Times Reader 2.0

by Omatic Design

Not paper.

I’VE SEEN THEM out of the corner my eye, barely registered but persistently begging for my attention. Curiosity finally got the best of me—I broke down and clicked on a banner ad. There was a profound sense of dread as if I had disturbed the natural order of things and demons might alight from the sky, spewing Mentos and soda. (Note: Things turned out okay.)

I was interested in the Times Reader, the cross-platform subscription-based digital version of the New York Times. It’s had time to mature, so I took a look at this hybrid promise. It rides on Adobe Air software, offering a something akin to a dynamic PDF, refreshing content when you’re online, fixed and available on your computer when you’re not. Wrapped in the idea of the newspaper experience and using strange words such as “beautiful,” the demo presents what seems to be an agreeable looking version with some nifty navigation mechanisms and a much-touted ability to cheat on the Times Crossword. Those rascals!

There’s a lot of discussion ’round these parts concerning the experience of reading a newspaper, most of it landing on the delight-of-the-printed-word side of the issue. What I appreciate about the idea of the Times Reader is that this is about control of content and design. While the Times’ website is a model of design efficiency, it labors under the constraints that were put in place by software engineers long ago. The Times Reader embraces technology while attempting to find a bridge between the physicality of reading a paper and the ephemeral nature of the online world. The same could be said for specimens such as the Kindle, but the designed experience is not as rich and it shoehorns in an huge array of content (previously existing in a typography-based designed form called a book) into its proprietary design language.

Editorial design was solidly dialed in by newspapers way back when. There was the array of typography, the large and striking images, the flow of stories within the construct of a linear reading experience. It looked and felt good. It was an experience in the truer sense of the word. It was also the early, crusty version of Web Infinity-Point-Whatever. We got snippets of stories on the front page that carried over to other pages. We got ink on our fingers, the pages creased, the coffee stain bled into the other side of the page and it never folded back into its original pristine form, dammit. It was also simply there. The design constraints put on a newspaper were those of substrate, ink, screen and physical dimension.

Conventions of online design and the inherent limitations of the technology tend to make design bend to their will. Control is often lessened or lost. Typography is subjugated by the restrictions of your machine and code. Negative space and composition are not of keen interest when there’s a pile of content to fit on that screen.

All design is subject to form and the trick is to find the balance and create something of experiential wonder within context without the context being an overwhelming factor. With the Times Reader, I see a great effort to take back control of design. They’re looking to find that balance in an on-screen context, partly freed of and partly acknowledging the world in which it exists without being bullied by it. Kudos.