Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Design notes for online journals

I have been thinking about this today and so I want to just go ahead and look at three online magazines whose design is good -- in fact pretty stand-out excellent by comparison to most online journals -- but could be better. I sort of know the editors of two of these magazines and I've had work of some kind featured in all three so I imagine the people that run these magazines will know I'm not trying to be a jerk here, just trying to offer my thoughts on how online journals generally ought to work.


I like this one the best of the three, design-wise. I'm not in love with centered text -- in fact as a rule I hate it -- but the austerity of the page is nonetheless appealing. elimae also does two key things: it shows me titles, genre and author name for each piece, and it mixes genres. These things are good practice for several reasons. For one, I like to have a reason to click one link instead of another when I look at a page -- otherwise I get overwhelmed. I personally think online magazines should make a tendency of excerpting one or two lines/sentences from every piece in their index, but giving me title, genre, and author is the next-best thing. Secondly, mixing genres in the index makes the magazine feel less like a collection of links and more like a magazine. It's tough to make decisions about how to arrange the contents of your publication, which is exactly why I appreciate when editors do it. This also relates to my general distaste for separating genres.

The main trouble for elimae comes when we go to an individual piece within an issue. The contents are very readable (nice font, nice narrow column, everything is low-key and feels manageable, no distractions) so that's not the problem. The thing is I can't go from this piece to the next in the magazine. The editors go to the trouble of arranging elimae as an actual reading experience and then they make it so you have to hit the back button, scroll down, and choose the next link if you want to read the pieces in the order they arranged them. And it really does have to be the back button, because the only clickable link on the page takes you to not to the index of the issue you're reading but rather elimae's splash page. These would be easy things to fix and I think they would enhance the reading experience a fair amount.

The Collagist

If you go to thecollagist.com you actually end up at the Dzanc Blog, which wouldn't bother me (the magazine is after all a loss-leader for the excellent Dzanc Books, and it needs to work on that level as well as it can) except that getting to The Collagist from that page is surprisingly difficult. You've got to spot a small link in an unintuitive spot in a not-beautiful red header. There should be a Collagist logo at the top right, above the other links to Dzanc projects, so I can find the site I meant to go to right away.

Okay, so now I'm at the actual magazine, and it immediately looks professional, glossy, attractive. The site has what we in the freshman comp business call ethos. But honestly it's a little cluttered. I don't mind all the Dzanc buttons on the left when we're in the index page, but they stay there when you go to a specific piece, which I find a bit distracting. Were these always here or did they come with the redesign? I Can't remember. Again, I respect the need to promote Dzanc's other products, which are great, but I wonder about taking them out of the contents pages. If I'm getting distracted enough to actually click them in the middle of a story that's probably a bad sign for the story or the design that contains it.

I wish the genres weren't cordoned from each other, for reasons I mentioned above. It makes me a less adventurous reader, it makes the different pieces feel more like links the editors enjoyed and less like a product the editors arranged. I do appreciate that the pieces are clearly arranged within a genre, however. That tells me again that it matters what order I read the materials in, which I like.

Now for more navigation nitpicking: there aren't next or back buttons here either. I want them so bad! More troubling, though, are the permanent navigation elements. I understand some of these things are technical constraints but let's be perfectionists for a moment. 1) The Collagist logo takes you back to the Dzanc frontpage. This is counter-intuitive. 2) The Table of Contents link on the left hand always takes you to the table of contents for the most recent issue, which is fine if you assume that no one is ever going to be reading a back-issue and then want to get back to the index. But I've totally done both of those things and I expect I will again in the future. 3) So actually there is literally no way for someone reading a back issue to click a link that will take them back from a given story or poem or review to the issue in which it appeared. Instead this person would have to either hit the browser's back button (assuming they started at the index, which sometimes they won't have done) or, very counter-intuitively, click the "Previous Issues" link, scroll down, and choose the issue they were in. 4) ...which they might not actually know, because nothing says which issue it's in on its page. In practice none of this is ever a huge deal but I think most of it could be fixed.


I love PANK. There are a lot of things to like about the design. When you go to pankmagazine.com you're immediately greeted by a story or poem or thing. I'm not sure how these are selected for a given day (is it just a rotation from the current month's issue?) but it's a good idea: this is a website about reading and if you go there that's what you'll do. This probably isn't a good idea for EVERYBODY  but I wonder if it shouldn't be used more often.

It's easy to get from here to the magazine index and then from there to, say, the most recent issue. This is where PANK gets into trouble. (Again, remember I love you guys!) You're greeted by literally a column of names -- names, and nothing else. This column might be, depending on your monitor's resolution, several screens tall. One of the good things about PANK is that they publish the broadest sampling of writers and writing I've seen anywhere online: new writers, experienced writers, all sorts of different styles, genres, genre-benders, and so on. But the index of a given issue does almost nothing to help you sort through all this. You could click through the contents and read them one by one, but you quickly realize they're sorted alphabetically. This is actually as far as I can tell how the majority of online magazines do it, but I think this is a really bad mistake -- it's actually worse than not sorting your contents at all, because it's actively meaningless. Reading from beginning to end under these circumstances feels ludicrous: there's just no way that's the ideal order.

