A thought struck me today, as I came across yet another page of the web starting with a full-bleed image with text on it, that what web design over the past two to three years has been slowly doing, is starting to try and turn the generally crappy designs we've seen of web pages of the past, into something more akin to the art directed pages of a magazine.
The opening shot of Choke Point of a Nation: The High Cost of an Aging River Lock by the NYT, with its gorgeous title and lede, sets the tone of what's to come, as well as providing an arresting introduction. It is, in short, beautiful.
It's easy to compare this to something like the Vogue Centenary Edition cover - a beautiful photo, simple, effective text, and not much else.
Further down though, things continue as you'd expect for a piece of long form journalism on the web. We've got a single column of text, not too narrow, not too wide, nice little visual inserts and photo galleries, more glorious, large images... All the things you'd expect to see.
But whilst it's good, it'd be hard to call it truly excellent. . As with so much of what's put on the web, it seems like the time and effort required to make this amazing wasn't deemed as being worthwhile. This is not a dig at the NYT; their digital content, when they try, is frequently amongst the best on the web. And we must not forget Snowfall, which really was the first piece of digital journalism to put all the pieces together into something truly special, even by today's standards. The company also continue to invest in ground-breaking reporting, with their virtual reality content pieces for smartphones and Google Cardboard/Google Daydream.
However, it's hard not to compare what's being done here to print, and it's here that we see how far the web still has to go to catch up with print. Whilst the initial impact of the frontispiece is excellent, the rest lets it down somewhat. If we look at what's inside Vogue, we see this attention to detail and beautiful imagery continues.
This kind of detail just doesn't exist on the web. Endless gorgeous imagery, content and adverts so considered that they blend to produce advertising so evocative that one can't help but be enamoured by what's being hawked. Dozens of photo shoots, tireless hours of editing. Days spent studying the content to ensure the order works just so. A launch event with the great and the good of the art, fashion and celebrity worlds. A photography exhibition. And yet, whilst the launch and associated events might have been one-off pieces, the rest is just another day at the office.
The attention to detail, the care, the pursuit of the perfect photo... The creation of all the assets to make certain the reader stays engaged. It's something we just don't bother with regularly enough when it comes to the web. However, it does seem as if slowly but surely, it's improving. With people like the NYT, the New Yorker, the Vox Media properties and The Guardian steadily producing ever richer and more fleshed out content, it does seem like slowly but surely, we're getting towards something better.
In the end, we may see print living on if not in material, then in spirit and format on the web. And surely that's something to be celebrated.
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