Mark Porter

Khoi Vinh: What made you decide that you should focus most of your energy on The Guardian’s Web presence?

Mark Porter: In the beginning I was simply looking for something new and exciting to do after launching our print redesign. That was a unique project—an ambitious brief, a decent schedule, an inspiring and supportive editor, and a brilliant design team. I think we did something pretty special, and many people feel it’s the most significant newspaper design project of the last 20 years. But by the end I was wondering what on earth I could follow it with.

Luckily, the Guardian was already embarking on a rebuild of the web platform that would also involve a redesign, and I thought that getting to grips with the digital world, learning about web design and leading that project would be a big enough challenge to keep me energized. Once I got involved, I also began to realize that the focus of the business would be increasingly digital, and that getting the design of the digital offering right was also the most important contribution I could make to future of the Guardian.

If I recall correctly, you said that it took quite some time—maybe a year or two, I believe—before you started feeling like you were really understanding the new medium. Can you briefly describe that period of adjustment, and how your thinking evolved?

When I began working with the web team, I was very aware of my relative ignorance. I felt that my understanding of the Guardian brand and my role in defining the Guardian design philosophy outweighed that, but I still went into it with as much humility as I could.

I started on a crash education program that involved reading books and blogs and asking an awful lot of questions of the people I worked with, and within a few months I had learned an enormous amount. But you’re right that I didn’t feel that I really “got” digital media until this year, over two years since I started. That’s not so much about skills or technical knowledge. I still probably don’t have as much of that as I should. But luckily, I’m surrounded by brilliant people who do, and I’ve learned enough to understand what’s possible and to hold intelligent conversations with them.

It’s much more about feeling at home with digital culture, which really requires a different mindset. You can’t make that happen; for someone of my age (mid 40s) and experience it has to come with time. Curiously, for most of that period, as my knowledge increased, my morale fell, because it seemed that everything new I learned was a threat to the assumptions I’d based my whole career on. But I eventually came through that and found that with increased knowledge I was even more excited about the possibilities of the medium.

I actually commend you for coming along so quickly—two years is short work. Looking back on my own learning curve, I recall now that for a long time some of my attitudes about design really clung to my earlier training as a print designer. I somewhat stubbornly insisted that the two disciplines were parallel more than they were divergent.

But now I’m more sympathetic than I ever expected to be to the argument that they’re more dissimilar than they are similar. Does it strike you as true? Do you think the two sensibilities will merge further down the road? That is, do you think eventually digital design will take on more of the formal and experiential qualities of print design?

This is the big question and my thoughts on the subject keep evolving. When I first gained a degree of understanding of digital media I concluded that the values of print design had almost no relevance in the new world. I still thought design was crucial because I believe that design is crucial to every aspect of a civilized life, but I felt that this was about designing the experience, and had more in common with architecture or product design than with graphics. I was prepared to be convinced that the visual aspects of it were fairly trivial.

But I’m staring to feel that there is a place on the web world for the sensibilities I grew up with in print. Of course there are many things about digital media that make them completely different, and you have to accept that before moving on. But the digital world is almost infinitely rich and I expect it to develop in many directions, some of which will accommodate more print-like approaches.

People will always want community experiences and social media but many also come to your site and mine for something that is consciously edited and broadcast by experts. In a world of feeds, mobile, widgets and so on, a single designer can never own and control the interaction with the content, but there may be things that users would actually prefer us to perfect and encapsulate for them. YouTube shows that there is a great appetite for web video, but a lot of that material is authored and crafted, and not at all interactive. If filmmakers can find a digital audience in that way, why can’t designers? My views may grow out of the fact that I’ve always been an editorial designer, and I believe that you can do visual journalism on any platform.

What are some of those opportunities that you’re starting to see for print sensibilities online? And what’s making them possible? I’d certainly like to see such a shift happen—for at least a modest infusion of traditional design into Web design—and in a way, it’s something I and my colleagues are working towards every day. But my feeling is that web design can only change if we see both a behavioral and, perhaps more importantly, an economic transformation in the way the web works. Are we there yet?

I think there’s a wonderful opportunity for art directors to add value to content online, as they do in print. Great newspapers and magazines have a strong personality, and the art director is responsible for the visual projection of that personality. Most web experiences lack personality, which is fine if you’re renting a DVD or checking your webmail, but the editorial environment should offer more.

I believe that we’re finally at a stage where we have the tools to go beyond the template world and start designing content. Our infographics colleagues have been doing great work (especially yours at the Times), and photographers have been doing some interesting slideshows, but there is still not much art direction on the web. We have some important stories to tell and I’m excited about evolving new digital ways to tell them.

One example which is often mentioned is Jonathan Harris’ “Whalehunt”. I don’t love everything about it, and it’s an art project rather than a journalistic one, but it’s a fascinating experiment in storytelling on the web that is genuinely digital in spirit and interactive. I also like the fact that he serves it up both ways—you can choose to watch the edited version in a passive way or create your own story through the metadata in a very intuitive manner. I’d like to see us exploring this space more. Of course there are issues around the technology—the “Whalehunt” would not be what it is without Flash—but we should see this as a challenge to be overcome rather than a barrier.

I can’t make a hard-nosed business case for all this, but I firmly believe that if we offer rich and satisfying experiences, people will come to us and stay with us, and traffic is our currency right now. In order to achieve this, we also need to convince our editorial, commercial and tech colleagues that design and art direction is not a luxury, but deserves a place at the heart of our planning and thinking. We also need to go beyond our audience’s expectations and offer them more than they’re currently asking for.

So in your estimation the opportunities are there, and the tools are there. Is the talent there? Do today’s designers, whether working in print or online, have the skill and insight that’s required of this medium?

I suspect that you and I ask ourselves this question every day. The perfect person to take this medium in the direction I’d like it to follow is someone who has all the creativity, the design skills and the journalistic mindset we expect from a great editorial designer, combined with all the technical acumen and the logical thought processes we expect to find in a great developer.

I think it’s fair to say that this is a very rare combination, and that may be why we’ve seen so little work so far that succeeds on both levels. It’s hard enough to find great editorial designers who have first-class graphic design ability and can also think like journalists; if you add in a deep affinity with the minutiae of technology you’re left with a pretty small set. I know these people exist, but there may not be very many of them in the world, because in most cases the kind of brain that makes you good at one probably makes you bad at the other.

That’s why my dream team consists of a bunch of great publication designers with a sympathy for, and a basic understanding of, technology, working alongside a bunch of great developers with a sympathy for, and a basic understanding of design. In practical terms, this sort of buddy system looks like the only way forward to me. But even that will require a major leap of faith and a commitment to new ways of thinking on both sides.

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