Launched in 2003, Design Observer has been one of the most influential sources for design thinking and criticism on the web. It was founded by four outspoken design critics at a time before the web really cared about design, inspiring an almost cult-like following among many readers. Today it remains a cornerstone of the online design community.
Yet Design Observer has never been a model for web design, and until recently, it had the look and feel of a website a few years out of time. This week, Design Observer is rolling out a new design, which puts an emphasis on being mobile- and social media-friendly in an attempt to increase page views. Will it hold up to the gimlet eye of the design-savvy Internet that Design Observer itself helped to create?
"When we started Design Observer, we had this dream: what if everyone really cared about design and voiced those opinions and argued about them?" Design Observer co-founder and Pentagram partner Michael Bierut tells Co.Design. "To a large degree, that world has now come to pass. Everyone cares about design now."
The fact that everyone cares about design now makes it harder than ever to ignore the fact that Design Observer looks decidedly dated. The most recent version of the site resembled an old-school blog even when it was released in 2009: a slim column of content sandwiched between two massive, link-heavy side bars. Traffic to Design Observer is up 45% since 2009. But that isn't tremendous growth for such an influential site: over the past year, the site has only pulled in around 4 million page views. Modernizing the look, feel, and reach of the site was critical.
"The way it looked up until now we felt was overwhelming and confusing," Bierut says. "In this day and age, having a really dense, multi-channel site doesn't really seem appropriate anymore." The trick was to modernize and simplify the Design Observer while maintaining its focus on critical, long-form conversations about design. All while keeping the new design in-house.
The most obvious change is that the new look abandons the old design's Pee Chee lemon color for a bolder blue design, while focusing the homepage from a river of blog posts into the three big stories of the day.
"We're not trying to be always on," says Bierut about the new homepage. "The role we want to play in our readers' lives is that when our readers get up in the morning, come home from school, or read the site after dinner, there's worthwhile new content for them. We want to establish real intimacy with our readers, with an expectation and respect for their times."
In addition to the new front page design, posts on Design Observer are now organized into mosaic-like portals of stories centered around certain topics, an approach to archiving that's designed to make Design Observer more of a reference tool.
But the biggest practical change about the new Design Observer might just be the way it is doubling down on the community, and concertedly spreading the site's tendrils into social media for the first time.
"One thing we learned recently was that Facebook and Twitter were not really the ancillary publicizing arms to Design Observer that we thought they were, but people's primary entry into the site," says Jessica Helfand, another co-founder. "I guess everyone else already knew that, but when we realized it, it was kind of a big moment."
To address Design Observer's new social reach, the site is doing more than adding the ubiquitous social media buttons you expect from a modern site. They are also putting a new emphasis on the Design Observer community, allowing users to register to not only comment on articles, or link their own social media feeds and websites, but link their design influences as well, which Helfand hopes will prove an "interesting benchmark" that will turn Design Observer into a social media network of some of the movers and shakers in the world of contemporary design criticism.
Design Observer knows it will have it share of critics, but for his part, Bierut feels that that is just par for the course in a world where everyone cares about design. "I'm sure we'll be criticized for continuing to favor a design that is beholden to the legacy of print," Bierut says. "We live in a world where you can't even redesign a logo without a pile-on. But I'm grateful to live in a world where at least now people who are thoughtful will figure out why they hate it."
Helfand doesn't seem to quite share his serene outlook. "There's a part of me that really wishes I could just get out of the country for the week, maybe buy a ticket to the moon," Helfand laughs. "I want to really dig my head in the sand. Democracy and design can be very strange bedfellows."
Correction: Based upon statements made during our interview with Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand before the site was officially relaunched, the original version of this article incorrectly stated that the new Design Observer is fully responsive. That is incorrect. In keeping with the site's idiosyncratic tendency to be a few years out of step with the rest of the design world, the new Design Observer is not responsive. The article has been edited to correct the error.