Observing Design Observer’s design

Oh, good­ness. I start­ed writ­ing this post in Jan­u­ary, and have had it basi­cal­ly fin­ished for weeks now. I’ve been putting off actu­al­ly post­ing it for some time, think­ing it needs more work. But now — in fact, just three hours ago — Design Observ­er unveiled a redesign and made me look like some kind of jerk. Now, if that isn’t an object les­son in ship­ping

Design Observ­er looks dat­ed.

The Past

DO’s head­er boasts proud­ly that it’design-observer-2s been oper­at­ing since 2003, and you can tell. Look at it with 2014 eyes and you’ll observe a non‐responsive fixed‐width lay­out with tiny text. Is that real­ly a blogroll? Where are the ubiq­ui­tous social shar­ing but­tons?

It’s like a time cap­sule of early‐2000s blog design.

And that’s why it’s so great.

Design Observ­er reminds me of a lot of web­sites from the ‘00s, some of the first blog‐ish things I ever read. (Like Pix­el­sur­geon! Or Design is Kinky! Or Pix­el­sur­geon!) Maybe I owe the fond­ness to my youth, and its design lim­i­ta­tions to the bad old days of prim­i­tive web browsers. Or maybe it was just Web-1.9(beta) style. To my eyes, though, the look holds up well.

The Present

The infor­ma­tion den­si­ty on Design Observ­er is amaz­ing and that prob­a­bly has a lot to do with the type­face, which is tiny by today’s stan­dards. I peeked into the HTML because I knew the type­face appealed to me, but I couldn’t quite put my fin­ger on why. IT’S 8 POINT VERDANA, you guys!1 It’s so tiny, yet so crisp and read­able. (Com­pare that to Ari­al, or its bla­tant rip‐off Hel­veti­ca.2)

The site was def­i­nite­ly not designed with the cur­rent tablet craze in mind, and as a tablet own­er who doesn’t love tablets, I like that. That said, I shud­der to think of what Design Observ­er must look like at unscaled ‘reti­na’ res­o­lu­tions.

The Future

Speak­ing of the future, I fear the day I’m going to vis­it Design Observ­er and find a Medi­u­mi­fi­ca­tion has hap­pened — this has to be on their roadmap. It does seems a lit­tle strange for a design site like DO not to be fol­low­ing what are, for bet­ter or worse (Here’s my bal­lot! I vote ‘worse’!) mod­ern design con­ven­tions, which favor clum­sy UI for smudgy fin­gers over — you know — the stuff that helps peo­ple do stuff.3

And once it’s gone, it’s gone. Sad­ly, Design Observer’s robots.txt file tells most search engine crawlers to sim­ply go away. DO specif­i­cal­ly includ­ed a rule ban­ning the Inter­net Archive, which means the page has nev­er been cap­tured by the Way­back Machine, the Internet’s somewhat‐official time cap­sule… and nev­er will. This makes it tough, if not impos­si­ble, to see what Design Observ­er looked like ten years ago, two years ago and even last week, to see how it changed with the times — or didn’t — to become what it is today.

And when this frankly won­der­ful design is replaced by some­thing “bet­ter” and “mod­ern,” it will also dis­ap­pear for­ev­er. Hope this helps.

  1. In col­lege, I prob­a­bly spent more time choos­ing a font for AOL Instant Mes­sen­ger than I did study­ing for some class­es, and this size Ver­dana was what I’d always come back to.
  2. I kid… I own the DVD, hon­est! Now please put down those taste­ful Dieter‐Rams‐designed pitch­forks.
  3. I’m not against design­ing while keep­ing mobile devices in mind, but these designs almost always come with design­ers choos­ing to reduce func­tion­al­i­ty across all devices in the name of con­sis­ten­cy. Hey world, news flash — you can do respon­sive design in a way that doesn’t do away with side­bars, page chrome and just gen­er­al func­tion­al­i­ty until web­sites look like Write­Room. Just make it degrade nice­ly.

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