Harper’s: A Method to Its Badness?

Let’s start with the obvious, unpleasant truth: Viewed according to contemporary design and usability standards, the renovated Web site of Harper’s Magazine is inexplicably bad.  

From its sedimentary layers of top navigation to its 10 (count ‘em) invitations to SUBSCRIBE above the fold, from its head-scratching typographical hiearchies to its rampant date tags as baffling as Sudoku, it’s a freaking mess. It should have handlebars so you don’t fall off. 

I could go on, but I’ll stop myself there. (Sorry, I can’t: Note the incontinent use of hyperlinks in the text). I was sufficiently puzzled to try to find out the backstory. I wanted to know the answer: What were they thinking (with those shafts of type plunging 12 screensful down the page–and terminating in another invitation to SUBSCRIBE)? 

Print magazine interview of Harper’s Web editor Paul Ford shed some light.

First, Ford is a one-man band who worked on the re-do for 18 months. He continued to edit the site’s Web-only content on the side.   

So: No fancy Web design house involved, no army of programmers with sylish eyewear,  no widget evangelists to fend off, no high-priced consultant fees to amortize. Just one guy with a mandate, trying to push lines of HTML up a mountain with his nose. 

But back to the key question I always ask of tweakier 2.0fferings: Does the site accomplishes its mission?

Oddly, viewed in this light, Ford may have pulled something off. In the interview, he said the redesign goals were: 

  • Sell subscriptions and boost renewals
  • Market the magazine’s archive of American literary craft dating back to 1850 to libraries and readers
  • Build ad revenue

And wouldn’t you know it? The awkward five-column design permits a stack of skyscraper and button ads that go at least two screens deep off the home page. Those sedimentary layers on top offer links to decades of magazine content and printed page archives, all available as thumbnails and PDFs–and free to subscribers. 

Speaking of which. Sure, you’ve got all those annoying links to subscribe. But I was reading the top of Ken Silverstein’s mind-blowing story on D.C. lobbying, in which he goes undercover to view K Street from the inside. I was able to read about 1,000 words before being told I’d need to subscribe to finish.

And I was actually thinking: $16.95 for the whole year. . .and if I subscribed, I could read the damn thing in bed, far away from the maddening Web site.

I think there are two messages here:

  • For all the site’s flaws and annoyances, Ford put on an impressive one-man show
  • If your content is good enough, your Web site doesn’t have to be.
Explore posts in the same categories: Harper's, print-to-digital

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