Case Study July 2015
The New Criterion Website Redesign
A responsive publishing platform for New York's premier cultural review.
The New Criterion is an esteemed journal that for 35 years has been leveling civilized criticism on the Western world’s arts and culture. Its brand aesthetic matches the editorial content it surrounds: smartly dressed, well-informed, and classically charming. The printed edition is the crown of the brand, the summation of its unwavering visual identity, primarily in the usage of Matthew Carter’s “Galliard” typeface as the house font.
The journal’s website did not carry the brand’s positive associations. Digital subscriptions had plateaued, and monthly traffic was steadily declining. The New Criterion’s leadership decided it was time to get serious about their on-screen presence, making it match the quality of their printed edition.
“When we turned to the design of a new website for The New Criterion, we determined to make it even more like the magazine in print,” says James Panero, Executive Editor, at The New Criterion. “It was a mandate that went against all conventions—if there really are such conventions—of "proper" internet design, where every bell and whistle must be deployed to hold the attention of the distracted online reader. But just as The New Criterion dispenses with such frills in print, so too, we determined, would our new site.”
The direction was set, but after an unsuccessful engagement with a DC-based agency where the main complaint was the time it took to iterate and the tone deafness to the magazine’s brand legacy, The New Criterion became aware of the need for a more collaborative approach to seeing that vision come to fruition.
Beck & Stone understood and executed the concept brilliantly, from securing our unique print fonts (which did not even exist for online) to finding ways to reproduce the texture and feel of the magazine—its cream stock, its clean margins, its binding and spine, its bold monthly colors—in a flawless dynamic site.
Executive Editor, The New Criterion
Collaboration through Prototyping
Using an HTML prototype with production-quality code, Beck & Stone worked with The New Criterion in an agile development process that minimized the reliance upon mockups that often require more “tell” than “show.”
“Giving the client the ability to not only see a design, but have it adapt to the device of their choosing and respond to their interaction is becoming an intrinsic part of the web development process,” writes Andrew Beck, who has preached the power of prototyping for years. “During a build you have a myriad of professionals at the agency and with the client who all have unique and valuable perspectives to contribute. Objectivism must then become paramount.
“A coded prototype brings greater sensitivity –and thus unity– between these voices by giving them a singular point of reference to collaborate on. We’ve seen it is more effective than any large set of wireframes or mockups, because it is as close to a live user experience as you can bring an individual without building the entire product. Their input and recommendations are then shaped from this new perspective: one of objectivity, not subjectivity.”
The ability to not only see a design, but have it adapt and respond to varied conditions is an intrinsic part of the development process.
Mockups were not done away with completely, however. As Beck explains, there is still a place for static representations in the development cycle.
“An interface’s appearance, especially in editorial design, is arguably the most vital aspect of the publication’s branding online. At the beginning of a tear-it-all-down redesign, or whenever a visually complex idea needs to be demonstrated, wireframes, mockups, pencil drawings, are all fair game. ‘Whatever works’ is what matters, but what works best is the actual code. The quicker you can start expressing yourself in the code, the better for everyone.”
The New Criterion product owners were presented with key mockups: an article page and the homepage to establish the visual style and general layout. Further edits, alternate versions, new modules, and even whole templates were designed entirely in the browser.
Work sped up. The client team felt empowered in the decision making and informed on the progress. “We couldn't have been more pleased with the fascinating process and Beck & Stone's sensitivity to our particular vision,” concludes Panero.
The Embedded Project Leader
Process helps, but the agency structure is what truly makes it run smoothly.
“An enterprise-level publishing site is more than what you can scroll and click through,” says Austin Stone, partner at Beck & Stone, and the project’s technical lead. “You need to work with the logistics of publishers: fulfillment houses, customer service, gated content, and migration of archives. Communicating with vendors and getting vendors to cooperate is vital to building a successful product, or you will have a pretty new design that is still a headache for the staff who will be managing it day-to-day.”
An editorial website must be built to cater to the casual reader as well as the dedicated subscriber. To meet the needs of the staff member managing it daily and the board who oversees the brand.
Having the technical lead embedded in the client’s organizational structure is key, from the planning and design stage all the way to QA and post-launch support.
“It is vital for the lead to approach the site build from every viewpoint: subscriber, donor, staffer, board member, and vendor. It is a high-pressure role that a publisher is not prepared to fill when they set out on a redesign, but one that most web design agencies don’t want to think about or deal with either,” Stone adds.
Niche publishers’ primary concern about committing to a digital strategy is that they will not see a return on their investment. But if you prove you are serious about digital, your audience will get serious about subscribing to it.
Partner, Beck & Stone
The Results & The Future
The New Criterion was received with great joy by its current subscribers, who received complimentary access to the online archive, PDF downloads of past issues, and an iPad edition of the most recent issue. Austin was onsite at their office on launch day coordinating with the development team and monitoring customer service channels for a smooth, issue-free transition.
Subscribers were delighted with the experience, and wrote to the client expressing their approval:
This is the finest web site I have ever seen. I first read about it last night in James Panero’s reflections in the latest Friends Report. What a great way to greet this new day, browsing through exquisitely presented material, both print and graphic.
Coming from a bookish and art background, I've always felt the internet to be aesthetically challenged. But your design for newcriterion.com blows my prejudice away. You have made the presentation meet and complement the content at the highest level. I think Hilton Kramer would be ecstatic at the result.
I am first and always a lover of the printed page. And yet you have convinced me that a web site with a digital version of my favorite journal can actually be very beautiful and a great boon and not in the least way annoying!
I’ll never give up that great beauty, the printed version of The New Criterion, and I hope you won’t either. But thank you for this magnificent publishing accomplishment: it provides much to read and enjoy in between the arrivals of your eagerly awaited journal issues.
Austin Stone with The New Criterion staff on launch day
Within three months from its new launch, the website had added over 100 new digital subscribers and has experienced steady growth in organic and social referral traffic ever since.
A few months after the site was completed, Beck & Stone formally became The New Criterion’s brand managers, with daily duties on social media management, e-mail marketing, direct mail creative, integrated advertising, and donation campaigns.