Discounted Countenance (TNR’s web re-design a year later)

It’s been about a year since The New Republic’s re-design under new editor and CEO Chris Hughes, implemented by creative director Dirk Barnett and the “digital shop” Hard Candy Shell, was introduced, and I was struck again today by one to me quite glaring aspect of the team’s approach: their presentation of photographic images, specifically on pages devoted to single articles. I think TNR’s designers or editors may have underestimated the value far beyond clickbait-y headline writing of “countenance,” the strong impression a face can make all on its own – even, it is said, upon infants and dogs – though I do find this peculiarly unprepossessing stylization interesting in its own right.

Here’s the main part of the heading that shows up on a current post on Brian Stelter.

Brian Stelter's Remarkable Rise_ From Goosebumps to CNN I New Republic - www_newrepublic_com_article_116304_brian-stelters-remarkable-I don’t remember precisely why I clicked on the twitter link that led me to the piece, and reading the headline and introductory paragraphs confirmed my initial suspicion that, no offense to Stelter, I’m as a matter of fact not at all interested in “TV’s Biggest Fanboy” or maybe in any kind of “Fanboy.” The one thing I now know, or trust I know, my main takeaway, is that Brian Stelter is mostly bald and wears glasses. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a much better chance of picking him out of a line-up now than I would have before viewing those parts of the photo not fully obscured by text and overlay. Photos of Stelter may appear elsewhere in the magazine in various formats and sizes, but, on the basis of this view – the only view that, as a casual web passer-by, I’m sure or at all likely to get – I’d retain a much clearer visual idea of the “Reliable Sources” backdrop than of the show’s new host.

I first took note of this approach to, or against, the photographic image, or perhaps against foregrounds and in favor of backgrounds, when perusing the issue from January of last year that debuted the new design, and that featured a “sit-down” with our newly re-elected President. Here’s how the article still renders on my browser:

Obama Interview 2013_ Sit-Down With President I New Republic - www_newrepublic_com_article_112190_obama-interview-2013-sit-down-president

Him, I’d be able to identify without TNR’s help, and maybe just from his eyes. President Obama is also depicted on the same issue’s cover in all of his usual glory, though being on the cover of a magazine is not what it used to be: I never saw a real live hard copy TNR of that issue, and rarely see any issue’s cover anymore. In any event, my first reaction to the depiction as above was that it was implicitly disrespectful: It put TNR editorializing in a somewhat literally superior position to the President of the United States of America and Leader of the Free World. Not just with the President but with anyone else seemingly not worthy, in TNR’s opinion, of actually being seen, the implicit statement also may recall the old New Republic, or its pretensions. The design puts TNR’s own ideas and words between us and the subject. To put the stylistic question as positively as I can, the layout seems to stress ideas, or words, over image, as though the attached article is going to supply us with a substitute, even a correction, for the obscured, possibly misleading and certainly superficial two-dimensional photographic image: We’ll get, as perhaps we should prefer, the proverbial thousand words instead of, because better than, any particular picture.

In diverse aesthetic theories going at least as far back as the late 19th Century avant-garde in painting, as well as in belief systems of non-Western or ancient provenance, the photographic or, before that, the naturalistic image is often highly problematic. Its apparent trueness to life offers only one kind of truth that we may be prone to mistake for the most true or most nearly true, for the truly objective if not for objectivity itself. In this sense TNR’s web designers would hardly be the first to make war on the image or on some other mode or claim of representation. The sentiments such claims inspire in relation to art, religion, and politics, whether taken separately or as is often the case wound up together, often seem bizarrely disproportionate. They hardly seem to justify the still commonly encountered protests against radical or formerly avant-garde art. Yet they have often been the subject of lethal violence, even before we move from relatively narrow questions of artistic representation to the notions of collective mimesis in “representative” democracy and its alternatives: The iconoclasts fought the iconodules in Byzantium over the course of generations. The followers of the established Church and protestant radicals clashed violently over church decor throughout the English Civil War. Prohibitions on pictorial depictions of the Prophet, or even of anything at all, are a notorious feature of Islamicate cultures, while the prohibition on “graven images” goes back to Moses and the Ten Commandments.

I strongly doubt, however, that the TNR designers were taking a stand on anything at all, neither in favor of one or another faith nor, least of all, against intellectually debilitating media culture. Indeed, I think they saw themselves as wading right into the latter, substituting style for substance just like everyone else. They may not even have considered their gestures irreverent in the least. Like the rest of us, they have very probably forgotten the risks of irreverence that ever made displaying it, or now its fading after-images, an act requiring courage.last_supper_new_republic_style

 


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4 comments on “Discounted Countenance (TNR’s web re-design a year later)

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  1. So, I thought I might provide a few reasons that shaped the fairly unique design of headline card-over-image for the TNR site.

    First, a brand consideration: The visual language for content sites has evolved to a point of homogeneity – beyond some subtle type and layout decisions, the article pages of most publishers look nearly indistinguishable. If you ask a user what site they’re visiting while covering up the masthead, most couldn’t tell. Couple that fact with increasing traffic coming in from social side doors (instead of a heavily branded homepage) and many publishers become anonymous in the eyes of their visitors. So our goal with the design of the TNR article page was to be intentionally unexpected and recognizable. This extends to ways images in-line are treated as well as signature type choices, but the headline area is obviously designed for maximum impact. We don’t need to worry about countenance or click attraction in this instance, because you’ve already arrived.

