Last year I wrote about the trend towards separation between the design creators and the content creators and I think it’s time to revisit that topic. The idea was that, although the tools of the future would mean there would be less need for individual content to be designed and developed by hand, there would be an increasing number of opportunities for content to be viewed within the context the consumer wants to view it rather than the way the designer wanted it viewed.
Okay, that sounds a lot more complicated than it is. Here’s a scenario:
- I write interesting articles
- I post them on my MySpace-inspired, geocities refugee, blink-tag-heavy page
- You refuse to read them because the design literally makes your eyeballs itchy.
- Some other guy writes reeeeeeeally dull articles
- He posts them on his beautifully-designed, subtly gradiented, drop-shadowed, Helvetica Neue Light site
- You refuse to read them because the content is so dull your heart-rate slows almost to a stop and you forget to breathe.
The type of content/design separation I’m talking about here would mean you take my wonderfully written articles, his exquisitely-designed layout and put the two together. Technically, you might be able to create a brain-numbingly-dull but eye-ball-searing monster out of the left-over parts but you shouldn’t. At the moment, we can’t just take any arbitrary design and apply it to any arbitrary content but it won’t be that long. As I mentioned last year, the separation of design and content is not a bad thing for designers, in fact, it’s an opportunity to create a better content consumption experience than the next guy.
The last year has provided a great number of examples of this trend and it seems it can only continue. Some of the more high-profile ones are:
The hype around this was so immense that everybody absolutely had to have it on launch day. It was so popular, in fact, that it was about a week before anyone could actually use it, the load on their servers bringing them grinding to a halt. It was kinda justified, though. Having all of your own tailored content pulled from Twitter, FaceBook and any number of recommended channels (groups of RSS feeds and websites) then presented to you as a personalised magazine is quite enjoyable. The creators got into a bit of trouble for screen-scraping (what they refer to as ‘parsing’) rather than using the content the way the creators intended but that seemed to die down once the content creators realised they were still getting the ad revenue.
This really applies to any RSS reader but Reeder by Silvio Rizzi is a particularly nice and well-known example. RSS is really the best example of context-free content where, for many years now, the audience has had the ability to take in the content of articles in their reader of choice. Initially, this was for convenience – why access content in 20 different places when you could access one – but now that the RSS-consuming public are au fait with that, it has moved on to more aesthetic concerns. Reeder presents articles in off-black text on an off-white background in Helvetica. It’s possibly an overused visual cliché but it’s a nice one and it works.
Bookmarklets, UserScript, UserStyles and Extensions
There are a number of bookmarklets whose specific purpose is to apply a predefined design to any arbitrary content. Many of them use Helvetica. Although Bookmarklets have been around for a long time, their popularity never really took off with the mainstream web audience. It’s probably something to do with the conflicting messages tech-types give to non-tech-types: “Never install programs from the web, they’re almost certainly viruses” and “A Bookmarklet is a little program that runs in your browser...”. UserScripts keep pushing the boundaries for what is possible via JS but require a level of technical ability beyond the vast majority. UserStyles are a more passive way of doing many of the same things as UserScripts and Bookmarklets although whereas they run JS and actively modify the page, UserStyles take the markup they’re given and change it.
At the moment, it seems the most user-understandable way to enhance the browser experience is with browser extensions, even if they are simply used to run the same JS you’d have in a bookmarklet or a userscript.
We’re getting quite meta here. If you’re using Google Reader for consuming your RSS, you’ve already brought the content into a new context. Helvetireader from Jon Hicks takes that content and overlays another design. Which uses Helvetica.
I mentioned this briefly last year. This is probably the highest-profile bookmarklet in this field. In the words of the creators, arc90, it ‘...makes reading on the Web more enjoyable by removing the clutter...’ actually, that’s a far better way of describing what I’m talking about than my whole first three paragraphs. This allows a few variations in designs giving the user a bit more control over how they want things presented.
This is superficially similar to readability but whereas with readability, you customise the design before you install the bookmarklet, this allows you to choose your design each time it is launched.
More than words...
When I’m referring to content, I don’t just mean text. Any media – audio, video, photo – can be separated from its original context and presented in a more accessible way. QuietTube does this for YouTube videos, presenting them on a white page with no recommended videos, no channel subscription buttons and, most importantly, no comments. Flickriver presents the photos from a Flickr user’s account on a black background in an endless scroll so that you can just immerse yourself in the photos without having to look for the ‘next’ button every time. Huffduffer picks up any audio files you want in webpages and gives them to you as an RSS feed that can be subscribed to in iTunes. You’re taking the audio out of its original context and consuming it how you choose.