80 Roger Black on magazine design in the age of the Web! INTERVIEW

Web Sites that Work by Roger Black
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(From 1997) “There is a reason why they don’t play Montovani in elevators any more,” chuckles world-renowned media designer Roger Black.

He’s explaining why Reader’s Digest hired the man who freshened up Rolling Stone to bring its look and feel forward to the 21st century.

“You are more likely to hear Talking Heads than the old Muzak of the 1960s,” Black says. “The baby boom is now Reader’s Digest age, and that is kind of astounding. Does that mean we should have Hunter Thompson and Ralph Steadman in there? Well, maybe we should. Reader’s Digest was really intended at a time when American society was much more homogenous and white and so forth, when who was reading it was much clearer. Today, it is very hard for an editor of any big publication to get a clear idea of who their typical reader is.”

Black is the designer behind substantial facelifts of Rolling Stone , Newsweek, the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Ad Age, and Esquire .

His San Francisco-based graphic design studio, Interactive Bureau, employs 50, with three offices in Europe and one in Mexico. It is engineering four major international newspaper redesigns this year, including Tages Anzeiger in Zurich, Svenska in Sweden, Dagbladet in Stockholm, and the business newspaper Straits Times in Singapore. In the United States, Black and his people are helping the Baltimore Sun with a redesign of its Sunday paper, following up on the studio’s redesign of the daily.

ROGER BLACK excerpt (1997): “The problem is that people look at Esquire and find it wanting or they have an image of Esquire that is really out of date,” Black says. “My advice to Hearst is this: ‘Close the magazine and start it over again in a year. Just make a total break.'” 

They are also redesigning Men’s Health magazine — maybe soon we’ll be able to tell the difference between one month’s issue and the next. In Barcelona, Black’s team is working on El Periodico. And although Reader’s Digest has not yet committed to a redesign, it has hired Interactive Bureau to help rethink its design direction worldwide.

Online, Black’s studio designed USA Today , The Discovery Channel, Prentice Hall and the just launched Barnes & Noble site. It is currently redesigning the MSNBC site.

He’s had some spectacular successes, influencing generations of magazine, newspaper and now World Wide Web page designers, which is why his new book, Web Sites That Work (Adobe Press), is invaluable to so many people.

And while the book, like much he has accomplished, is actually the work of several designers at his San Francisco-based Interactive Bureau (and New Yorker magazine columnist Sean Elder), it is a landmark in computer book publishing. Instead of one more tome crammed with HTML code and computer trickery, Black’s illustration-packed book simply and effectively demonstrates what good design looks like in any medium.

Black, 48, isn’t a newcomer to the wired world, but he still struggles with making it fit the old conceptions of print media.

“Interactivity takes the old-line media folks like me aback,” he says, “because we are used to just packaging content up and sending it down the chute. The television people are pretty much the same way.”

Black defines interactivity by applying the metaphor of a chicken in a carnival sideshow who pushes various buttons to get a piece of corn.

“In some web sites you feel like some very dumb animal trying to hit the right button so things happen for you,” he explains. “In fact, there is a kind of interactivity called ‘peripheralization’ where people are trying to configure web sites entirely around the taste and interest of the customer.”

But real interactivity, Black insists, is when it is completely two-way.

“The best metaphor is that the Internet is more like the telephone than like television, and for a print graphic designer or editor/writer, the challenge in the next few years for Internet design is letting the users get a hold of the design themselves and reshaping the site around themselves the way they want it.”

That is a challenge: Newspapers change their look once a generation if that often; magazines — with the exception of staid cash cows such as Cosmopolitan and Playboy — typically remake themselves every five years or so. So asking them to redesign their look as often as tastes changes online — or to let readers monkey with their graphical elements — is a radical incongruity.

“I think that designers would morph their newspapers more rapidly if they had more power internally,” Black says. “The newspapers are way too institutional for changing times. The Internet clock is running so fast that maybe its changes have been too quick. Take a site like CNN’s. You may or may not like the design, but the content is so active that the structure of the site is only important in terms of navigation and architecture and understanding what is going on. It is not the design. I think increasingly that is true. The design — the graphics — is less important. What is important is the content.”

Producing a web site that works means constantly refreshing it. If a site doesn’t change in six months time, “Forget it,” Black says. “You’ll never go back.”

Other web site design tips from Black:

  • “Don’t have a lot of text. Nobody reads anything anymore; the only person you can count on to read every word of what you’ve written is your mother.”
  • “Don’t use tiny type. The general idea is to make everything bigger than you would in print.
  • “Don’t use a lot of colors. Web clutter is typified by freewheeling use of color. Cautiously add one or two colors. Use red or yellow, but don’t use them all!”
  • “Just because you’re designing on the Web doesn’t mean everything has to look like computer type.”
  • “Too often the viewer is reduced to wildly punching the browser ‘back’ button or refer to the ‘go’ menu, which is basically an unreadable list of gibberish.”
  • “Don’t confuse the viewer. Your site needs to be consistently designed. If you have different pages and different sections, the navigational tools and graphics need to look the same throughout.”
  • “Don’t design pages that require scrolling. Just as 75 percent of people will only read the top half of a folded newspaper, most browsers will never scroll.”

Not everything Black touches turns to gold. Smart magazine, imagined and edited by former Rolling Stone, Esquire and now Sports Afield editor Terry McDonnell, was too smart and too poor for its own good. It looked good — Black uses many examples from it in his book — and read like a classic, but lacked the resources to stay in business.

And Black is still frustrated by his other notable failure, Esquire. Under Black, Esquire‘s design was consolidated. Among other things, he put celebrities on the cover every issue with generally white backgrounds. Most memorable was a Madonna photo accompanied inside by a fantastic story by Norman Mailer.

“I worked on Esquire off and on for four years, 1991-95, and I don’t think I moved the ball an inch,” he says. “In fact, I think we lost ground. It was demoralizing. I am not used to it, but I think Esquire has a major problem in getting readers to understand why they need Esquire in the 1990s. Esquire has all the money that Hearst wants to put behind it, but it doesn’t really know what it is doing. I have taken as much blame for that as anybody else, because I worked on it for a long time trying to figure out what it should do, and whatever it was I wanted to do, it didn’t work.”

Actually, he says, Esquire may be the next old-line publication destined for the magazine retirement home.

“The problem is that people look at Esquire and find it wanting or they have an image of Esquire that is really out of date,” Black says. “My advice to Hearst is this: ‘Close the magazine and start it over again in a year. Just make a total break.'”

Mr. Media always thought the problem was the title; when was the last time anybody put “Esquire” after their name?

“Exactly!” Black says, laughing. “Although if the magazine stood for something, then that’s what the name would mean.”

With everything he’s already doing, Black still daydreams about jobs he’d like, including remaking the New Yorker and USA Today.

“I really like the New Yorker,” he says, “and I think they came close, but they didn’t quite do what the design should do. I would love to work with USA Today. I think USA Today is editorially the best presented, best packaged newspaper, but graphically, I think it looks hopelessly out of date now.”

If those publishers won’t take a hint from Roger Black, what hope do the rest of us have?

Roger Black  WebsiteFont Bureau WebsiteFacebookTwitterOrder Web Sites That Work from Amazon.com

Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman, Mr. Media Interviews
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