Rethinking Web Design with Andy Rutledge

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h1News is still broken and will likely remain so. But this is an ethical issue, not a mechanical one.

Andy Rutledge

Andy Rutledge is not afraid to tell you what he thinks about your designs - or anyone else's - and lots of people love him (and sometimes hate him) for that candor. He's widely known for his redux posts which re-imagine well-known Websites with new designs and which are a goldmine of great advice for Web designers and content producers alike. He's also the author of Design Professionalism, a designer's handbook for being a true professional and the co-owner of Unit Interactive, a design firm in Texas. In his spare (?) time he's a regular contributor to some of the world's best print and online design publications and an expert on Web design, Web standards, and CSS development.

We've long admired Andy's work and caught up with him to talk about the challenges of new screen sizes and design, why news is still broken, and what inspires him in Web design today.

How do you decide whether or not to work on a design project? What are deal-makers/breakers for you? There’s quite a lot that can affect my decision to work with or not work with a particular potential client, but mostly it comes down to the requirement for a yes answer to several vital questions:

1. Will my team be allowed to bring our best work to the final result?

2. Is the client prepared to engage in the project appropriately?

3. Is the client actually prepared to begin this project?

4. Is the client prepared to invest trust in my team's choices?

5. Is my team prepared to fulfill or exceed the project requirements?

6. Is this client and this project right for my studio?

If the answer to even one of these questions is no, I decline the project. As you can see, answering any of these questions requires lots of information about the client, the project, and about my team; and I have to know with each potential project what qualifies for a yes answer to each of the questions.

Luckily, I’m practiced at getting to the heart of these matters, found mostly by way of a direct initial conversation or two by phone or in person. It’s probably worth noting that if the potential client doesn’t have time for or otherwise declines this direct conversation, I decline the project. That’s the easiest of all red flags to accurately interpret.

The result of this standard is that, but for two exceptions, all of our projects and clients in the past five years have been what I’d call ideal. No nightmares, no problems, no headaches.

What are the biggest challenges you see designers face with new screen sizes like tablets & phones? Well, competent designers are smart and likely not terribly challenged by the requirement to create usable responsive pages for standard devices and screen configurations today. Screen size is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Where I believe the true challenge resides is with the requirement that we craft an experience that allows for context-appropriate content and interaction.

For instance, a desktop user’s desires, needs, and aims regarding a restaurant website are likely different from a handheld user’s desires, needs, and aims. Therefore, content shouldn’t merely rearrange or resize based on these differing contexts, but should substantively change as well. So while it is content that we design, we’re required to design the contextually appropriate experience as well. This means making content availability/accessibility decisions as well as changing interaction models based on context. In other words, content served to desktop users need not—sometimes, must not—be identical or similar to what handheld users get. It’s our job to make the right choices and design the right experiences.

Another challenge is the ever-increasing need to design and articulate content so that it adapts seamlessly to what we don’t yet know is to come. Most agree that html, css, and javascript are core components of the rendering of design and experience, but more is yet available to us so we have to choose wisely. Responsible professionals have the rather daunting task of maintaining a discipline for employing the fundamental technologies conservatively while taking advantage of (progressive) enhancements…all the while paying attention to trends in device, web, and system technological standards. The result should be that what we make today is still usable and appropriate in years to come despite tech and device evolution. I expect that on the whole we’ll be mildly successful.

Your Redux redesign of the NY Times sparked some much needed conversations about news site design. Were you surprised by the attention that got and why or why not? I was surprised by the source of the attention and of most of the contention. I made that project to spark thought and discussion among design professionals and publication executives; these were my specific target audiences. Even so, the vast majority of discussion came from journalists, editors, and content managers, all leveling criticisms that either employed straw man arguments or addressed issues I specifically cited as outside of the context of my exercise. That was a disappointing if predictable response to my “actually, news itself is broken” declaration. Not surprisingly, news is still broken and will likely remain so. But this is an ethical issue, not a mechanical one.

I was amused, however, at how after many of the ideas I presented were roundly criticized, the Boston Globe surprised us all and launched a design that employed several of the fundamentals I suggested. The bostonglobe.com effort was of course immediately praised, and rightly so, for its gutsy and effective design. Not that I had anything to do with it; the Globe design was likely set long before my article was published. It’s just that, like the man said, nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.

The piece did prompt a very nice email exchange with one of the executive editors at the NY Times. For this and other reasons, I’m entirely pleased with how things played out and glad that I did the exercise. Of course as I specifically declared in the article, it was not meant as a redesign of the NY Times. I’m confident that many will ever confuse object with subject.

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You've also had some redux ideas for how to improve eBay, Google, the Apple store … are there any sites that are doing it exactly right at the moment? Well, it’s best that we first take into account that I’ve always picked the low-hanging fruit for these exercises. My redux subjects have always been easy targets with much to criticize. Also, the eBay and Google efforts and others besides (but not the Apple one!) are now horribly dated.

In any event, I have no idea if any sites are doing it exactly right at the moment. I’m sure I’d have to be privy to much minutiae and otherwise hidden information to be able to make such a claim. As most of us know, it’s far easier to point out errors than to recognize excellence. And, yes, that’s a pity.

What made you decide to retire Design View? It was time. I did what I wanted to do with Design View and I didn’t want keeping it seemingly active to imply that I’d be showing it any further attention. The content remains and there are now some 100+ articles and videos that comprise, I think, a useful archive for aspiring design pros. I continue to write, but because of personal and professional demands on my time my writing efforts are now suited to a different forum.

Will you continue to do Redux posts in another venue? Not likely. At least, not as I have done them in the past. Now that I’m an agency owner it is difficult and likely unwise to address brands or websites in specific manner like that. My effort with the news redux was about digital news in general, never the NY Times, and yet still it was distorted into something it was not. There’s a lesson there.

The future of redux-type articles for me resides in addressing mechanism and convention rather than brand or website. I’ll continue in that spirit if not in that idiom.

What bloggers are you inspired by and why? Hrm. No. No bloggers. I’m inspired by Jeffrey Zeldman because he has built and continues to build a successful and valuable enterprise that creates employment and opportunity for excellent professionals and gives voice to those who need to be heard. His is an example that should inspire all of us. He also has a blog.

I’m inspired by Robert Lindström who has done much the same in Scandinavia and I find his design efforts to be very inspiring. He, too, has a blog.

Blogging isn’t a thing. It’s a result of something substantive.

Your book Design Professionalism is a designer's handbook for being a true professional. What's next? Well, my cohorts and I at Unit are actually working on a project to further develop the Design Pro brand and bring a journal, the Design Pro Show, Design Pro Lunch, a forum, a workshop series, and more all under one umbrella. It’ll be a subscription publication and community resource for practicing and aspiring design professionals, with content and a focus not found elsewhere in the design world. We plan to launch in the next couple months.

Follow Andy on Twitter @andyrutledge.