column and find that the archive is a search bar. What? There’s no archive. Very frustrating.

  4. erik spiekermann says:

    Max — Nobody mentioned “fresh”.

  5. Cheshire says:

    I was going to guess that they weren’t using the ScreenSmart version of Archer, but apparently they are using it for smaller type. I guess there’s a limit even to that otherwise excellent technology. Definitely too delicate for a lot of screen copy, and that left column type is probably too small in anything.

    It is incredibly surprising that the site is not designed to be responsive. I could not imagine creating a new site now that wouldn’t be so. The site may belong to giants of the not-THAT-old guard, but they’re commenting on current trends, and they had to have observed this one.

  6. Bart says:

    It’s like they made this site in the ’90s and just decided to push the button to launch it 15 years later. Really bizarre for someone like me who grew up with websites looking like that, but completely alien to younger people used to things at least looking decent on a small laptop, if not a smartphone or iPad.

    The only explanation I could think of is that everyone over there has a retina MacBook and decided that tiny type is OK again, but that still wouldn’t explain why the homepage is only scrollable within the bottom 2/3rds of the screen.

  7. Bart: actually, for those like me who use scaling on their Retina MacBook to increase screen real estate, tiny type is actually not ok because it appears even smaller than it does to everyone else. While HiDPI displays do improve the clarity of type, they are also apt to render it lighter (due to sharper antialiasing) and smaller (if the scaling is switched on).

  8. History repeats itself quickly in the world of web design – it seems like only yesterday we were lambasting Design Observer for its new–not–at–all–new design. Fast forward to 2014 and we’re making the same criticisms […]

  9. Cambridge says:

    What are the elementary principles of current web design?

  10. Cambridge — I tried to expand on that in my list of questions, but to reiterate, the most obvious principles that seemed absent from this site are: responsiveness to screen width and pixel density, larger type for navigation and captions, text-worthy webfonts for main content, sufficient line-height for small text, functional links, the ability to stay logged for future visits (longer sessions), and a launch announcement that explains the ideas and goals behind the redesign. Some of these things have been addressed, but most are still at large and it feels like the site was simply launched before it was ready.

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