05/14/2013 07:45 EDT | Updated 07/14/2013 05:12 EDT

How to Design a Better Website

In the past short while, we have started to see what could only be described as "true online publishing" taking on a new (and pretty) look and feel. We're moving beyond trying to make the Internet look, feel and read like paper -- it feels like the Internet is about to become a true publishing medium unto itself.

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It seems like online publishers are starting to think about the digital-first experience.

In the past short while, we have started to see what could only be described as "true online publishing" taking on a new (and pretty) look and feel. It started not too long ago when Fast Company did a full overhaul of their website. If you choose an article on their site, you will mostly see a big and beautiful image, a bold headline and that's when the scrolling begins. You intuitively move down the page for the content or left to right at the top of the page for supplemental images associated with the piece. The New York Times had a breakthrough with Snow Fall, which was their interactive coverage of the rise in fatalities from skiing. Reuters is currently previewing their latest web version and there are grumblings that a major redesign of The New York Times is on the way as well.   

In response to responsive design.

While the language of how we design the Internet continues to evolve (thanks to HTML5), we are also now seeing responsive Web design and parallax scrolling techniques take hold. Websites will now adjust to the user's experience (which could be happening on a computer, smartphone or tablet) and adapt (or respond) to the user's needs accordingly. While it's not as simple as it sounds in terms of the design and cost to get there, it's an excellent concession position for online publishers (instead of having to design native experiences for the web and multiple mobile app platforms). But, what makes these techniques most fascinating is the user experience. Instead of a fixed, square page buffered by banner ads, the user is actually moved through the piece because of the design experience it creates in flowing them along with the story. It's no longer about having those annoying page numbers to click through at end of each page, and much more about a page that is unencumbered by any physical page limitation.

Beyond paper.

When television first came on air, it was mostly people performing radio in front of a camera. There was no real acting as we see it today. There were no multi-camera shots. It was mostly live and, if we're going to honest here: It was boring. It was only exciting because we could see people and the technology was new. While the web wasn't boring beyond the recent changes in how we're designing and publishing stories now, it wouldn't be unfair to say that most online publishers were simply replicating the print experience. Copy and paste. We took our text from the newspapers and magazines and copy and pasted it on to a web page. Sure, links added depth to these stories and comments enabled people to add to the discourse (or, as Arianna Huffington likes to say about blogging and the Huffington Post: "Self-expression is the new entertainment"), but online publishing still looked and felt like traditional publishing. The thing is that now we're starting to see and understand the landscape in a much more profound and powerful way. A web page is not limited to the same constraints as a printed page, consumers are better at understanding how to manipulate digital spaces, while tablets and smartphones add a whole new perspective with hand gestures. Plus, legitimate designers are now starting to take the Internet more seriously as a design medium. So, we're moving beyond trying to make the Internet look, feel and read like paper, and this is the moment in time when it feels like the Internet is about to become a true publishing medium unto itself. And something a whole lot more interesting to look at.

No, it's not just Twitter.

Blogging, Twitter and more are original ways to spread, share and create content. Facebook, tumblr, YouTube and even the latest entry, Medium, are all doing their fare share of the work in creating new and fascinating ways for content to be penned and distributed, but the majority of the design still harkens back to the day of the printing press. What is about to make all of this digital publishing most fascinating will be more than the words, images, audio and video content, but in how it is designed to create something new. Traditional publishers are no longer just publishing content online, but working - harder than ever - to create a true experience that is native to a digitally connected screen. This the true power and opportunity of online publishing. Articles suddenly look like microsites and stories suddenly have three-dimensional depth to them that could have never have been achieved in the classic formats. For some, these new experiences may be too busy or have too much going on. Personally, these nascent examples are the bedrock of what will make digital such a rich and interesting next-generation publishing engine. It seems like we've scratched well beneath the surface with the content part of the equation in the past decade, but now it is time for the designers and user experience people to really up the ante and move us beyond the limitations of pages and fixed spaces to help stories flow in new and interesting ways. The challenge (and there is always a lot of them) will be in figuring out if things like banner ads and text links can maintain their dominance as the revenue generation engine that supports these more robust forms of content.

What do you think? 

Mitch Joel is president of Twist Image -- one of North America's largest independent digital marketing agencies. His first book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his highly successful blog and podcast of the same name is a business and marketing bestseller. His next book, CTRL ALT Delete, will be published on May 21st, 2013.

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