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Take a Lesson from Print Media: Clean Up Web Layouts

Amid the Clutter, With Too Many Entry Points, Viewers Can't Focus on the the Content

By Published on .

5,000. That's the average number of ads and marketing messages Americans are exposed to each day, and if you're online reading this, I'd skew that number higher. That's because too many media sites are beginning to resemble the houses of compulsive hoarders: a jumbled mess of headlines and stories piled on each other with links, icons and ads thrown on top. Put another way: Clutter is killing digital media.

For media businesses to survive in digital, we need to clean up the web. That means pushing against the prevailing trend, where articles are heaped on top of each other in table-format layouts, surrounded by ads. The push for faster speeds, greater access, multiple screens and ever more impressions has resulted in a disregard for the art of editorial design and an advertising experience that respects content. With 4 trillion display ads expected to be served in 2021, according to comScore, you'll see publishers racing to create even more inventory, further cluttering the pages. The industry will suffer for it.

I was reminiscing with a friend the other day about the early days of Wired magazine. The beautifully designed pages blended and flowed with the narrative to help tell the story, to make you feel something. It felt important, culturally relevant. By comparison, today's digital experience is woefully uninspired. We realized, in many ways, that the web has moved us backwards. Social sharing buttons clash with an increasing number of competing ad units, further and further marginalizing the content. Structurally, pages are becoming far too complex, with too many points of interaction, forcing readers to make various decisions instead of focusing on the content -- or for that matter, the ads.

How do we fix this? How do we create quality digital experiences that balance content and advertising in a way that brings value to the entire ecosystem: creator, advertiser and consumer? We need to combine the best of what our print publishing forebears had to offer -- beautiful editorial design, large layouts, consumable advertising -- with the inherently rich and interactive power of the web.

We can make far more effective use of typography, photography and page layout. Web technology has given us access, media and knowledge beyond comparison, and with the advent of HTML5 and the quickened adoption of modern browsers, we can finally stop wrestling with archaic presentation tools.

Online publishers are experimenting with design and the interplay between content and advertising in new and interesting ways. Gawker's redesign, which was so vehemently criticized when it debuted, was an attempt to shed its blogging roots and become something more ambitious. And it has done so successfully, hitting its highest number of unique visitors ever just a year after its relaunch. The Verge and the Daily Beast also boast strong editorial design and are making use of more interesting layouts than the simple vertical stacking of content. Even old media is establishing a design-forward digital presence, with brands like The New York Times clearing its pages of clutter and taking a stronger, more streamlined approach to online editorial design.

But, as an industry, we could hardly consider ourselves innovators if all we did was catch up to print. True innovation in media is generated at the intersection of technology and content, and in anticipating the future of content consumption. Computing experiences have become continuous, spanning across device and location. From Hulu-streaming TVs to editing spreadsheets on phones, the clear definition between desktop and mobile technologies is disappearing. The next generation of clean, premium media experiences will preemptively acknowledge this shift and rely on a single, core experience that remains consistent across the many devices through which we now consume our media –- including those that don't exist yet. Media will become like an API, with different rule sets for each device. Content will be created once and then rules will dictate how it's presented across each medium. That's where customized, publisher-focused content management systems will come into play, because the only way to redefine the content consumption experience is if we're also redefining the content creation experience.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Matt Sanchez is CEO, SAY Media. Follow him on Twitter at @msanchez.
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