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Unsolicited Redesigns (Khoi Vinh responds to NYTimes redesign) (subtraction.com)
148 points by prawn on July 29, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments

What I find ironic is that when Pump was posted, the alternate to WSGI - everybody jumped on the author and trashed everything about it.

Meanwhile some designer suggests that the New York Times trash their entire business and turn it into an ugly looking blog (with padding!) and it gets 500 upvotes.

At least the Pump/WSGI proposal was genuine interest and enthusiasm and not condescending.

This is a total repeat of the American Airlines redesign thread [1], which everybody should be familiar with. Some things are the way they are for good reason, and the reasons are usually very good when you are referring to a successful product or a billion-dollar company.

[1] http://www.dustincurtis.com/dear_dustin_curtis.html

It's ironic, but predictable.

A site full of hackers is good at picking apart a naive technical idea... not so much a naive design idea.

The bigger irony is if you had these discussions on news.ydesigninator.com, the designers would have no opinion at all on the code, because they would realize that they know nothing. But with visual arts, it's easy for us programmers to bike-shed and act like we know something.

naive is the perfect term. Rutledge's ideas about what news should be are quite naive, in fact. Of course good journalists should adhere to strict ethical standards, but all that stuff about how popularity should have no basis, and that "editorial" is a bogeyman? Sounds like he has little context for what news has been in our democracy, and/or just an idealistic worldview. There has never been a crisp line, and it's dangerous to imagine there could be.

I think the best designers get this "real world" aspect of news. Hopefully same goes for you programmers.

Having worked for a couple billion-dollar companies, I am pretty sure you are giving them too much credit.

Why do you say that? It seems fairly certain that if NYTimes one day looked like a blog, then their revenue would dry up. It would scare away a lot of people, such as my dad, who don't like change and who don't care about whether a website has rounded corners.

On the other hand, Facebook has forced some fairly annoying changes with their chat interface, news feed and friend/group management. Maybe people won't be scared away that easily (put off is another story).

>Facebook has forced some fairly annoying changes with their chat interface

They didn't force that change, you can just turn it off.

How can you turn it off?

I don't really remember but when it appeared there was an option button/link and I followed it and one option is to switch off the sidebar. Never use messaging really.

Looking just now I have the old style tab, if I click it the sidebar pops open, there's a "cog" for settings in the bottom right corner. IIRC you have to set yourself as "unavailable" to all and then use the cog to select "hide sidebar". Try that.

Hm, I think we had a slight disconnect in our topic!

In the last week or two, Facebook changed their messaging UI so that you cannot get a list of all your buddies that are online to chat (it guesses who you would care to see) among other mostly cosmetic changes. AFAIK there is no way to use the chat UI that was available a month ago now (or see if a particular person is online unless you specifically type in their name).

Indeed. I don't think there is a way to get back the scrolling list of who is online at present - but like I say I never IM people on FB.

I am completely unqualified to say anything about both the NYTimes and website design for news. I simply am stating that many decisions made at billion dollar companies do not have as much thought put into them as you might expect.

Not condescending? Maybe just because there's less text.

>What WSGI should have been.

That sentiment goes through nearly the entire page. And it's the same problem. But yes, it attracts more critique here because (I'd imagine) the majority of vocal ones here are less designery and more programmery.

It was upvoted many times, but the resulting discussion was, I think, mostly critical of the redesign.

When Andy's link was first posted here it struck a nerve with many people, especially myself (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2806257).

The big problem that myself and many others have with Andy is that he is a professional. He is known in web standards and design circles. He builds web sites.

The big point here: He has been on the other side of the design process (I presume) explaining to people why things were built the way they were.

In Andy's "redux" he seems to forget this. Blatantly. Thats not to say he isn't right on some obvious things (the Times left-navigation on the Homepage) but for almost everything else he was pretty damn disparaging and ignorant of the process that churns out the end result. To a shocking level IMHO.

