Standard templates aren't such a bad idea

Earlier today I posted a question on Twitter:

Standard site templates: says nay, I say yea. How vote ye?

Responses came quickly:

danjohn1234 @yelvington a resounding yea from me on templates. Content trumps design always. The content should set a mareket apart, not the design.

gmarkham @yelvington voting yea with some ifs: if totally customizable and if (the big one) under local control/decision-making.

Ben LaMothe
BenLaMothe @yelvington Could you elaborate on your yea vote? Do you think it's OK to have 20-some titles each have essentially the same look/feel?

Seth Long
greenergrad @yelvington std templates are a good starting point when introducing new concepts and tech to newsrooms. long term, though? nay.

Will Duncan
imagetic @yelvington i honestly think not having your own CMS/web-team is long-term suicide.

Ryan Sholin
ryansholin @yelvington I double-dog-dare @benlamothe to support more than 20 or so sites without some standardization of templates.

Elaine Clisham
eclisham @yelvington If most standard designs didn't suck so badly

I asked because I happen to be working on a project that will include standard templates. There are some good arguments for using them, including:

  • Economy. This is not a good time to be staffing 100 newspapers with 100 talented Web designers, even if it were possible to find 100 talented web designers, or to be plunging 1,200 or so people into endless design debates. (This is based on my experience that at least a dozen different people think they're key decisionmakers in every design process.)
  • Best practices: There actually are some, and adhering to them is a good idea, particularly in areas like usability.
  • Advertising network requirements: You can't make money from networked advertising if you don't follow network standards.
  • Supportability: When your design genius moves on to a more respectable job playing piano in a bawdy house, the poor saps who were left behind may need to change or fix something. It would be good if others could figure out how the design works, and how it was implemented.

Actually, I think Elaine should win the door prize for identifying the real problem, which is designs that suck. Unless you either have way too much time on your hands or you're working on a term paper for a journalism class, you're not likely to be pulling up a couple of dozen newspaper websites all belonging to Megalomedia Corporation and comparing them to see if they're different. It's far more likely that you visit one and conclude it's a godawful mess, without regard to whether it's a shared design.

Around the turn of the century, a big newspaper company called Knight-Ridder, or KnightRidder, or Knight Ridder, depending on which way the branding engine was blowing, rolled out a standard site design that many regarded as an abomination. Its biggest sin wasn't that it was ugly (although many of us thought it was), or that it was common across many markets, but rather that it locked all the K-R sites into an "online news" design that was incapable of reflecting the actual online news content. Although the situation improved somewhat in later revisions of the production system, the negative image stuck in everybody's minds.

Done well, a standard site design can provide flexibility from day to day and can be "skinned" and customized to match market requirements while still delivering the benefits of standardization. I think Jay Small's work in this area at Scripps is a good example, and Chris Muldrow and Bill Blevins unquestionably cleaned up some horrid random designs by implementing solid standards at CNHI and Gatehouse.

In our redesign work at Morris, to be implemented on our new Drupal-based publishing platform, I'm hoping that we can nail down best practices and standardize the parts that ought to be standardized, while handing editors and community interaction managers a new level of day-to-day control so that presentations can effectively celebrate content.

Some frequent design errors that I see are:

Excessive decoration. This often happens because an actual graphic designer got pulled into the process. The Web requires a gentle touch with a focus on usability.

Unsustainable/unsupportable content requirements. That design that seemed like such a lovely idea when it was built out of Lorem Ipsums and random stock images may be a cruel master to serve day after day after day when the actual content doesn't rise to the requirements of the layout.

Failure to reflect a content vision. This may be due to a failure to have actually have a content vision (maybe the 80 percent case, judging from a look at American newspaper sites), but it also can come from leaving the designer to wander around and guess.

Failure to prioritize, and its cousin, failure to say "no." Now that a lot of folks at the newspaper realize the Internet is actually important, they're all demanding a chunk of homepage real estate. That's how we wind up with 110 links and 45 images and a 2-megabyte download before a page will render, and it's how we -- oops! Where's the search box? Didn't you say we were going to have blogs and forums? How in Hades can I buy an ad on this site?

Failure to realize that a homepage is not a site design. A news website is broad and deep, and it requires careful thinking about how to organize the infospace -- a working navigational taxonomy. It requires a realization that a large part of the audience doesn't enter through the homepage. It requires attention to the details that tie together disparate bits of content and functionality around contexts. I'm looking at item X. What other items might be of particular interest to me?


