Plenty of websites offer design inspiration, like Pinterest, Instagram, Houzz, and the thousands of blogs on the web. But most of them are fire hoses of information, lumping everything together—a nightmare if your tastes run modern. An homage to Liberace in a feed next to a Lautner? Preposterous.
Dwell—full disclosure, I was an editor at the magazine until mid 2015—has released a newly designed website that aims to be a one-stop discovery and collaboration platform for modern design fiends and professionals. Think of it as the lovechild of Pinterest, Medium, and Quora—but for serious design snobs.
"There are a ton of sites out there that provide great inspiration, like Instagram and Pinterest," says Bobby Gaza, Dwell's chief technology officer and an alum of Apple and Beats Music, where he was the senior vice president of engineering. "They’re fantastic with that stuff, but for me it hasn’t really connected with collaboration well—like what am I going to get out of the inspiration."
The new approach follows a sea change in the publishing industry, as readers look to social networks, not publishers' home pages, for news and information. Rather than try to chase news, a common editorial strategy that requires tremendous resources and has unreliable outcomes, Dwell wants to capitalize on what it's always done well: aspirational modern design.
The new site's public beta launched this weekend and the full rollout and accompanying iOS app are expected in early August. Instead of organizing the site like most editorial publishers around new stories or editor-chosen placements on a single home page, Gaza and his team—about 20 people, many of whom used to work with him at Apple and Beats—repositioned the site as a socially driven database of its more than 300,000 images that have surfaced for individual users based on what they like, whether it's user-generated content collections—think Pinterest pages—or the metadata attached to a specific image or story.
When users—whether people or companies—log on to the home page, they'll see a collection of images and stories under the banner of "Just for You." That content is a combination of items chosen by the site's machine-learning model and things that other people whom the user follows on Dwell.com has liked. ("Having the human touch involved is really important with any kind of social feed or interest feed that you’re generating," Gaza says.)
Clicking into a story brings you to a page that's formatted a lot like Medium's editorial content: a big hero image, very legible text set against a white background, and no banner ads or distracting sidebars. Up top, there are options to add the story to one of your Dwell collections, "like" the post, and share—but only to Dwell, not to other social media platforms.
The real baseline of the site is at the image level, where users can annotate individual photos with product names, ask questions about what they see in the photos, and hopefully get an answer from fellow readers, the architects behind the project, or Dwell's editors and community managers. Additionally, users can publish their own content using Dwell's images along with their own uploads in the form of collections and blog posts. The site's search function gives users another layer of discovery to find things such as prefab houses, cabins, and homes that prominently feature a favorite material, such as concrete.
"We’ve really focused on annotating images and telling a story behind an image," Gaza says. "Anyone can create their own story in Dwell and write their own content." For those who have struggled to find the true context of a photograph on Pinterest or Tumblr, this could be great news, since the Dwell-uploaded images will be accompanied by editor-written captions and tags (which often include material and product callouts). It's also a plus for designers with clients who are hell-bent on getting a specific wallpaper or chair seen on a mood board. Dwell is hoping that its audience is knowledgeable enough to answer any questions readers might have about information not in the caption—though that does make it easier to spread misinformation and spam at a time when many publications are moving away from user comments.
Dwell, which is a privately owned company, began taking on investors in 2013 to beef up its digital presence. One of its more prominent investors is Dave Morin, a founder of Path and an early employee of Facebook who became involved with Dwell in early 2015. That may explain the company's motivations to become a kind of social network for architects, designers, clients, and design fans. Whether or not it can sustain its audience and get meaningful engagement in the era of Facebook dominance is the question.
According to its 2016 media kit, Dwell has a combined audience—mostly people in their late 30s and 40s with household incomes more than $100,000 per year—that's about 3.5 million strong across its print, web, live events, e-commerce, and real estate platforms. The website alone receives about 1.5 million unique visitors monthly.
When I ask about the competition, Gaza says, "There are some obvious ones that people will point to, like Houzz," but he's cautious not to draw parallels to Houzz or other companies. "We’re coming at it more focused," he says. "We really want to provide a more focused community based on modern design and living and getting that connection between designers and architects."
The old Dwell.com earned revenue from banner ads—a traditional advertising model that Gaza and Dwell's publisher and CEO Michela O'Connor Abrams say has "rapidly declined in efficiency"—and sponsored content. The company argues that moving to a native advertising model makes for a less visually intrusive user experience that balances the emphasis on curation with transparency. Eventually it will also earn money through revenue sharing from product recommendations and click-throughs to purchases.
Over the years, Dwell—which launched its first issue in 2000—has expanded its repertoire beyond print into a series of platforms built around an audience of modern design enthusiasts, including trade shows, Dwell-branded prefab homes, a real estate company, and an e-commerce site. (The current revenue breakdown is 50% print, 30% digital, 10% events, and 10% licensing and research.) Perhaps the newly designed website will set the pace for the media brand's future, but it faces tough competition from popular sites like Facebook, Pinterest, and Houzz. Architizer attempted to build a social network for architecture and design professionals, but it didn't pan out so it shifted to a marketplace model. Dwell sees the key difference being that it's using social networking as a tool for engagement with its content and that it's for a much broader audience.
"A very simple lesson for us was to keep in mind that the Dwell community on all platforms has been the richest confluence of all trade professionals and design-savvy consumers, making a social network completely applicable where it would be less appealing in a pure trade environment," Gaza and O'Connor Abrams wrote by email. "The Dwell team has previously built community platforms for Apple, Beats Music, Yahoo!, CNET, and Whiskey Media. We recognize the incredible feat it takes to build a social network that resonates. While our platform definitely provides social features, that’s not our final destination."
Dwell puts a lot of faith in its "design-passionate" community, but will they be interested in participating in another social network—and continue to participate when the novelty wears off?