Are You Building a Wall-E Web Site?

[October 29, 2010]

Glossy print lifestyle magazines are a languorous holdover from what we laughably call “a simpler time.” Before the wide distribution of Color TV, the ambiance created by luscious splashes of color, the artistic selection of type fonts and the careful juxtaposition of retouched photos helped many a middle-class American oooh and aaah themselves to sleep after a hard day in what we laughably call “the real world.”

Yet today, the digital heirs of these glossy rags show no awareness of ambiance or its impact. Take a quick look at RealSimple.com and see how the utter lack of unity creates a free-for-all of disorienting clashes. Yeah, I get the part about the navigation arranged in neat little bars at the top, not to mention the category-verifying-rollover-slide-down menus. It’s as neat and tidy as a California closet on a Sunday afternoon in March.

But let me be the first to point out that mere orderliness is a poor substitute for high level organization.

Fact is, there’s no relationship between the article titles and their placement, size or weight on the page. In the absence of a thematic, unifying ambiance (“pastel” is not a theme), the home page resembles a pajama-party scrap book far more than a captivating, motivating environment. At best it feeds off the expectation created by the magazine’s offline version.

Engagement amongst the ruins?
Sure, someone has worked hard to dig out tidbits of cozy couture and household hedonism but where’s the big picture—and what’s there to revel in? Clicking through these pages it’s hard not to feel like a hapless scavenger from another era.

Strewn in amongst a random stack of stills, there’s a dissociated rubble of empty phrases, whose only reason for living is to avoid giving offense. And since none of the design elements convey any subliminal content of their own, let alone emotional context for the text, all I find here is page after page of tips and catalog copy, delivered for the most part without humor, point-of-view, wisdom or any other human attribute users might actually value.

Yes, there are articles, and yes, some present a snapshot POV on a targeted topic. But like every other element of the site, they appear behind glass, gem-like, siloed with no cumulative effect.

“Soft goat cheese is lower in lactose than cow’s-milk cheeses,” we learn in a self-contained snippet under Diet & Nutrition. I didn’t know that. Maybe it will help me the next time I’m engaged in conflict resolution.

OK, maybe you think I’m just not womanly enough to appreciate Real Simple.com. Well, there are solid grounds for that assumption, and I’ll thank you to keep that in mind. But let’s have a look at MensJournal.com and see if I can connect any better over there.

Hmm. Same problem, just uglier: Box after box of article lead-ins and, like RealSimple.com, no video, no animation, no data feeds, nothing to justify the creation of an online counterpart to the print experience.

Now, as it happens, during the course of what I laughably call “my career,” I’ve actually spent quite a few hours paging through the print version of Real Simple and I have to say it comes pretty close to being an aesthetic experience. Offline, several complex processes come together to create an airy, peaceful feel that makes even my spartan taste buds dream of a dreamier life.

But digital space, if you don’t mind my saying so, is a different medium, requiring more than the literal transfer of a print-based design strategy. 

Stuffed with content! (Digital taxidermy?)
But considering I’m not the target audience for RealSimple.com, why do I care? Because it raises issues I find relevant across all online genres. I’m talking about the nearly universal adoption of a “design-and-fill” strategy for digital production. Leaving aside the fact that much of the design is atrocious, this approach grows out of a failure to grasp a key principle of communication:

Everything you present to consumers is content.

Whether it’s word, font, color, texture, photo, video or illustration—all of it says something to your audience, and all of it must stay on message. So before building text blocks, downloading design templates and choosing an open source CMS, stop yourself. Later for the Ajax conversation, Dude. Great Web sites are created, not constructed.

That means you first have to know what you want to say and and, by the way, why you want to say it. Nail that down and the rest will follow naturally, provided you’ve spent your money wisely—on limitless talent, not endless PowerPoint presentations.

In the case of RealSimple.com, MarthaStewart.com, MensJournal.com, or hundreds of others, the design elements exist solely to allow users access to text that is…well don’t get me started.

Because long before you should worry about your Web presence at the nerdy-wordy level, you need a clear message platform. Skip that step and your whole enterprise will descend to the level of its most trivial components, as in “10 Silly Halloween Costumes for Pets.” Tell me, Oh Hip. Savvy and Sagacious Editor: Is that your brand?


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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