The Gawker redesign misfire

After months of planning, Gawker Media’s massive redesign was released to the public a week ago. Founder Nick Denton declared the changes to be “an evolution of the very blog form”, strong words from the influential entrepreneur.

In response I took a closer look, and after a week of heavy use across several of Gawker Media’s sites (Kotaku, Gizmodo and Lifehacker) I’ve concluded the redesign is a disaster: Gawker takes a shockingly old media approach to a very new media subject matter, largely ignoring the browse and scroll-heavy tendencies of web users in a desperate grab for page views and ad buys. If this is the solution, in Denton’s words, to “the bankruptcy of the classic blog column”, I shudder for web journalism’s future.

Below, a more thorough breakdown of my four largest problems with Gawker’s redesign.

The two column layout is now claustrophobic.

Since blogging’s early days, a two column layout with one column for main content and a sidebar column for secondary information has generally been the medium’s most popular. Part of its appeal stems from the format’s natural balance; the user is presented with relevant information and links (and in the case of commercial sites, ads) in the sidebar up top, and as the user scrolls down, secondary content moves offscreen. This action in turn reduces clutter and keeps the user focused on the main content.

Not so under Gawker’s umbrella. Instead, the secondary column follows the user as the page is scrolled up and down, remaining fixed to the right side of the screen which keeps the overall experience very crowded. The fixed column is also harkens back to the the earlier days of web design where HTML frames were popular, giving the entire site a very dated, mid to late 1990s vibe.

Large and poorly placed ads mar content readability.

In addition to the aforementioned sidebar ad, most articles have a single large ad placed right in the middle of article’s text, squeezing text content to a narrow section less than 300 pixels wide. The additional ad makes the article less readable while at the same time feeling crassly commercial. It’s true other sites like Slate also put ads directly in the body copy as well, but the ads are generally small with extra padding and spacing around the content text to maximize paragraph flow.

The sidebar is unintuitive and hard to navigate effectively.

Denton’s likens the new sidebar of chronological post listings to the “headline pane in a feed reader or Apple’s email app on the iPad.” What Denton clearly fails to grasp is good feed readers and applications like Apple Mail and Reeder have comprehensive taxonomy and a clear direction. For example, Reeder’s listings add a date and time stamp on every link, and when scrolling, both Apple Mail and Reeder display a scrollbar to show the user’s relative vertical position.

Gawker’s sidebar design has none of this. Scrolling up and down through content is at first glance unintuitive, limited by web standards (mouse wheel scrolling and two small up/down buttons at the bottom only) and often fails to convey to the user where he or she is chronologically in the article list. Timestamps only appear on certain posts, and then contain only the rough time (e.g. ‘3:00 AM’, ‘6:00 PM’.) In addition, the sidebar has such little vertical space there is rarely room for more than two or three articles at a time, making a scan through a large number of articles to be a slow, cumbersome process.

The color and typographic scheme of the sites are drab and largely indistinguishable from one another.

It’s ironic that Gawker, an organization that prides itself on being so edgy and hip in comparison to old media like the New York Times has a palette and typography just as staid. Kotaku had a once distinctive tan and purple color scheme while Lifehacker favored accents of taupe and green. Now every site has the same mixture of white and off-white backgrounds, black text and links in a single primary color. Arguably a professional, well tested strategy, but still very played out in modern web design.

Moving to typography, every Gawker site has Georgia for body and headline copy, along with accents of the sans-serif Proxima Nova on the periphery. Don’t get me wrong, both Georgia and Proxima are solid choices with excellent readability, but where’s the sense of whimsy and site distinctiveness? At the least I’d prefer some of the creativity and font hierarchy that sites like Engadget and Joystiq employ. Again, Denton is playing his hand too safe in what I see as an attempt to court respectability among advertisers.