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Walkerart.org Design Notes #1

As you’ve likely seen, we recently launched a brand new, long overdue redesign of our web presence. Olga already touched on the major themes nicely, so suffice it to say, we’ve taken a major step towards reconceptualizing the Walker as an online content provider, creating another core institutional offering that can live on its own […]

As you’ve likely seen, we recently launched a brand new, long overdue redesign of our web presence. Olga already touched on the major themes nicely, so suffice it to say, we’ve taken a major step towards reconceptualizing the Walker as an online content provider, creating another core institutional offering that can live on its own as an internationally-focused “digital Walker,” instead of something that merely serves the local, physical space.

We largely started from scratch with the user experience and design of the site; the old site, for all its merits, had started to show its age on that front, being originally designed over six years ago – an eternity in web-years. That said, we’re still traditionalists in some ways where new media design is concerned, and took a really minimal, monochromatic, print/newspaper-style approach to the homepage and article content. So in a way, it’s a unique hybrid of the old/time-tested (in layout) and new/innovative (in concept and content), hopefully all tempered by an unadorned, type-centric aesthetic that lets the variety of visuals really speak for themselves.

Our inspiration was a bit scattershot, as we tried to bridge a gap between high and low culture in a way reflective of the Walker itself. Arts and cultural sites were obviously a big part (particularly Metropolis M and it’s wonderful branded sidebar widgets), but not so much museums, which have traditionally been more conservative and promotionally-driven. With our new journalistic focus, two common touchstones became The New York Times’ site and The Huffington Post – with the space in between being the sweet spot. The former goes without saying. The latter gets a bad rap, but we were intrigued by it’s slippery, weirdly click-enticing design tricks and general sense of content-driven chaos enlivened by huge contrasts in scale. The screaming headlines aren’t pretty, but they’re tersely honest and engaging in an area where a more traditional design would introduce some distance. And the content, however vapid, is true to its medium; it’s varied and easily digestible. (See also Jason Fried’s defense of the seemingly indefensible.)

Of course, we ended up closer to the classier, NYT side of things, and to that end, we were really fortunate to start this process around the advent of truly usable web font services. While the selection’s still rather meager beyond the workhorse classics and a smattering of more gimmicky display faces (in other words, Lineto, we’re waiting), really I’m just happy to see less Verdana in the world. And luckily for us, the exception-to-the-rule Colophon Foundry has really stepped up their online offerings lately – it’s Aperçu that you’re seeing most around the site, similar in form to my perennial favorite Neuzeit Grotesk but warmer, more geometric, and with a touch of quirk.

Setting type for the web isn’t without it’s issues still, with even one-point size adjustments resulting in sometimes wildly different renderings, but with careful trial-and-error testing and selective application of the life-saving -webkit-font-smoothing CSS property, we managed to get as close as possible to our ideal. It’s the latter in particular that allows us elegant heading treatments (though only visible in effect to Safari and Chrome): set to antialiased, letterforms are less beholden to the pixel grid and more immune to the thickening that sometimes occurs on high-contrast backgrounds.

It’s not something I’d normally note, but we’re breaking away from the norm a bit with our article treatments, using the more traditional indentation format instead of the web’s usual paragraph spacing, finding it to flow better. It’s done using a somewhat complex series of CSS pseudo-elements in combination with adjacent selectors – browser support is finally good enough to accomplish such a thing, thankfully, though it does take a moment to get used to on the screen, strangely enough. And we’re soon going to be launching another section of the site with text rotation, another technique only recently made possible in pure CSS. Coming from a print background, it’s a bit exciting to have these tools available again.

Most of the layout is accomplished with the help of the 960 Grid System. Earlier attempts at something more semantically meaningful proved more hassle than they were worth, considering our plethora of more complex layouts. We’ve really attempted something tighter and more integrated than normally seen on the web, and I think it’s paid off well. That said, doing so really highlighted the difficulties of designing for dynamic systems of content – one such case that reared it’s head early on was titles in tiles (one of the few “units” of content used throughout the site).

A tricky issue at first considering our avoidance of ugly web aesthetics like fades (and artificial depth/dimensionality, and gradients, and drop shadows…), but one eventually solved with the implementation of our date treatments, whose connecting lines also function nicely as a cropping line – a tight, interlocking, cohesive system using one design element to solve the issues of another. We’ve tried to use similar solutions across the site, crafting a system of constraints and affordances, as in the case of our generated article excerpts:

Since we’re losing an element of control with freeform text fields on the web and no specific design oversight as to their individual display, we’ve chosen to implement logic that calculates an article title’s line-length, and then generates only enough lines of the excerpt to match the height of any neighboring articles. It’s a small detail for sure, but we’re hoping these details add up to a fine experience overall.

Anyway, there’s still more to come – you’ll see a few painfully neglected areas here and there (our collections in particular, but also the Sculpture Garden and to a lesser extent these blogs), but they’re next on our list and we’ll document their evolution here.

Process/miscellany