Director’s Commentary: Making Monocle


Here's a Director's Commentary by Dan Hill, who played a key role in the design of Monocle, which is not just one of my favorite magazines, but also a brand being successful at the seemingly impossible task of building something new and different in a down economy.  In reading his detailed account of how the design of Monocle came to be, I was struck by two big things:

First, the all-important commitment to a strong, focused point of view.  In this case, the brains at Monocle chose to be ever calm and centered:

In terms of rhythm of updates, we deliberately decided less is more,
and flying in the face of conventional wisdom (if you can have wisdom
in a medium only a decade old) we produced editorial at a steady rate –
essentially a well-made film or two per week – rather than bombarding
the user with content. Deciding to filter, reflect and craft rather
than immerse the user in a constant flow of data in lieu of
information… this sense of quiet calm exuding
from Monocle was another important statement: that you don’t have to
clutter websites with every possible bit of information you can. And
that – particularly for the busy people that enjoy Monocle –
information overload is not something we wished to contribute to.

The second notable aspect of their approach is a strong dedication to smoothing friction in every aspect of the user experience.  They took a human-centered approach to almost every detail of Monocle, including the structure of each URL used on the Monocle website:

In terms of user generated content, or user discussion of Monocle
pieces, my view was that we didn't need comments on the site as people
increasingly have their own spaces to talk, discuss, comment – whether
that's blogs and discussion fora, or the social software of Facebook
et al. So a more progressive approach would be to ensure that
everything is linkable and kept online – with clean, permanent URL
structures – thus encouraging people to point to articles from the
comfort of their own sites… The web is intrinsically designed for linking
and archiving, so I ensured that would do that. A simple
point, and one the industry discovered long ago – in my case, after much work at the BBC
– but fundamental nonetheless. It’s still surprising how often it’s
forgotten by new entrants, given this basic premise of pointability has
underpinned almost every mature online success, from Amazon to YouTube.

As such, it's worth pausing to note that the URL structure was
considered as part of the design job. See later on multidisciplinary
teams, but the architecture of the site, and further, the environment
it sits within, are as key to me as the visual layer pinned on top. I
always reference the Eliel Saarinen
quote: "Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger
context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an
environment, an environment in a city plan." The larger context for
this site is that portion of the web that cares about Monocle, or the
topics covered, and designing for that environment includes making
elegant URLs – as the tokens by which is referenced. Thus,
the pointablity, linkability, permanance and appearance of those URLs
and site structures become fundamentally important.

Thus, the URls might not be as clean as they could be – it took a bit of negotiation to get EPIServer, a .net based CMS, to output them – but they're fairly understandable e.g.:—Beijing/

i.e. type of section / type of content / title of content

It's no accident that Monocle is such an engrossing experience.  This kind of total experience rarely happens by accident. 

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