Taking Stock of the Message that Emerges

[August 19, 2010]

[This post reflects the state of the sites discussed at the time. The issues raised are still relevant to the discussion of digital financial advertising in the US.]

Of the finance-oriented sites I’ve examined so far, both PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Goldman Sachs do a better job than most of conveying their respective vision. Of course, it helps that they both might actually have a vision for the future of finance as it relates to the global economy. 

Leaving aside whether one likes everything about that vision—and given recent events, there’s plenty of room for doubt—in terms of presentation and scope, each site in its own way offers far more than “investment tips.” 

Not that global ambition is in itself a driving force behind effective Web design. There are plenty of smaller sites built by smaller entities that are equally effective. The key ingredient is the realization that digital space speaks to consumers in its own unique idiom. And the key to grasping that idiom lies in understanding its essential fluidity.

Because a good Web site, like an ecologically healthy river, is always in motion, always teeming with life, always ready to reward an explorer’s keen eye.

A few decisions taken by the designers of either site automatically cleared the way for a more satisfying experience than can be had at e-trade.com or schwab.com. As an outgrowth, I assume, of a positioning based on the concept of “breadth of service/breadth of vision,” each site is organized around wide swaths of uncluttered space. 

Even on a purely text-based page, for example, the PriceWaterhouseCoopers site creates a feeling of inhabiting a wider world. At the same time, the site is responsive, in the sense that user selections impact the look of the page. On an interior page of the careers section, a flash animation responds to your area of interest by darkening the other options.

Nothing’s new until it’s done right.
Not that these technologies were just invented yesterday. But the artful way they’re put to use is something new, precisely because, for a change, it serves a creative vision. Swing back to the home page and see how the menu selections beneath the marquee respond to mouse over. Yes, it’s a small thing but, like many a human social gesture, it means a lot, because it acknowledges your presence. 

And in a world where, increasingly, one is told the individual does not matter, in an economy where many people feel extremely “replaceable,” the fact that the site seems to notice you’re there is a subliminal inducement to keep the conversation going.

Delve deeper into the site for even more responsive pages. These little participatory cues not only encourage interaction, they create an aura of intelligence and give the site a distinct personality. It becomes less of an information center and more of a presence.

While it achieves these same aims in different ways, goldmansachs.com seems to arise from a similar train of thought. Here the same feeling of breadth is achieved even more fully, with screen-spanning images and navigation that gets beyond the top bar and the button.

Though rectangles are everywhere, this is one of the least boxed-in sites I’ve seen. From the full screen image on the home page to the continued use of sweeping views throughout the site, the sense of global perspective and encompassing vision radiates out long before any copy block might appear saying, “At Goldman Sachs, Global is Our Middle Name.”

And to an even greater extent than pricewaterhousecooper.com, the GS site is responsive. Big, broad context menus sprout on every page at the top and, in a few places, users can conveniently choose the level of detailthey want to absorb on a given topic. 

Not enough of a good thing.
While the copy on neither site is particularly exciting or original, it at least has the distinction of avoiding, for the most part, the sing-songy hucksterism (“Get a great rate on a great loan for the holidays”) or pretentious palaver of textbook copywriting.

What it lacks in both cases, is endemic to our largely illiterate age: the flexibility to speak in more than one voice. As it stands, expertly edited into a not entirely earned crispness, the copy on both sites at least has the momentum to carry each page forward into the next. 

All that’s missing is the variable, unpredictable element that, at least for now, still distinguishes human intelligence from the emerging artificial kind. In their striving for “objectivity,” which flat out does not exist, both sites lose a powerful advocate for their profession at a time of grave doubt. Are the decisions made at such firms made by human beings? A visit to these sites neither confirms nor denies that rumor.

In any case, the real message isn’t expressed in words directly, but emerges convincingly from the total impact of every element of these sites, acting in concert as no other presentation medium can. I promised myself I wouldn’t call the effect “symphonic,” so I won’t. But the temptation is just about overwhelming.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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