Thanks for the door prize (although I'm scared to ask what it is). Further random thoughts: Years ago newspapers made the classic Clayton-Christensen-disruptive-innovation mistake of trying to port the old business model into a new space -- hence most newspaper Web sites look pretty much like newspaper pages. This leads to the inevitable fights about content above the fold, usually resulting in anything that isn't news (oh, say, employment ads, for example) being shunted to the side or to a nav bar and being reduced to four-point type. And, of course, by doing this, we've trained our audience so they now expect that. Try to change it and you're dead. So -- your points about a content vision and prioritization are really the key ones. Why do people come to a newspaper site? Sometimes for news, sometimes for classifieds, sometimes to find something to do or somewhere to go, sometimes for archived content, etc. Same person, different reasons on different visits, kinda like Marriott in Clayton Christensen's book. So why don't we acknowledge that, and make it easy for visitors to find what they need on EVERY VISIT, even if it's not always news? This is why I really like and I'm sorry you added back news and ads but I understand you felt you had to (see what I mean about training our audience?). We should figure out what the main doors into a site should be, and put 'em right out there for visitors to go through. Become the local information portal site, not just the newspaper site, and brand accordingly. (See also the OLD One possible template might be Surely newspaper sites have similar breadth of mission, and could adopt a similar points-of-entry strategy? Or even something like the prototype that North Jersey came up with during N2 1.0? OR ... how about something really radical, like a local information portal-branded site with a Google-looking home page, the words "What are you looking for today?" over the search window and perhaps news headlines under the search window, and no other stuff to gum it up? OK, too radical. I'll shut up now.

While I like acknowledging that folks use the site for different reasons and shunting traffic appropriately, local news audiences (unlike Google's) often don't know what they're looking for. Instead, I've interpreted the folly to be thinking that there is a division between classifieds/ads/news on the local level. They all tell you about your community. On, we're implementing a solution where events, sponsorships, and news all share a common node type and are segregated using taxonomy. So, something like a big event, is just a story with labeled with "event calendar" and has a corresponding date. This way we can blend the three almost entirely on the front page, but as the user navigates the scope of the content on the main navigation path becomes narrower. We're a small operation, and we've only taken it about 1/10th of the way, but I think we've got the core kernel set up. ---- But, yes, this business of porting the old content/style to the Web continues to be nothing short of disastrous for established media.

If your templating system takes advantage of the object-oriented concept of inheritance, then "template sameness" is optional and thus a non-issue. Keep the bits of the parent template that what you want/don't have a better alternative and override the rest. The templating system used by Jay Small at Scripps (referenced above) has this feature.

Right. Inherit, then override (if you have a legitimate reason). The system we're deploying, based on Drupal, does exactly that. The harder question is: What's a legitimate reason for deviating from the standard? My experience, unfortunately, has been that design discussions tend to entangle ego and personal preference with a minority portion of business reasoning.

The downside of templates is that you can't depart from them very much. The reason that's usually a *really big* downside is that the templates usually suck (slow, cumbersome, hard to navigate, etc.). You pretty much nailed it -- the problem isn't templates, it's templates that suck. One possibly helpful hint -- the photo desk at the paper I worked at before being laid off had a slogan, Kill One To Get One (KOTGO for short) -- if you want to add a photo assignment on short notice, you have to tell them which existing assignment you want to kill. Tell people on your design committee that if they want to add a "feature," they have to name the feature they'll kill to get the one they think is better.

I think another question that should be asked is "Who is designing the templates?". Opinions vary on what is "good" design and everyone has different taste, but relying on converted print designers for your web site design does not make much sense. Deciding what your site is supposed to be should be one of the first priorities. Are you a news site with Community content thrown in or are you a Community site with news available. I happen to think separating the two like The Miami Herald did is the way to go, but that is opinion. Designing a news site is a totally different endeavor than building a community site. Another aspect is the ads. I'm not sure what the optimal content to ad ratio should be but it seems with ads under the nav, ads in the left inset on article pages (which I think is an abomination), ads in the side rail, pop ups, slide downs, flyovers and corner peels, newspaper sites are losing the trust of the user. It appears desperate and also puts revenue over the user experience and that is the wrong way to go. User experience should be paramount in building a relationship that will bring that user back because they . I am all for making money and feel the solution is to limit ad spaces, or make them less intrusive, and charge more money for them. Is that viable or not? I don't know. It's a designers suggestion to the ad people. Building a design shop either at the local paper or corporate and actually spending money to get quality people would go a long way in improving the look of newspaper sites. Having the user testing and other resources of say Morris Digital Works or McClatchy Interactive combined with top design talent could turn around the awful design trends of newspaper sites and could be done in house and for niche sites. It's either that or spend big bucks to have outside agencies design your site. While it would look good, making the investment in your own people can payback dividends on the next redesign. Sorry for the rambling of the comment and since I am a designer please excuse any run on sentences or lack of punctuation.