ReadWriteWeb Redesign Analysis And Critique

ReadWriteWeb, a popular technology blog started by Richard MacManus launched a redesign yesterday (by San Francisco-based Ideacodes). The new look was greeted with a reaction ranging from “it’s awesome” to “Worst. Look. Ever.” with a lot of stuff in-between.

Before I get into my opinion on the design, let me just say that ReadWriteWeb is one of my top-read blogs. MacManus is a smart guy, and his team of writers are pretty high-quality, too. It’s good stuff. I wouldn’t be so picky if I didn’t care.

And this is precisely why the new design is so unfortunate. I won’t pretend to remember what the old design looked like (and the WayBack Machine is down at the moment, so I can’t check), but what was always important to me about ReadWriteWeb was its content. Well-written, well-researched articles offering an interesting and original point of view. The site made sense. And now it’s all over the place. Navigation is redundant, inconsistent, and lacks hierarchy. I don’t want to click anything at all. There are all sorts of little issues with the redesign, and I’ll touch on some of them below, but the biggest issue is this lack of hierarchy - fueled, at least in part, by the tendency of successful blogs to become “content networks.” GigaOM recently relaunched version 2.0 with a similar focus (and a redesign by the same company - coincidence?) and TechCrunch has long been a poster child for this type of “community” of related sites linking to one another. But it just convolutes things and it’s impossible to know what content you should actually care about. What’s important here, and how are these elements connected?

Another huge issue for me (and a quite unexpected one, to be honest) is Richard MacManus’ response to the criticism in the comments. He posted two very long and detailed comments of his own addressing the negative reactions, which, on the surface, might sound like the right thing to do. Isn’t that part of the Web 2.0 ethos, after all?

Yeah, it is, but not the way MacManus handled it on this occasion. I won’t spend too much time talking about this, because you should just read his responses for yourself, but among other things, he even goes so far as to state that he doesn’t respect certain commenters - not their comments - but as people. His justification for this is that they didn’t show respect for himself or the designers, and I don’t see this at all. Two of the three commenters he singled out actually had positive things to say about the design, and I fail to recall a rule somewhere that specifies that all opinions on the subject of design have to be justified by technical know-how.

Not everyone is a designer. Not everyone knows how to explain what they don’t like about a design. You can’t ask readers for feedback and then say that only qualified, properly-educated professionals are allowed to have an opinion.

Here’s another thing that really got to me. In his response, MacManus writes:

Winston said: "Guessing that this may be the result of attempting to appease conflicting opinions through out the design process. Save opinions till the comp is fully fleshed out, then select one.. no mixing and matching."

RM: This is an extraordinary assumption to make. "Conflicting opinions"? There were none. Winston, up to this point your critique was valid. I didn't agree with a lot of it, but at least it didn't jump to conclusions like this.

He claims Winston made an absurd jump to the idea of conflicting opinions leading to issues in the design process (all too typical, gotta say). But in the article announcing the design, MacManus actually says pretty much exactly that.
Personally I love the new logo and header, but I am certain they will provoke different opinions. Why? Because that was the case with the ReadWriteWeb authors during the design process!
I’m not saying that MacManus was wrong to respond, nor that he is wrong about everything he defends. Some of the commenters were indeed disrespectful - it’s the internet, after all - but when MacManus says, “Anyway, enough of me on my high horse,” that’s a clue that he took the wrong approach in his response, and failed to attempt to understand why the reaction was so negative and why “much of the critique here did not mention how clean, modern and fresh the design is.” Could it be because it’s not? Is that even a possibility?

Let’s take a look at the design itself, now, starting with the new logo.

ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot
(ReadWriteWeb logo: Before and after)

Comments on the original logo:
  • The slash is a little awkward and has too light of a stroke.
  • The color is a little unbalanced - too much red on the left.
  • The flat yin/yang is just fine.
  • Interesting typeface.
  • Clear separation between the Read/Write part of the name and the Web.
  • Perhaps too thin to be reproduced at small sizes.
The new logo, however, takes these problems and expands on them.
  • Univers is a poor choice as the typeface. The condensed version here, with multiple point sizes being mixed together in CamelCapsStyle and with a hierarchy of blackness makes it pretty unreadable, even if the focus should be on the initials. (sidenote: are they trying to purchase the domain?)
  • Why the subtle gradient on the Yin/Yang? The rest of the site and the logo use flat colors.
  • I actually like the deep red color, why is the logo just black and grey?
  • Why did they flip the Yin/Yang over?
  • I know MacManus likes the Yin/Yang but it doesn’t work with the new slash-less branding. It’s also an extremely overused graphic symbol, and can’t stand on its own.
  • The logo is really horizontal and has to be reproduced at a relatively large size to be readable.
  • It really does just look awkward and unprofessional.
  • Why the rounded rectangle enclosure for the YinYang? It it supposed to be the same as the GigaOm branding?
  • Kerning (space between letters) is bad. Looks like the default, and makes it seem like there is an actual space between Read and Write, while Write and Web are more snug. Look closely at the dWr and eWe groupings to see this imbalance.
Moving on. My least favorite part of the redesign is the header. Here’s the first piece.

ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot

Logo aside, what are the issues? Well, as I mentioned earlier in the post, there is no clear hierarchy to the navigation. Some links on top of the (admittedly odd) rounded rectangle, and some underneath, separated by little shims. Everything gets a decent white rectangle on hover, but the sharp angles don’t quite fit with the rounded corners of the larger box. I actually tried to click the “RWW Network” text several times before realizing it is not a link. The light grey doesn’t do nearly enough to communicate “I am not a link, even though I’m in a really prominent position on the page.”

What is Last100? AltSearchEngine? How are these related? Is the CamelCaps supposed to be enough of a clue that these are sites in the RWW Network?


ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot
The right half of the header actually irks me more than anything else on the site. First, more links. How many links can you fit in one header with absolutely no hierarchy? RWW has 16. Seventeen if you count the logo, which takes you back to the homepage (sigh, even when you’re on the homepage!). Seventeen links and not a single one is remotely more important than the others.

But that’s not the bad part. The bad - awful - painful part is this collection of subscription forms and Feedburner chiclets. So many boxes, offering so little functionality to a regular reader. It clutters things up and isn’t even clear that the Feedburner chiclets are linked to entirely different feeds than the forms beside them. RWW looks too much like RSS. The custom “Go” buttons looks odd, and what does that mean anyway? Where are you going to go when you click it?!

Why not a single text area with a check box or radio buttons that let potential subscribers select daily or weekly email feeds? Make daily the default and only require someone to do something if they want a non-default setting, rather than forcing every potential subscriber to look at all these boxes and buttons and image links (and don’t forget the “Subscribe” text link, which points to the XML file) and decide between them.

And then there’s another text box underneath, making the header a veritable forest of forms. Can I submit my CV there, too?

I hope you’re not browsing with a font size larger than the default. If you are, you’ll notice that the header navigation is completely broken from an accessibility standpoint. Links disappear, everything overlaps (including forms, which I had no idea was even possible!).

ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot

OK, that’s the big stuff. Now to some littler comments on other aspects of the redesign:

This I don’t understand. Why does the footer look like this on the home page:

ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot

And like this on another page?

ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot
The “Earlier This Week” section is just fine.

ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot

And I like these post boxes on the home page, with the related images and preview of the post.

ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot

Featured Posts is also nice, but too far down the page to actually be “featured.”

ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot

Decent main content on the home page. Latest post and popular posts are featured. My beefs with the design are a lot less with the way the content is presented than with how it is structured and the navigation.

ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot

Look, more links! Lots more links in the footer. All the links in the header are down there, too. Why not put a : after RWW Network to separate it more, rather than a | which again makes it look like a visited link

ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot

OK, what’s going on here with the formatting for the comment form? Look at that (lack of) alignment! I don’t love it, and it takes away from the cleanliness of the design and the occasionally nice light grey horizontal rules.

ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot

And finally, we get two sections in the sidebar with tag clouds. One labeled “Popular Tags” that contains at least 50, and then a totally gratuitous Swicki widget, of which there are two in the sidebar (one with tags, and one that is just a Search form). Tags are cool, but this is overkill and totally non-functional.

ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot
ReadWriteWeb Redesign Screenshot

What do you think?