The Washington Post launches a new site design

Sometime amidst the coverage of earthquake and tsunami in Japan, The Washington Post rolled out a fresh new design for its homepage, navigation and most of its subsections over the weekend.

The new design is much more modern and clean than the old homepage that looked like something out of the late ’90s. According to a press release from The Post, the new design is “intended to further reader engagement and discussion around Post journalism and showcase more multimedia content.”

Justin Ferrell and Sarah Sampsel of The Washington Post design team published a post at the new Innovations Blog about the goals behind some of the changes, and they summed up the problem with the old design accurately: “It was great for the thing you came for, but if you wanted to look around, it was kind of a mess.”  The new Innovations blog is a cool thing in and of itself, perhaps worthy of its own post. Says managing editor Raju Narisetti in a letter about the redesign, the Innovations Blog is “where we hope to share with you our latest endeavors, whether it is involving readers in storytelling or sharing how we are trying to marry Post journalism with new digital tools, such as graphics you can play with or databases that let you dig deeper.” But, back to design.

The most noticeable change for the new design is the organized grouping of elements within article pages. If you look at the screengrab above, the article text flows better throughout the page because it’s not being disrupted by different sized widgets splashed throughout the content.

Perhaps one of the most interesting new pieces of functionality on the site is an “enhanced” commenting system that will essentially allow editors at WaPo curate the best comments and commenters on the site. The best comments will be prominently featured, and although comments will be open to everyone, select commenters (based on prior activity and quality of contributions to the site) will be identified to participate in open forums. This marks one of the most forward-thinking aspects of the redesign, because it takes into account not only aesthetics of the site, but places value on its community and incentives the contribution of high-quality content from readers. (It’s a second big step for The Post recently in seeking user feedback, after last month having launched  a community correction form).

Other noteworthy changes:

  • The homepage is heavily hierarchy-based, with a prominent story and headline on top, taking up the entire left column content space. It’s followed by a list of three secondary headlines and a column of small headlines. The middle section features multimedia and a scrollable pane of galleries and a video player. It’s far more organized than the prior design, but there’s still a ton of content crammed into the homepage.
  • The design is module-based, meaning (as Ferrell and Sampsell described it), “There are individual containers for specific types of content; how the pages come together depends on how editors arrange the containers.” I interpret this as a solution with more customizability and flexibility on each landing page, and more control for the editors in making design and content decisions.
  • The press release , blog post and redesign tour make a big deal of the navigation, which, honestly isn’t worth all the hype. They’ve grouped the nav into three different sections: core pages; national, world, business, investigations and multimedia; and entertainment and lifestyle. Compared to the old navigation — which was multi-layered and messy — this is certainly cleaner and more useful, but nothing particularly innovative. Core sections are denoted by all caps, for example, when that could have been done with different colors or styles — or something more obvious. I’d like to see data posted to the Innovations blog later about whether the new navigation led to more engagement overall.
  • The design features more video in more places, including a fresh multimedia landing page, where users will find all multimedia and new daily videos of the day’s news.
  • Once you jump to an inside section, the big “The Washington Post” masthead disappears and the main navigation and content move up higher on the page. Smart move. Less space is wasted above the scroll for unnecessary branding. Each inside landing page has its own clean masthead, with dominant use of WaPo typography.
  • There’s a special section for investigations, which probably existed before, but I had never noticed. As a leader in investigative journalism, it’s great that the Post can feature investigative content predominantly. I’m glad this was moved up to the main nav.
  • The footer is organized and usable. Many newspaper websites (look at the LA Times, for example), have a muddled, nearly-unstyled list of useless links. The new WaPo footer is tall, organized into subsections, and clearly calls out ways to connect with WaPo.

Overall, it’s a big step forward for such a big media organization, not just from a design standpoint, but from an engagement and content standpoint as well. The press release says this launch is just the first of a series of changes to come in 2011. I look forward to the rest. A full list of changes can be seen at WaPo’s redesign announcement page.

Disclosure: A contributor to this blog, Mark Luckie, works as the National Innovations Editor for the Washington Post.