What Khoi is saying here is a very level-headed and polite response to Andys redesign. (BTW Andy himself says it wasn't so much a redesign, more like "I examined pressing issues for digital news").

If it had been a graduate who did the "redux" I would have smiled and said, "Come back in a few years working in the real world and you'll see things differently". So I was a little shocked that this came from someone like Andy.

Background Info: Khoi joined the Times in late 2005 or so. At that time the redesign for the NYT was well underway so he was not responsible for the look-and-feel that emerged. For the most part he has been trying to improve on the legacy he inherited - the Sectionfront and Article layouts, the Navigation bars on the Homepage - not Khoi's idea and he fought to change that (take a look at the Opinion section for example http://www.nytimes.com/opinion for one single sample of his stewardship).

Working on a startup is nothing like working client side at a place like the NYT. With the former, one can be agile and code up some easy edits in a few days, and push it out without weeks of deliberation. It's easy to pick out the navigation and say, "look, let's cut some of this out or hide it in secondary navigation." Good luck with that with corporations as big as the NYT. Chances are, each link is represented by a group that will be LIVID if you dare remove them from the exposed navigation.

Removing big ads from the homepage is nice for a pitch (actually to be honest, it is a very common strategy to emotionally lure people into a pretty but imperfect design to rework later) but would never get approved internally. You'd have to have a pretty convincing argument that losing a huge source of revenue would be counterbalanced by a large increase in viewership, and I don't think that's an argument he could win (in this specific instance).

This is very true - sadly.

The top nav of the NYTimes is a political minefield ("HOME PAGE, TODAY'S PAPER, VIDEO, MOST POPULAR, TIMES TOPICS". Part of the problem is that links to some of these pages exist nowhere else (or relatively few other obvious parts). Its a big big web site and over time some organization was lost as new pages crept in.

BUT... Do you know what happens if you remove it? Nothing. No meaningful impact on traffic. Yet there it still ives.

The Left Navigation bar on the Homepage is a recognized problem internally. However you need to weight:

- Same argument as above, some links to these pages don't really exist anywhere else (Skimmer, Times Wire, Multimedia, Times Machine). You need to solve that problem first.

- Various departments would make a stink if they did not have the glorious link from the Homepage.

- If you remove it, you're probably talking about a solution that would take up more horizontal space and push the content down even further.

Those are the two immediate ones that I recall. I don't see this being addressed specifically anytime soon - it was hard enough to clear space for the Facebook module.

I don't think the critics of the NYT where out of touch with reality. The big 3 French newspaper (lemonde.fr, lefigaro.fr, liberation.fr) are all much easier to scan than the likes of the NYT.

The redesigner did make some breathtaking pronouncements:

"The New York Times presents a rather typical example of terribly-designed news"

"popularity has nothing to do with news"

"today's paper: irrelevant"

"the Times’ search results page is an excellent example of usable news design"

I try to keep up with Khoi Vihn and Subtraction because I believe he always provides a balanced insight into respectable/high-design principals and the practicality of applying them to mammoth operations like the NYT and such.

In fact, his tone of decency and respect, despite the the off-the-cuff pronouncements made by Andy Rutledge is exactly the voice I've come to expect from Khoi. Which is awesome.

Also, this reminds me a lot of the Delta Airlines redesign fiasco brought on by another designer (http://www.dustincurtis.com/dear_american_airlines.html). It's really easy to sit back and critique the obvious flaws in design from within the ivory tower of photoshop, where you can arbitrarily remove advertisements and ignore the loads of user studies that entire teams have spent significant portions of their careers.

This is the kind of stuff that gives designers the MO of being 'decorators' who don't 'respect constraints' - operational or technical. As a designer myself, it's sad to see this behavior showing up again and again.

"The ivory tower of photoshop". Great quote!

The only really egregious criticism was that "the front page of a news paper is not editorialized". Someone DOES choose what the most important stories are at the time of publication and puts those on the front page. That is editorializing. If all the stories were in reverse chronological order or alphabetical order or something, then it wouldn't be editorialized.

