Foot in Mouth  ·  WSG London


I make no secret of the fact that I’m a fan of Design Observer. Their literate and thoughtful commentary on a huge range of design topics is a constant joy—in fact all that’s been letting them down, until now, has been their somewhat unreadable website.

The fluid design meant that on a wide monitor—for those of us who like to go full-screen—line-lengths got unreasonably long, while the tiny grey text on the dark background meant that when I was a little tired, I really had to strain to read it (and my eyesight is a long way from being bad).

Their new website is a huge improvement over the old one. It’s nicely proportioned, with good colour choices and strong branding, and moving their regular ‘Observed’ column to a linkblog is a sensible choice. However, in my view it is lacking in polish, and there are a number of niggling issues which reduce its usability.

Links that—through colour choice, bolded text or other styling—overwhelm the main content are obviously a bad idea, and this is doubly true for a site like Design Observer which is, fundamentally, really worth actually reading. However, it’s all too easy to let things slip too far the other way, and that’s what seems to have happened here. Their green links, distinguished from normal text only by their colour, simply fade into the paragraphs: they’re too hard to pick out. Green is a tricky colour at the best of times, and to be honest I hardly ever use it for links for this very reason: the already difficult task of striking a balance between readability and flow is even tougher when trying to use green.

Using that same colour for links in the sidebar was an equally bad decision: against the two grey-green background shades they have an even worse tendency to vanish. Given that for the ‘Observed’ section the links are the primary content, the difficulty of picking them out is a serious design flaw.

On a more positive note, I’m glad to see that they now have a nice obvious permalink. If an article continues “after the fold”—that is, if you have to click a “Continue reading” link to get the whole thing—then I like to just click the link and read the entire article on the individual archive page. However, their “Continue reading” links always jumped down to the point in the article where, on the front page, they were cut off—something I always found immensely irritating.

A proper, clearly labelled permalink is a decent solution to this issue (although their “Continue reading” links are the same as ever). However, it drives me mad that article titles still aren’t permalinks. We’re not living in the dark ages of blog design anymore! Having titles link to their respective article pages is an obvious and intuitive interface decision, and I cannot understand the reason for not doing it. It’s not as if anything is lost by doing it—no one’s stopping them having a separate permalink as well!

One last confusing issue: why does the “Continue reading this article” link squash the post metadata up on the right-hand side of the column? It’s ugly and throws the user: they spend time noticing a glaring visual error rather than reading the article or clicking on the links. Visual polish is not just icing, it is a vital component of good design, allowing the user to seamlessly absorb and use the information presented without tripping over presentational inadequacies. One would have thought that the Design Observer team, of all people, would know this.

6 responses

Don’t suppose there’s a good archived version of the old one, for comparison?

It was just the MT ‘Trendy’ template with a few colour tweaks and the Design Observer logo.

Good article, thorough! But while the new design has greatly improved the reading experience, I’m still hesitant to say I like it over the old one.

When I focus on the primary column, it seems all off balance, not well designed at all. And it doesn’t stand out in the same way their previous design did, which is a shame, because the site has always been something very special. Amazing how a template from the blogging system can seem like such a different and refreshing design.

However, reading experience is of course all that matters in the end. :)

Yes, to be honest I’m beginning to agree with you. Some designs grow on one; this has done the opposite.

design observer’s great

If it wasn’t, I doubt I’d have bothered writing about it.

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