Quartz Scores with Designers

DigiDay notes: Launched last month, Quartz, the Atlantic Media Company’s foray into mobile-first publication, has gone all-in on responsive design. Quartz debuted as part of a crop of new publications designed for the post-desktop era, rather than retrofitted for it, and early reviews on the design are mostly positive.

Quartz is more application-like. It has eschewed the standard Web grid layout in favor of non-standard navigation. It has two panes, a narrow list on the left side contains a running stream of headlines. The right pane contains the flow of content. The twist is that the content well is never-ending: One story leads to another. There’s no need for a back button.

The Atlantic has crowed that the publication is an example of the en vogue trend of responsive design, where content is adjusted and fitted for all screen sizes, which has become its own movement forbrands and publishers alike. The idea is appealing to publishers as more and more people use smartphones and tablets to read content — and as a way to cut costs of building unique versions for the exploding array of devices out there.

“If you contrast [Quartz] with other recent digital publishing startups like The Daily, they got a lot more right than they did wrong,” said Khoi Vinh, former design director of NYTimes.com and creator of Mixel, an app that lets people create and share collages with friends. “The way digital news will look in five, 10, 20 years: It will look more like Quartz.”

We’re now two-and-a-half years into the iPad era, and publishers are figuring out how and when people use them. Companies like Flipboard have tried to fill the vacuum, offering consumers a more tablet-like experience than what major media companies have offered. With publishers now investing time and money into creating mobile-first sites, it seems as if the days of porting a desktop version (or worse, a PDF version) to a mobile site are diminishing.

“The design patterns they are using (simple sidebar, responsive template, lazy loading) are all very favorable patterns on touch devices but also work perfectly well on a standard mouse and keyboard setup,” said Aaron Rutlege, co-founder of Little Arrows, a strategic design company. “I believe these patterns will become more and more commonplace, with less and less branding being applied to a site design and much more of the brand impact coming from the content/voice.”

The other thing Quartz has going for it, according to Kevin Kearney, CEO of digital design shop Hard Candy Shell, is that there’s no Quartz homepage. Instead, readers immediately roll into the next article, never reaching the dead ends, which are so common on the desktop.

There are also business benefits to this approach, and Quartz’s business model is all about sponsored content and not the traditional banner. In Quartz’s format, ads can be bigger and bolder between articles without getting in the way of a reader’s experience, making the ad seem more integrated into the feel of the site. The approach is somewhat different from Flipboard, which leans heavily on the interstitial model popularized in magazines. With Quartz, however, there’s no flipping. Instead, it hopes to introduce ads into the flow of content in the main pane.

“I don’t think it’s indicative of the long-term viability of their ad format,” Vinh said. “It’s difficult to get away from the kind of advertising we’ve seen to date. I think there’s a lot of ambivalence in the ad community about what is really needed going forward. Do you want ad units that perform well or brand-building units that won’t necessarily return traffic or X number of clicks? Every time you come up with these experimental units, you try to sell them as premium partnerships or sponsorships. It’s not a true test of how the product is doing in the ad market.”

The big benefit of this type of design is that Quartz is putting a premium on the reading experience. But there are those designers who see responsive design more as a gimmick than as a viable solution for publishers.

“Shaping content so it fits perfectly into the right vessel is mandatory, and it’s not an option for content makers,” one designer noted. “Lacking that approach is something consumers will notice. Not the other way around.” In other words, the argument goes, this approach isn’t really new or all that different in the least; it’s not something crazy or truly native to the post-desktop era.

Proponents of responsive design say it doesn’t matter how you do it. The point is, a reader should have a great experience on any screen and the content should be optimized on any screen. It’s no longer, “Let’s build a website and make it look great on a desktop and see how it translates to the mobile Web.” Instead, it’s now being thought through from the beginning. What makes all of this interesting is that this is coming from The Atlantic and not a startup trying to disrupt the industry.

“That’s exciting for me,” said Alex Schleifer, svp of design at Say Media. “We’re at a moment where we have a lot of difficult decisions — app vs. HTML, how we integrate advertising into content, how the advertising experience evolves — and I think they’re doing a lot of interesting things. What we think today will look very different in 12 months time as they iterate, but it’s great to see this type of innovation. And it looks beautiful.”

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