    To your point re: TNR’s attitude, (“The design puts TNR’s own ideas and words between us and the subject.”), this too was an intentional editorial decision. One of the guiding tenants of the rebirth of TNR under Mr. Hughes was a reverence for the written word, the cornerstone of the TNR brand. Through this lens, yes – the idea is more important than the image.

    Finally, and perhaps most simply, a tactical decision: TNR did not traditionally have great photography to accompany its great writing. If you’ve been around long enough to remember the previous site, imagery tended to be small and generic. Sure, there has been a recommitment to great editorial photography since Mr. Hughes and Mr. Barnett have taken over (the POTUS cover story being a great example), but the increased metabolism of the site in general meant that many of the pieces would be relying on wire or stock imagery, which would lack the editorial punch the brand deserved. So our design solution allowed for less-than-stellar superfluous header images because the image became part of the article’s texture and shape.

    That last point is most critical: the images that run at the top of the article are intended to be superfluous to the user’s understanding of the story. They are meant to be used in a cheeky, alluring, (intentionally) provocative way (This Rand Paul article being a perfect example). If an image is paramount to the story being told, it should appear in full within the body of the article.

    Really enjoyed the post,
    Ryan McManus,
    Creative Director, Hard Candy Shell

    • Thanks for your very helpful and thoughtful reply.

      First, I just want to note that the Rand Paul example was for me a laugh-out-loud example of the stylization working very well. I’ve also noted in my follow-up post that the approach also works, if less cheekily, on some other photos – highlighting O’s eyes in the example also mentioned above, or filling virtually empty bottom-center space as against interesting framing or background imagery in a recent photo illustrating an article on Edward Snowden.

      In the follow-up post’s comments we speculated that, if in some arrangements the results seem awkward, it could be more the fault of the photo editors than of the designers, attributable to inattention to detail or concept. I don’t know who is responsible for such decisions at TNR – my guess is that responsibility varies greatly from article/post to article/post depending on presumed importance – but it may be that not everyone has been adequately briefed on the concept.

      It’s hard to do any interesting or unusual design that’s also foolproof or inattention-proof. Still, if we agree that the Stelter results above or the Perkins results noted in the other post are sub-optimal, and if such results are in fact likely to recur, since run-of-the-mill illustrative photos are in many or most cases going to center on a face or profile (rather than, say, a crotch), then presumably a designer could have taken the question into account, and have provided fallback options. The run-of-the-mill photo could be cropped in a way that de-centers the subject. It could be reduced and tiled, or it could be enlarged. Or the translucency of the overlay could be adjusted. Or a default illustration or set of default illustrations could be employed instead, perhaps tending to distinguish blog or other “high-metabolism” posts from featured (and more attentively designed) articles. To varying extents, such options could be automated: If the lower level editors or writers or whatever responsible parties can’t be trusted, then they should not be put in the position of having to make decisions.

      I understand what you are saying about homogeneity and branding. The headline area is or can be a place for the latter, while under a re-affirmed preference for word/idea over image/design, the concerns will soon reverse themselves, in the extended test. “Homogeneity” is also transparency or universality of the shared literary medium. When I’m reading an essay, I don’t want to be thinking about the quality of the paper or virtual paper, or the highest quality paper and the best font will be the paper and font that let me forget about paper and font.

      I agree with you that the headline area, like the headline itself, is something different, however. It seeks attention or is exposed to a different kind of attention or initial access. As it happens, I’m not a big fan of TNR headline-writing either, since I find it often sensationalizes and distorts serious pieces, putting their arguments in a bad light. (See initial comments here, for example.) It’s a common problem and TNR isn’t the worst offender, but in a way that further underlines the same point: The click-baitiness of TNR headline-writing somewhat contradicts the branding effort. It makes TNR more like all of the others. Even thinking too hard about branding at all is a somewhat “generic” tendency, paradoxically enough: It says, we want to be different, just like everyone else.

      My personal preference, which I think would also be more consistent with TNR’s literary aspirations and traditions, would be for a headline style, both as a matter of design and as a matter of verbal expression, that, when in doubt, defaulted to understatement or the statement of no statement or to a less that was more.

  2. Domus, a site I enjoy, but visit only once in a while employs a similar, but I think more successful version of this strategy. Here, the text box is a similar color to the dominant color of the photograph, is more transparent, and overlays less of the photo.

    As a design, I think it accomplishes the tasks Mr McManus specifies, but more successfully. Of course, from TNR’s perspective, it has the defect of already being in use.

    But just as continuing the design issues discussion a bit, I thought it might be of interest.

    • Dunno if Mr M is still monitoring this discussion, but I think the argument from his perspective would be that DOMUS, in great contrast to TNR, is typically dealing with above average to terrific photos. So, even though DOMUS tends to display most of the “image content,” or interferes less in relative terms, it’s interfering with something disproportionately more worthy of being seen for itself. Still, it’s an editorial and aesthetic decision subject to criticism case by case. The photo editor or editors are clearly trying to add aesthetic value or place the overlays according to aesthetic principles.

      There was a recent short post by John Judis at TNR that simply dispensed with any photo at all: The image area was just a black space. I still think that it would be preferable to have some kind of default design somehow relating to authors or subjects, along with general encouragement to think about implicit statements.

      The weekend profile of Christie – a “big” article – was to me hurt by both of my two TNR pet peeves: Another crystal clear look at a man’s forehead and things of little interest, instead of his countenance (even if it’s wire service countenance) and a luridly inane article title that is obviously supposed to appeal more to the kids:

      http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116601/chris-christies-rise-and-fall

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  1. […] has addressed the image treatment/article heading problems we earlier this year filed under “discounted countenance” and “face of the faceless.” I never attempted to capture other aspects of the […]

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