We haven't got titles or excerpts or genre here either, and, to be clear, I don't actually love knowing a piece's genre before I see it, but at least that's information. The result is that I rarely manage to read a significant portion of a given issue of PANK. I feel so overwhelmed that I click a few names (one or two I recognize, one or two I don't) and then I just sort of give up. I don't know where to begin or how to approach the issue so I never quite get absorbed.

Once I click a specific piece in the issue things get much better. As in the other two magazines above, the text is entirely readable and I appreciate the lack of distractions (though I could use a little more whitespace between multiple poems by a given author). I like that we have author bios on the article pages, but that's not really a usability issue -- I just like knowing that when I get to the end of a given piece, I'll have pointers about where to find more by someone if I like what they did. I wonder if we shouldn't always have at least links to bios at the bottom, and I'm curious about putting e-mail links for authors at the end of pieces as a more general thing, which as far as I know nobody does now.

One thing PANK got right that the others missed: right there at the top of the page is a link to the index of the issue in which the piece appears. On the other hand, still no next/back buttons. I can't think of anyone who does this either but I want it so bad, and so do some people I know.


So here are some things all of the magazines I've listed got right: they are all strong magazines with strong contents presented in an attractive, professional, and above-all readable way. And this is no small thing! For me, the majority of online magazines are essentially unreadable because of ugly, unprofessional, or excessively busy presentation. This includes some of the ones that are reputed to be very good. I wouldn't know! I can't read them.

On the other hand, most online magazines are suffering from a lot of small-but-niggling navigation problems that stem in part from the blog-based content management systems most magazines prefer. It can be distractingly difficult to get from one piece of a magazine to another, especially for those of us who prefer to use a website's interface rather than our browser navigation buttons to get from place to place (which should be, as a rule, always possible).

Counter-intuitive navigation choices can undermine the cohesiveness and specialness of a magazine by making the reader feel as if different pieces within an issue are entirely separate, rather than closely related and carefully curated/arranged. It should be as easy as one click to get from one piece to the next in an issue. Two clicks, after all, is just about enough to get you anywhere online, is the distance between this blog and probably Russian car catalogs or something bizarre.

Relatedly, editors should organize their magazine's contents by something other than the alphabet. This, along with additional information (at LEAST the title, and preferably a small excerpt) will both enhance the magazine's identity as a curated, designed object and give busy readers means by which to judge which pieces in a given magazine they want to read. Almost no one will read any issue all the way through, after all, and if we don't give readers the means by which to choose the parts they like best, they won't just read everything: they'll give up.

Again, this isn't meant to pick on these magazines or others, I am mainly fascinated by this sort of design and hopeful that discussing it in a clear, precise, and critical way can help online magazines to become as readable, beautiful and special-feeling as the best of their print counterparts.


  1. I wonder about this issue of how the pieces are ordered.

    I love the opportunity print editors have to create something that's more than just the sum of its parts through how they order the texts, but does the web really work the same way? I mean do people actually read things in the order in which they are presented, or do they do something more like hunting and pecking and assembling their own magazine? I guess I mean -- does the web do the same thing to literary magazines that mp3s do to albums? I agree the index pages should be helping folks figure out how to navigate through the work being presented, I'm just wondering if the order of the texts is still the most critical thing to emphasize, if anybody actually reads like that, or if there is another way we should be thinking about it that is more web-native, web-specific or something.

  2. Well, this post is definitely partly about my personal and eccentric reading habits. I tend to read both print magazines and online magazines more or less the same way -- in order up until I hit something I don't love, then just sort of jumping around. So my suspicion is that print magazines and online magazines actually both work roughly the same way in this regard -- as you say, people sort of assemble their own magazines -- and print magazines are just a little easier, in general, to work with.

    So I don't think arrangement is as vital in online journals -- certainly it doesn't seem to be a problem for most people -- but it is for me, and for some people I know. This is definitely particular to me and my needs.

  3. This is a great post, Mike. We are actually in the process of redesigning the site and will be thinking about your ideas. We don't want to distinguish by genre but I do like the idea of including brief excerpts for each piece. Arrangement is possible in other ways but I don't know that there's an ideal solution. Anyway, I think we need, as a "community", to talk more about design and online journals.We can do better than ugly ass templates. Also, the CMS most of us are using is pretty powerful and flexible. It doesn't necessarily need to stand in the way of effective navigation, etc

  4. Thanks Roxane -- and yeah, I don't actually like arrangement by genre. Really any kind of arrangement would work for me, I think. Even if the order were randomized that would be preferable to alphabetical, which is only "neutral" to the extent that it usually screws people at the end of the alphabet.

    I will be a "consultant" for anyone working on their site in exchange for a slightly exorbitant fee. (Or high fives.)

  5. On ordering: Tim I can tell you that I am putting a lot of thought into the ordering of the first issue of The Reprint over at Zine-Scene. I've gone so far as to have two non-helpers help me, making them read the issue and then having intense discussion on the arch of the issue as a whole. And I've finalized the order no less than 10 times and it's going live monday!

    That being said, i hope, with print and online, that the content can stand alone as well as be a part of a whole.

    Mike: nice run down. I know navigation and look are what worry me the most (both for Zine-Scene and The Reprint, but especially The Reprint). Now I'm worried about how I don't only have the names appear in the TOC.

  6. wtf pwm is great with the next/back buttons but their design colors are multiple shades of blue and NOTHING ELSE! The work is also amazing...