Questions for the New Design Observer

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 critique, but the design of the site itself always felt a bit out of touch with the modern web. This wasn’t helped by the notion — is it just mine? — that its founders represent in some ways the “establishment class” of the design field. Whether or not that judgment is valid, the founders have a long, proven record of good work. And much of their Design Observer writing was good, too. 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 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 critique has evolved, and so have their screens.

Instead, as I visited the new site last night, all I could think was that this opportunity was missed. Instead of stepping forward, DO stepped meekly to the side.

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” which is touted as the most important addition to the site) was broken. The comment button did nothing and the register link lead to a “Page not found”. So, instead, 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.

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.
  2. What is this ominous warning that Chrome issues on every page load? (Later answered by Richard Westenra.)
  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.
  7. 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 phone. 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.
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