Why Publishers Should Rethink Design

The Web, it’s often said, wasn’t built by designers but by technologists. And it shows.

This is a particular challenge for media companies. The truth of the matter is online advertising, while incredibly successful as a direct-response medium, has done little to excite brands. There’s a reason why during Internet Week the Web folks talk about getting TV dollars while across town at the Upfronts the TV folks are prepping to take billions of it from brands.

The reason for this is often, ironically, pegged to the need for more tech. Better targeting, better metrics, more efficient buying platforms are the rallying cry of the ad-tech armies. But a bigger difference might be something simpler: good design.

James Meigs, editorial director of the men’s enthusiast group at Hearst, stated flatly at The Digiday Conference yesterday, “The Web has not been a successful experience from a consumer point of view.” People actively dislike online advertising, viewing it as an unwarranted and out-of-place intrusion, he said, noting surveys that prove this. In contrast, magazine readers often see the ads as seamless with the content experience.

“Consumers hate our websites,” he said. “They don’t like the advertising on our websites. They find our websites confusing.”

This is the major challenge facing the Web. AOL has made this a rallying cry with its Project Devil effort, which it takes pains to depict as more than just big ads. It’s a way of rethinking Web design, execs say. Similarly, Say Media and others are moving to declutter publishing sites in order to make the experience better for visitors.

The mere existence of Flipboard and Instapaper is a testament to the failure of publishers to please readers with how they package their content, in Meigs’ view. Those apps are dedicated to rethinking how media is consumed — and they’re proving that there’s a need.

Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media, agreed with Meigs’ assessment, noting that starting a new digital media brand today requires sharp differentiation. That meant, in the case of Vox’s tech publication The Verge, starting with hot-shot editorial voices and also crafting an attractive site.

“Design is as critical as anything else,” he said. “A lot of orgs a/b test themselves to mediocrity and clutter.”

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