Class and Web Design Part 3a: Tabloid vs. Broadsheet


What’s wrong with this picture?

(This is Part 3a. Please check out Part 1 , Part 2, and Part 3)

There’s a fascinating debate at Subtraction about the design of the new New York Post web site, between the AIGA’s Liz Danzico and the New York Times‘ (and Subtraction’s) Khoi Vinh. The discussion, I think, dances around class issues all over the place as Khoi and Liz speculate about what is and is not appropriate to what they think of as the typical New York Post reader.

I think class totally comes into play in this conversation. The Post and the Times are, in fact, classic and quintessential class markers. In fact, class is probably the easiest and most obvious way of differentiating the two papers overall (besides the tabloid/broadsheet format). The Times is a higher class product in nearly every way, from the reading level to the products advertised to the people featured in the “Vows” section.

Yes, there is a lot of crossover between the papers’ readerships, and for sports and gossip (and even occasionally local investigative journalism) the Post may pick up some of the Times‘ demographic. But sports and gossip are class markers that increasingly bleed across the class spectrum. Plus, is there no better indicator of the Times‘ class pretention that they still deliberately avoid in-depth sports coverage, salacious celebrity gossip, and comic strips?

This difference affects their design as well. Is it even conceivable that, for example, you could have a paper that looked like the Post but had the same journalistic quality as the Times? Can you imagine the Post with a full-page headline reading “WHITE HOUSE DISPUTES BOOK’S ACCOUNT OF RIFTS ON IRAQ” slapped across a huge photo of Bob Woodward? The design and the content are linked. Even the broadsheet format of the Times (a format empirically just plain wrong for decent usability) is a deliberate attempt by the Times to maintain a connection with an illustrious past and to avoid being perceived as a working-class tabloid paper meant to be read on the subway. It’s a class-based design decision.

The Language of Class

I see a lot of class attributes in the words both Khoi and Liz used to describe how the Post should manifest itself online:

  • “friendly and a bit salacious”
  • “approachable and devious”
  • “big and bold”

These approaches are stereotypical markers of design for the lower classes. In contrast, the upper classes seek elegance and sophistication, exclusivity and propriety.

Continuing, they write of the Post:

  • “never going to be a paragon of typographic restraint”
  • “not asking them to win awards for typography”

Here Khoi and Liz are both flatly saying that the Post‘s readers don’t care about typography, implying (I assume) that the Times‘ readership at some level does care. They’re saying that it’s appropriate to give lower quality design to the Post‘s readers (I agree, by the way). But why? Could it be because we all perceive the Post‘s readers to be less concerned about design? Could this be a side effect of their class, their lack of design education and lack of exposure to highly-designed products?

Khoi writes that the site “makes a lot of sense for who they are and who their readers are and how they consume the news”. I contend that the expression “who their readers are” is unconscious shorthand for “the lower classes”, which is to say that the site “makes a lot of sense for the lower classes and how they consume the news”.

So who are they? Talking about class inevitably means putting your foot in your mouth, and of course I don’t have access to the Post‘s demographics, but here goes: Post readers are, compared to Times readers, less educated, less exposed to “sophisticated” cultural products, less wealthy (many are probably poor, in fact), and more interested in celebrities, sports, strident opinion, and salacious scandals.

To me the Post site’s graphic design is classed from header to footer. But how does class affect the interaction design? Of that I’m not sure, and I think the Post in general has a pretty good handle on their own interaction design. I’d have to put a lot more thought into it, I suppose.

Next: Class and Web Design, Part 4: The Vicious Circle of Desire


5 responses to “Class and Web Design Part 3a: Tabloid vs. Broadsheet”

  1. The comments you’ve highlighted above are common. Beating-around-the-bush class driven comments are sprinkled throughout our conversations all the time, especially in art and design discussions and criticisms. That said, I don’t feel it is underhanded, just a signal that we lack either the ability or the tools to address class in our profession. I wouldn’t imagine a city planner or a city councilwoman having the same difficulties, at least not behind close doors. Is this something our profession simply needs to improve on?

    Regarding interaction design and class relationships, I believe with enough focus on the issue you could uncover the same results. In this case, I can think of a few areas that may be class driven. Take for example the repeated use of the “more” links on the homepage. This method insists on hitting users over the head repeatedly in order to communicate site depth and navigation. Compare this to the homepage where subtler clues hint at the site’s depth. Wouldn’t that many “more” links on The Times homepage dilute its caché and offend the audience? When analyzing link styles (to Liz Danzico’s point) there are more than five on the homepage, but far fewer at The Times. It is almost as if The Post is compensating for less experienced, less web savvy users by being redundant. Could class attributes have led the designers in this direction?

    Your guess is as good as mine as to how and why each decision was made, but it is probably a safe bet to conclude that some usability testing has been conducted for each design to measure its effectiveness (not to mention focus groups which are probably far worse offenders when it comes to categorizing people). We then might be able to assume that the test participants reflected the target user groups, which in turn reflected the class attributes of the readers. In other words, although class was never mentioned, its effect was built into the process. We are just more comfortable pretending it hasn’t been.

  2. Matt: I don’t think it’s underhanded to discuss class issues obliquely, either, and I hope I didn’t give that impression. It’s simply an example of talking about trees instead of talking about the forest. When we identify the differences between one class marker and another, such as in the typography example, we’re talking about specifics and it’s understandable then that we wouldn’t really feel a need to talk about the more general issue of class. But I still say that class is a big huge overarching theme, hovering over the whole conversation. Class, more than anything else I can think of, ties all of the various ways in which the Times and the Post differ from one another, online and off.

    And I must say I’m very impressed with your observations regarding the different number of link styles and their potential relationship to the perceived savvyness of the sites’ respective users (and thus, by extension, to their class). Very astute.

  3. You’re right the NYTimes has no comics and they don’t print gossip, but what do you mean they avoid in-depth sports coverage??

  4. Peter, I always assumed that the Times has like 1/3 the sports coverage of the Post or the Daily News. I’ll admit I wouldn’t know, though, as I have zero interest in almost all spectator sports.

    The Times does have gossip, though, just not that much of it. And it has political cartoons. Like with sports, it’s not so much that they don’t do it, it’s that they do it differently and with a lot less emphasis.

  5. Problem is, when cartoons *do* appear in the NY Times, they usually end up like this: