Algorithmic layout: Another thing the visual journalists are going to hate

Ever since we began using computers to handle news -- which is probably a lot longer than you think -- there has been a notion of automating the processes of laying out pages. Long before InDesign, long before Quark, long before Pagemaker there were attempts to apply algorithms to news, to sort and arrange and place items on pages without humans driving every detail of the process.

Some of them were pretty naive. Somewhere in a dusty corner of my memory, probably from the late 1970s or early 1980s, is the voice of an indignant editor reacting to some computer geek's assumption that longer stories were more important than short ones, so story length could be used to determine layouts.

News judgment is far more complex than that, of course. But let's be honest: It's not infinitely complex, and any news editor knows that there are predictable patterns that handle most page layout.

On the Web, we've embraced algorithmic layout from the earliest days. We use templates. We flow content into a limited number of highly formatted containers. We're so automated that the very possibility of overriding standard designs becomes a revolutionary act.

As print continues to decline (and make no mistake: it will), you're going to see a collision between these two worlds.

Print designers want total control over arbitrary layout. The makers of tools for print designers -- especially Adobe -- will be trying to cram their toolkit into digital bottles. Adobe's plan for the iPad was to use InDesign for page layout, generating Flash components that would be compiled into a downloadable app. Now that Apple has killed Flash on the iPad, magazine designers are making iPad "applications" that are really collections of giant JPG files generated by print tools.

Image files! No wonder the apps are so huge. It's like a flashback to the mid-1990s, when the New York Times homepage on the Web was one big GIF file.

Here's my prediction: Algorithmic layout is going to win. The economics are brutal and they will decide.

We already have Gannett moving its newspaper layout work to central "Production Centers" -- hospices for print. My friends in the visual journalism community hate hate hate this. I understand why. I laid out newspaper pages for years. Decoupling product construction from reporting and editing the news is not something to celebrate. But I also understand the economic drivers behind it.

The entities formerly known as newsrooms -- Gannett calls them "Information Centers" -- will oddly enough be more closely coupled to their websites than their print products. Their world will be inverted. They will be paying more attention to metadata -- classification, tagging, geocoding, the elements of the semantic Web.

When you do this right, you create the conditions necessary for efficient algorithmic construction of a broad set of products tailored for specific situations. Web pages. Apps for the iPad. Mobile services. Microzoned products, defined by geography or interest or the user's current status, delivered via electronic or even print processes, but "finished" with fairly little human involvement in the "pages" that are consumed.

None of this suggests that visual journalists aren't important, or that design isn't part of storytelling. But we need to be much more judicious about where and how we expend these resources. As I've often said, a well-designed system allows the human override of default behaviors, but does not require human intervention. Focus your design energies where they will pay off. That's the best outcome we can hope to see from the collision of these approaches.


As a visual artist who has, for decades, used sets of analogue processes (essentially algorithms) to shape the design of my work, as a former tabloid layout designer, as a former web designer and as a user of Flipboard on iPad, I'm comfortable with algorithmic layout. My feeling is that anything that can be automated, should be. The art is in the design of the production, the look is the result of processes used to create it. Since humans design the processes or, in other words, write the algorithms, it's all human. Analogue or digital, hands on or hands off, it's the result that matters. A page either communicates as it should or it doesn't. Visual designers can be geeks, too, we don't need to hate anything except bad design.

IMHO algorithmic "layout" already has won in web and mobile. It's the only way to produce that content in an economically feasible fashion for a multitude of devices and screen sizes. Ok, it's discussable if the placement of boxes in a mostly linear fashion deserves to be called layout More advanced algorihmic layout using constraint-based layout techniques to place content on a 2d grid is used in directories, most yellow pages and catalogues. The publishers desire to have a newspaper like rendition of the content on tablets like the ipad (not sure if this also the readers desire) can IMHO only be solved with algorithmic layout. While national/global monthly, and may be weekly magazines can be manually relayoutet twice for a horizontal and a vertical layou for a single device like the iPad. Even these magazines often have a placed layout only for one of the orientations and use algorithmic layout for the other. Manual layout will not be able to scale with the upcoming plethora of tablet devices. It is also impossible to have a manual layout that works well with user scalable font sizes (IMHO one of the big advantages of tablets in an aging society). Alltogehter manual layout is simply undoable on a daily, or subdaily basis for a multitude of screen sizes and devices. Hence we are working towards story(tyoe) templates, , priorities, placement rules and layouthinting in our approaches towards newspaper-like renditions of newspaper content on tablets and e-readers.

I entirely agree with the drift of the article that algorithmic layout is both logical from an economic point of view and also, often, desirable from the point of view of the designer trying to deal with the giant river of content flowing through the web. Nevertheless it is clear that there are things that may be lost as print layout goes. My two top bugbears are typography and columnation and the way most web designers don't make best use of them. Playing with typefaces has so far been restricted by the capabilities of web browsers. But surely now there's a chance to do things better. Columnation? The NYT does this well and the stylish habit is spreading, but as a technique it still seems to be well behind where my intuition says it should be. Without knowing anything about the technicalities of it, I fear that the stress of HTML 5 on video and suchlike will not things better on these fronts. Hopefully someone can contradict this. So here's to the WWW getting better and better as well as bigger and bigger.

"Algorithms are people, too" -- now, that would produce a really good webzine title! Steve, like you I laid out newspaper pages for years. I think that visual journalism is part of the story telling and should be increasingly embedded on the article/piece/post/news itself. Like, an infographic must not be seen as a part of the layout -- something colourful enough to save a dense, monolithic, horrible, one-page article. Sometimes the graphic IS the story.