March 16th, 2011
Gosh it’s a long time since I blogged. So long, in fact, that I forgot my Wordpress login. Since I left the Guardian and started the studio we have been working so hard on projects that blogging has been sadly forgotten. And of course, Twitter seems to have taken over (@IamMarkPorter if you don’t follow me), but being long-winded by nature, the 140 character limit is real pain for me sometimes. So I hope to mix it up a bit more in the future.
One of the projects that been keeping me busy (and had me spending a lot of time in the SAS lounge at Terminal 3) is the redesign of the Svenska Dagbladet website which goes live tomorrow.
We didn’t do the full design, but I’ve been consulting for them since last autumn, working with site editor Fredric Karén, innovation editor Ola Henriksson, and SVD’s scarily accomplished art director Anna Thurfjell. Anna did most of the heavy lifting; my input was more on process and principles, and critiquing and making suggestions about her work — although we also made a lot of design decisions together when I was in Stockholm.
Svenska Dagbladet is the second paper in its market (to Bonnier’s Dagens Nyheter). In print DN is still way ahead, but in digital, SVD are snapping at their heels. From my years at the Guardian I know that number 2 or 3 in your market is a great position to innovate from, and SVD has a culture of ambition and risk-taking which has seen print sales growing against world trends, and web traffic booming. It has a loyal audience of young liberal users, mainly in the Stockholm region.
The site was last redesigned in 2007, and since then Anna had revamped and sharpened up the visual identity of the print product, so the site was lagging way behind. The aim this time was to create something more usable and engaging and grow traffic, but also to reflect the confident print identity, and carry the SVD visual langauge through into the digital world.
From tomorrow (March 17th) you’ll be able to see the results for yourself here. As with any first release, I expect the odd rough edge, but I’m excited about this project for three reasons.
1) Web type.
At the heart of Anna’s redesign of the printed paper was a new custom typeface family — Sueca — from Mario Feliciano. One of the first decisions we made was that the display fonts for the new site had to be in Mario’s fonts, Sueca serif, Sueca sans and Sueca slab.
This launched us on a fascinating journey of discovery about the technicalities of webfonts, and — in particular — HINTING! Hinting is something I’ve been trying to get to grips with for years, and it’s one of those subjects where the more you know, the better you understand how much you don’t know (if you’re starting from scratch this is a pretty good place to begin).
After some deliberation, we decided that the effort and expense involved in doing the text in Sueca was disproportionate; it didn’t perform any better than Georgia/Arial, and most users wouldn’t be able to spot the difference. So hinting was less crucial than it might have been.
But we were using some of the bespoke type at around 15px and unhinted in Windows it was looking awful. We investigated the options, and soon discovered that hinting really is a black art. There seems to be no limit on what you can pay for it, and no guarantee of the quality of the work you get back. In the end we concluded that at the sizes we were using the fonts (mainly well above 20px) an economical autohinting soultion was adequate.
Anyway, it’s thrilling to see Mario’s fonts all over this site, and they really do bring the spirit and flavour of the SVD print design to the web. Somebody may correct me, but as far as I’m aware this is the first major newspaper site which uses webfonts throughout (above text size at least).
2) Breaking the Scandinavian model.
When I researched the Scandinavian news sites, I was surprised to see how different they are from the conventions in place in most other countries. They have all tended to follow a model which was established in Norway (I think) where the front page is one apparently endless stack of undifferentiated headlines and pictures.
The iconic example is vg.no; the first time you see it, there’s something quite exciting about the big chaotic type and thousands of images, but as you scroll down it quickly becomes exhausting. The Swedish sites tend to be a little more disciplined, with 2 or 3 vertical columns, but still with up to 20 screens of stacked headlines and pictures with little attempt to organise the content. Because it’s the local convention, users are accustomed to it and don’t complain, but from the outside — even if you don’t understand Swedish — it’s an obvious usability nightmare.
One or two other newspapers have started breaking out of this convention, but the svd.se redesign takes a a brave decision to buck the trends. Organising information is an obsession of mine and possibly the most crucial thing I do in my work, so I was delighted to be able to work with the team on developing a structure for the front page and section fronts which plays to Svenska Dagbladet’s strengths (especially their great Business & Culture coverage) and organises the content in a coherent way, while remaining newsy and flexible.
3) Identity & branding.
Pretty much everyone understands now how important it is to leverage the reputations of our newspaper brands in the digital world. There are so many sources on the web for news and comment that the only USP most newspapers have is their quality and authority and the trust readers have in them. In essence, the online presence of a newspaper is just a load of text and other assets, and if the content is being consumed through — say — an RSS reader, that’s all you get.
But for now at least, our own sites are still a destination for users and I firmly believe that design can help us express the values of the organisation on the web as we do in print, and creating a consistent identity across different platforms helps users maintain an emotional relationship with our brands. In practice this is about the whole UX — organisation, architecture, UI & visual design. But it’s also about nomenclature.
The old site was branded as “SVD”, a familiar contraction of the full name which is used in some parts of the paper too. But the new titlepiece will have the full title of the newspaper “Svenska Dagbladet” in a redrawn version of the beautiful Forsberg typeface originally created for the paper in 1960 by Swedish typographer Karl Erik Forsberg. The Forsberg font is also used for section headers throughout, and it has a strong classical flavour that brings a powerful sense of SVD heritage to the site.
Of course it’s not just about type; the new design also reflects SVD’s approach to editing, pictures and infographics, and finally gives them an online presence which combines their strengths in print with their digital vision.
It’s been a terrific project and a lot of fun. I’ve spent a lot of time with some great people and eaten some memorable meals in the best restaurants in Stockholm! It’s just a shame that I worked in Sweden from October until February — temperatures were down to -17 and I hardly ever saw the sun. Next time, I’d like to work in the summer please.