All the "terrible/unusable design" criticisms are quite valid today, I think. Maybe they weren't 5 years ago when the site was designed, but there is simply too much information to process now.

It's sad that people still regard Andy as an "Industry leading expert". Andy voids his own agency's process with this this blog post. He does very little research, makes some bold statments, spends a few hours in photoshop and produces what? A poorly thought out, soap box "solution" with a pretty face. He gives no real thought to advertising, social component (comments, popularity and social media) or the politics involved with news.

The industry should do it's self a favor, hand Andy a muzzle and continue on to bigger and better things. He's scum.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the redesign he refers to but does not link to is this: http://andyrutledge.com/news-redux.php

I believe that is the one.

...the argument that the redesign’s author makes is not quite so persuasive, mostly because it makes some rash assumptions, misses some critical realities and, perhaps worse of all, takes a somewhat inflammatory approach in criticizing the many people who work on the original site.

This guy sounds like the redesigner really hurt his feelings.

Why not share the design constraints that the redesigner failed to consider? Wouldn't that be more productive than complaining about link baiting and criticism?

How could his feeling not be hurt—at least a little bit—when someone ostensibly knowledgeable comes in and dismisses his work as crap and proceeds to replace it with something stylish and trendy, but failing to meet the requirements?

Vinh's response was measured and appropriate and professional, much more so than Rutledge's original post. I see absolutely no reason why he should waste his time engaging in explanations and dialogue with someone doing a drive-by hit piece on his work.

Often knowledge of design constraints is part of an organization's competitive advantage. These are often painstakingly discovered through mistakes, and any competitor has to make the same mistakes to figure them out. If you tell everyone exactly what you did wrong, it won't take them long to start doing things right.

I was thinking the same thing in different terms: open your sources, hide your test cases.

I'm sure the creators of readability have an awesome regression test suite. It would make no sense for them to publish it.

It's fairly plain to see that the "redesign" completely disregards any presence of advertisement. I'd say that would be a constraint failed to be considered.

That simply isn't true.

> Since news is accessed only via subscription, most of the ads can be eliminated from the pages. Story pages could still have one or two tastefully-presented ads, but preservation of the content is what will keep readers happy, engaged, and willing to continue paying their subscriptions…just like in olden times.


"Considering" a constraint using magic fairy dust and an imaginary world where people pay for news content isn't really addressing it, unfortunately. It's like saying "since people can levitate, we can ditch their shoes. They can wear minimal shoes for times when they might want to land, but unencumbered feet will keep people happy".

I think you're missing the part that says

Since news is accessed only via subscription, most of the ads can be eliminated from the pages.

but...news isn't accessed only via subscription, so you can't really use that justification...

"Completely" is unfair. See: http://andyrutledge.com/images09/newsSite/nyt-redux-article....

But just come out and say "we had to cover the site in ads and couldn't do a better design" if that's the case.

But as they do so, I also hope they remember it helps no one — least of all the author of the redesign — to assume the worst about the original source and the people who work hard to maintain and improve it, even though those efforts may seem imperfect from the outside.

Redesigns, solicited or not, are very helpful to me. I don't care what internal politics the original product designer is grappling with. It's refreshing to see what outside observers come up with, politics and other restrictions be damned.

I'd hate to work for someone who was so critical of critical thought.

The thoughts he is critical of here are not those related to the design - it's all of the newspaper/media/NYT-bashing that takes up the first half of the essay. The designer makes a lot of claims about why things are the way they are for newspaper websites in 2011 without really backing them up, and seems to be assuming the worst about everyone involved.

The redesign on it's own is fine but the screed before that is the issue.

I thought it was very clear... Redesigns are good, but don't assume that as an outside designer that you have all of the relevant data.

I don't recall Khoi making a statement about the redesign itself, just the tone of the explanation of it. I got the impression that the choices made had valid reasoning behind them that may not be obvious to someone outside of the times. It had nothing to do with internal politics, but the realities of running a very large site. Design is great. Practical design is better.

