Interview with William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand, Winterhouse
What’s your own history with The New Yorker? Are you a longtime reader, admirer, observer of its editorial and aesthetic strategies over the decades?
We are longtime, devoted readers of The New Yorker, and have been for years. And, knowing many writers there as well, we are also personally familiar with its editorial culture.
When did the magazine approach you about redesigning the magazine’s website, and what was your first reaction to the idea of working on the project?
The magazine approached us last October, two weeks before design input was due to a team implementing a new CMS [content management system] for CondéNet. This was ultimately a rapid prototyping project.
We understood implicitly from the outset that the challenge would be to represent The New Yorker in a way that preserved the visual identity of the magazine—while at the same time creating something new. Identifying what needed to change and what needed to remain constant, and managing the tension between the old and the new: This was the sort of thing we spent a great deal of time thinking about.
What was the look and functionality of newyorker.com when you found it?
Initially, the site was a weak facsimile of the magazine—limited stories online, limited audio and video, limited changes on a daily basis. There was virtually no presence of illustration or cartoons. And, most importantly, the site was overwhelmed by both paid ads and house ads.
What does the hardcore New Yorker reader seek from newyorker.com? What about the newcomer or arbitrary Googler?
Well, we think the hardcore subscriber to the print edition is going to come to the site for more—more pictures, more cartoons, more audio, more video … and, of course, for the archives. Newcomers, though, need to discover something that is particularly and distinctively The New Yorker: a sparse, rich reading environment, visual playfulness, fresh content—ultimately, something more considered. It can’t be just another news site flashing headlines.
What were the magazine’s most urgent needs for the new website when you began the redesign process?
The New Yorker shares a CMS with a number of other Condé Nast magazines, which presents a huge challenge. A good deal of the functionality and navigation had to operate in a pretty straightforward, pre-defined way. But there was still lots of room for improvement within some tight perimeters.
Tell me a little bit about the typography, color scheme, and layout of the new design. How much emphasis did the redesign team want to give to Rea Irvin’s typeface and other classic New Yorker iconography, and how was it integrated into the final design?
We all felt that the New Yorker identity was well represented through its typefaces, and that the best thing we could do would be to try and preserve the typographic integrity of the magazine—which has evolved over the years, but still incorporates some fairly essential features. We wanted to make better use of the vignette illustrations, to maximize the use of photography and illustration, and to minimize extraneous details. One of the things we did early on was try to implement a grid system whereby we could make editorial and navigational distinctions. Just working out the geometry of a new, wider page (increased from 800 to 1,000 pixels) had a huge impact on the final designs, and set newyorker.com apart from many other sites.
What do you remember most vividly about the design process? Did you work with editors, the art department, advertising and marketing staff, some or all of the above? What was the greatest pleasure about working on a project with The New Yorker? The biggest challenge?
We did the entire redesign in two weeks, working only with three editors and the art director. The best part of the process was that only the decision-makers were involved, and therefore meetings were especially productive—and editorially engaging. That the schedule was so condensed kept everyone focused and decisive. We tried to act as if the meetings were editorial meetings, so presentations were kept to a minimum. The discussions therefore were fun.
From a designer’s perspective, how do you think the newly redesigned site reflects or departs from the print magazine? What special technologies and features does it use, and what was the reasoning behind using or developing them?
It’s a pretty faithful rendition of the magazine, with some simple twists—like the animated butterfly next to Rea Irvin’s classic drawing of Eustace Tilley. It really is a case of less is more: We spent a great deal of time condensing, removing, eliminating repetition, reconsidering placement, reworking the grid. It’s not so much revolutionary as
responsible, but in a way, that’s actually harder to do.
Rationalizing advertising on the site, especially house ads and miscellaneous site features, was critical to the success of the redesign. Removing the banner ad at the top of the page was the most dramatic move—and a brave editorial statement.
Lastly, isn’t it great that the color palette is so limited? Who ever thought black and red could look so good?
Many of America’s oldest magazines (LIFE, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Nation, Scientific American, etc.) are reconceiving their “brands” online—in many cases making major alterations to their traditional look, content, interactivity, and so on. How does The New Yorker’s redesign use the print magazine’s impressive archives and long-established (perhaps slightly arm’s-length) relationship with readers, while still serving as a strategy to attract newcomers and expand the readers’ experience of the magazine?
One way The New Yorker is expanding the reader’s experience online is to be highly visual, and with tons of audio. The cartoons move, there are slideshows and audio with many of the features, and the photography and art looks great in the new, cleaned-up online pages.