USA TODAY Breaks out of Lock-In

I love newspapers. I read an (unnamed) New York City tabloid for 45 minutes every morning.  When I hold a newspaper, I grasp an achievable and enjoyable goal, a process I want to return to every day.

When I see a news site designed like a newspaper, the feeling is much different. I consume a lot of my online news through aggregators, often ending up at a predictable handful of established “old media” sources.  Yet I have no desire to click around the twenty sections and sub-blogs of those dailies just to see what the paper is offering today.  The navigation lacks joy, lacks flow, those UI elements that make you want to explore further. It isn’t nearly all it could be. It is a dangerous time for establishment news organizations: a time of deep Lock In.

Lock In is a peculiar problem – it sneaks up on industries, it takes them over, it renders them structurally obsolete.

A concept introduced in Jason Lanier’s excellent 2010 book YOU ARE NOT A GADGET, Lock In describes a process wherein minor, utilitarian design decisions that solve specific problems evolve into unintentional industry standards.

Lanier, an early innovator of virtual reality and vocal techno-contrarian, proposes that Lock In has had a tremendous depressive effect of the development of digital technology and the internet. In support of this, he describes the 1982 development of the MIDI musical standard, which was written by synthesizer engineer Dave Smith as a stopgap method of connecting various keyboards to various computers.

Today, by way of chance, laziness, industrial convenience, and hive-mentality momentum, the MIDI standard controls everything from Alicia Keys’ keyboard to your microwave’s alarm. It has become the standard. But it is a limiting standard and bad fit: it fails to capture the character of many sounds it is tasked with emulating; it promotes homogenous sound design.  Nonetheless, 30 years later, if you want electronics to communicate sound to each other, you are using MIDI.

And so is the case with Newspaper web design, a design governed largely by the limits of industrial-age printing technology. Though elevated to an elegance and usability through the mid-century efforts of designers like Edmund Arnold, the newspaper aesthetic is purpose built and optimized for black and white newsprint of fifty or so pages.  Not for screens.

Newspapers are very important. Without original reporting, sourcing, and the ethics that govern the endeavor, society will suffer. I love reddit, but I can’t get by solely on cat videos.

There’s something new out there, and I think it is the future. I think it is very, very good.

“I think that making sure that the reader reads all our copy and – more important – comprehends it has become secondary or almost entirely ignored.”  Edmund Arnold, on the state of newpaper design, 2000

“Most designers actually design newspapers for the Web to look like a newspaper, to use a paper texture, to use that kind of typography. And we really wanted to stay away from that. We wanted to make this project interactive… It’s news, but it’s not a newspaper.” Anton Repponen, on his creative direction for the new, 2012

USA TODAY is the hotel paper, the pie chart paper, the paper that was a running joke on the Simpsons.  A paper with a sometimes seriousness problem.

It’s also the second most-circulated paper in the country.  The paper that in 1986 revolutionized newspaper design and production: bringing color to the front page, evolving the way print products are manufactured and distributed, making reporting and visual storytelling one cohesive effort. The paper that respected design enough to put it front and center.

It makes sense – perfect sense, really – that USA TODAY would end up on the vanguard of News Website design. In an industry that grudgingly accepts evolution, USA today has opted for revolution, enlisting the services of the consistently clever and forward thinking firm Fantasy Interactive.  A visit to  feels different, feels better than checking out a hot new app or service.  It feels like an honest attempt at remaking internet news.  It succeeds, and it is very important.


Navigation and organization is the most obvious break from other news sites.  It doesn’t feel like a main page with a monolithic web of connecting pages, or a flash based presentation, or a vertically oriented blog.  The experience is more unified, fluid, seamless. It could be described as a “reading environment”, one that you enter and remain until you navigate off the site. The digital lock-in of rudimentary HTML, keeping sites fractured pieces of a whole, is brilliantly subverted.

A move to a new section doesn’t reload a new page; instead the new section appears from the left or right of the screen in an animated movement.  There’s something engaging and elegant about horizontal navigation for headline sections, as opposed to the defacto “infinite scroll” trend of recent news redesigns. Clicking a story calls up a container where the story lives, the main section remains under the story copy, dimmed.  When you are done, exit, and there’s your section again.  It’s fast, yet immersive, and I found myself reading whole stories rather than skimming or clicking away reflexively. And if I really liked something, the social sharing interface was snappy and visually consistent with the layout.

The USA TODAY redesign starts from a place where successful redesigns tend to start – it draws from the paper’s successful visual legacy and graphical strengths. Color and shape was always priority for both the print and web executions of USA TODAY – and the web redesign is faithful to this. Each section gets a color, navigation grows from there.  The sections are arranged horizontally in the reading environment.

It looks great on a laptop, a 24-inch desktop monitor, on a tablet.  This is no small success.  For a complex website to scale this well and work seamlessly across desktop and mobile platforms is an achievement that designers need to pay attention to.

Criticisms? There are a fair amount of unidentified wayfinding icons, some more ambiguous than others. Video ads are well integrated, but some static ads float in white space in the individual story containers. The nifty weather widget is always set to pull data from McLean, Virginia, rather than sourcing visitor location; perhaps a prod to get the user to sign in.

It’s satisfying to use a well-crafted, forward looking design like the new  It reminds me in spirit of apple’s great innovation run of 2001-2007: where design, usability and innovation produced products that not only allowed me to take in information that I wanted to consume, but made it a joy to do so.