Design is great. Practical design is better.

That's really true but nonetheless, its helpful to see another design point of view. If the nytimes disagreed with the tone that was taken then state that but don't dismiss the whole article.

He could've adressed the design concerns and also mention his shpeal about the tone that was taken.

You wouldn't want to work for someone who responded to critical thinking with equally critical thinking? I sure would.

Rutledge did indeed rant generally in his opening paragraphs a bunch of stuff about poor standards, lack of ethics etc in the industry with little to back it up, then segues to the Times as his example of the design problems (see what he did there?).

I don't care what internal politics the original product designer is grappling with.

Exactly my thoughts. The original article was harsh but not disrespectful - it's a critique of the end result, not anyone's capabilities, and it has lots of reason.

Also, he tries to critique the redesign based on what was written, not what was designed. Title should be "On criticizing what you know little about the internals".

Just for perspective, Rutledge harped on Frank Chimero a few months back for getting his book funded on Kickstarter. He was making other brash, insensitive, and short-sighted claims that Chimero was hurting the industry and selling-out.

I'm starting to think he's a bit of a modern design muckraker, pursuing pageviews by stirring the pot. I suspect that Khoi picked up on it, which is why he smartly did not pass on a link and feed the flames.

I'm pretty sure this comment from the Pump/WSGI stuff is equally appropriate here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2817995

It basically comes down to: if you think something is bad, try to understand why it was designed that way I'm the first place. You may not know all of the data or edge cases.

Having worked for a major metro newspaper's website, I'm fully aware of the challenges faced by Khoi and others. The homepage is the Mt. Everest of challenges within these organizations.There are so many considerations and limitations, which are compounded by the fact that so many people within the organization have a vested interest in the homepage design. It's impossible for people such as Khoi to push a design through without compromising at every step along the way. The end result is unrecognizable from where you started (or had originally envisioned). Such is life at a large news organization. We are powerless. And so we dream.

"But if I'm not on the front page, above the fold, no one will (read my articles | (see|buy) ads)!"

It's a constant battle between the ad department and the content makers, and then between the content makers themselves.

I'm not a designer and come into this not knowing who Khoi Vinh is. However, his site's footer - Visual design, layout and Cascading Style Sheets may not be reused without permission. - just reeks of self-importance. I'm really not allowed to make a high-contrast fixed-width three-column layout with header and footer without Vinh's authorization?

I realize this might be like coming to a software discussion and not knowing who Steve Jobs is. For all I know, maybe Vinh invented and patented three-column layouts and everyone's laughing at my ignorance.

I think you missed the point. A different high-contrast fixed-width three-column layout? Totally cool. Just don't take his CSS to do it.

(Yes, this is commonplace; his little footer blurb will probably do nothing to stop somebody who wants to, but I can't blame him for it.)

He was the Design Director for NYTimes from 2006 - 2010. The re-design he refers to is a critique of the NYTimes website. [1]

Regarding the footer disclaimer, it's probably because his newspaper-like blog/site design is also sold as a Word Press theme. [2]

I wouldn't call him the Steve Jobs of his industry, but he has been a big proponent for (what I consider clean design with) grids. [3]

[1] http://www.subtraction.com/about

[2] http://basicmaths.subtraction.com/

[3] http://www.subtraction.com/2004/12/31/grid-computi

Many sites have (c) XXXX-YYYY at the bottom. Same thing.

This is mostly the same reaction I had when I read the redesign article. Andy blatantly chose to define what is news to drive his design. For example he defined that the most read articles list is not news. Like, the front page of Hacker News is not news because it is a list of elements that have been ordered by how many people read, comment or upvote them and not by the news value specified by grown journalists.

I admire Vinh's reserve. Engineering is full of compromises, and few things are more irritating than the guy that walks into the shop and spouts out at the mouth, utterly ignorant of the historical context surrounding the compromises that have been made.

Fresh pairs of eyes are helpful, but there are definitely more constructive ways to offer solutions than operating under the default assumption that everybody else are idiots.

This was the first thing I considered doing for a living when I got more into the internet back in 98~ (unsolicited redesigns), but I knew I would get into so much trouble and even legal implications. Nowadays if a site has king content and terrible ui/ux I'll just Stylish it down or stick to the feed and move on, if they can't bother to improve the experience the next one will.

Vinh's response is really true of any collaborative creative environment, from the arts to engineering. To evaluate or re-design outside of the context of the original project (it's requirements, business goals, stakeholders, etc.) can only yield an irrelevant conclusion.

The world also needs more poster re-designs for Kubrick movies. Here's my ideas for 2001, remember that scene at the beginning on a space station? That would make a good poster. What about Clockwork Orange? They could use the Ludivigo exterior in a poster too. I mean, why did they not originally do that?

Khoi Vinh has no control over the content of the website. He has to listen to many bosses.

He should have been honest and come out and said that. Instead, he chose to be a jerk.

Guess what Khoi, we do this for fun, so no it's not a waste of time. You clearly do not do your job well, nor do you enjoy it.

Wow. It's hard to believe people come out of this thinking Khoi is the "jerk" here. And that he doesn't do his job well. It's sad that you think that.

Ouch. So ideas are not bad but the language hurts someone's ego. Guess Andy Rutledge won't get any recognition because of "the wrong approach".

Based on the timing, I believe he's talking about the redesign exercise Andy Rutledge did @ http://andyrutledge.com/news-redux.php

Khoi Vinh is being a poor sport here. Criticism is an important part of the design world. In school we're taught to use criticism as another resource and learn from it. The design team at the New York Times could have learned a lot from this 'unsolicited' exercise. Instead, they chose to be offended.

Did we read the same article? Vinh was very respectful to the alternative design.

That article you linked to contains a lot of unneeded and useless criticism of the Times that was only peripherally related to any actual design aspects of the site. When he goes off about ads, he's no longer talking about site redesign and is instead advocating that they change their business model.

He's certainly free to throw his $0.02 in along with the rest of the peanut gallery about how he thinks the newspaper industry should run their business - but it tarnishes what was supposed to be an interesting look at a web site redesign.

If you read the first four paragraphs of Andy's article you'll realise the piece looks at digital news as a product, so it must address the business model as well as the design.

Well, that was kind of my point. It's completely valid for Andy to propose a new site design, whatever others may think of it. It's difficult to take him seriously when opining on the paper's business model, especially when he's being so harsh about it and hasn't really worked in the industry.

I don't really think it would be sporting to feign appreciation for a critique that starts by declaring your your product "terribly-designed" and concludes with an even less effective design.

Perhaps more importantly, if I were current or former staff of NYT, I would have a hard time taking even the valid criticism found in Rutledge's post to heart, given that he implies exceptionally bad faith on the part of the Times staff. We all can cite a truly terrible online news design that would benefit from some of Rutledge's suggestions, but the focus on NYT seems like a oblique strategy to accuse the Times of something almost like yellow journalism, what with of the suggestion that opinion is shamefully placed in context with reportage, that popular news is pandering, etc.

I can assume by your response you didn't finish the article. The last paragraph is the opposite of what you are saying:

"I will say this, though: unsolicited redesigns are terrific and fun and useful, and I hope designers never stop doing them. But as they do so, I also hope they remember it helps no one — least of all the author of the redesign — to assume the worst about the original source and the people who work hard to maintain and improve it, even though those efforts may seem imperfect from the outside. If you have good ideas and the talent to execute them and argue for them, the world will still sit up and pay attention even if you take care in your language and show respect to those who don’t see things quite the way you do."

Pretty sure Vinh doesnt work there anymore. Also, "learned a lot" is probably an exaggeration. The redesigner admitted himself that it was quickly-conceived and hastily-constructed.

Unimpressed by this response. This is the same kind of thing said by everyone who makes bad products.

He's actually a pretty stellar designer.

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