2 min Read
August 18, 2009

Ready, Set, Redesign

Rebecca Hume

Summer must be the season for redesigns. Within the past few weeks, two of my favorite online resources–NPR and Design Observer–have launched major website overhauls. Both sites are run by highly competent and design-savvy organizations, so I was surprised to find that one update turned out to be far more successful than the other.

NPR has done everything right. Rethinking a website is no small task, and their team seems to have put great thought into every detail. The result is a cohesive website that not only looks fresh and modern but is actually simpler and more pleasant to use.

The old NPR website, shown below, overwhelmed visitors with information, and the narrow left-side navigation felt cramped and small. There was simply too much going on.

Old NPR site

By contrast, the new NPR site feels spacious and organized. Text throughout is larger, but there’s less of it, giving the stories room to “breathe.” Similarly, the bold navigation bar along the top is far less confusing, grouping content into fewer, more streamlined categories. Changes like these reflect smart decisions about information hierarchy–the way content is arranged and emphasized. Language, color, size, and alignment all work together to establish a clear and understandable structure for the website. Which, in turn, lets visitors more efficiently find their way to the news stories that excite and interest them.

New NPR site

Best of all, the new incorporates a guided video tour to explain new features and help visitors acclimate to the redesign.

While NPR’s web update took it from cluttered to clean, the recent changes to Design Observer have pushed it in the other direction. As a site dedicated to writings on design and culture, you’d expect Design Observer to offer a particularly well-conceived online experience. And there are a number of good things to say about their redesign. But, on the whole, the new site’s information hierarchy leaves something to be desired.

The old Design Observer, shown below, had a straightforward yet elegant blog structure. Feature articles with large, intriguing images dominated the left side of the page and briefer items, links, and ads were arranged in two understated columns on the right.

Old Design Observer site

Unfortunately, the updated Design Observer 3.0 has abandoned the clear hierarchy of the original. Granted, the new site is far more content-rich, combining four separate blogs, so some added complexity is to be expected. But complexity doesn’t have to mean confusion. And while the old site provided clear cues as to what content was most important, here you’re not quite sure where to look first. The navigation in too-small type is easily missed on the far left, while a relatively unimportant twitter feed receives undue emphasis in the second column. The feature content is rather lost in the center, where it competes with an image-heavy and almost equally-sized right-hand column.

New Design Observer site

This is not to say that the new Design Observer website is bad–it actually has a lot going for it. (The dynamic masthead navigation is particularly cool.) But a few tweaks to the arrangement and relative size and weight of the different sections could make it a lot better.

Fortunately, one thing that both sites did right was to provide a forum for visitors to give feedback on the redesigns. So perhaps we’ll see a newer-and-even-more-improved Design Observer 3.1 sometime soon.