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Interaction Design is the new Art Direction?

Earlier this month at the RGD DesignThinkers conference here in Toronto, I checked out a talk by Khoi Vinh, former Design Director of the New York Times.

Having spent many years directing design of, he saw the Web evolve from a landscape of hypertext to one that’s much more interactive and engaging. In many ways, Vinh led the way with his work at The Times and they’ve since become widely regarded as an innovating leader amongst competing publications in a market that, frankly, is struggling to keep its head above water.

With his talk, “Digital Killed the Art Director Star”, Vinh outlined the industry’s journey from a state where new content was published once or several times a day, week or month in newspapers and magazines to one that demands continuous, nearly real-time updates. He argued that this rate of publishing couldn’t sustain a highly art directed treatment and is the reason why we now see sites that have adopted a fairly rigid, templatized structure whose design is content-agnostic, akin to the standard blog layout we’re all familiar with today (Vinh just a few days ago released an update to his for-pay WordPress theme, Basic Maths). Today, nearly every news publication’s online site is powered by a fairly robust content management system that sits underneath just a few dozen or so templates that can contain accomodate whatever content they’re provided.

Dustin Curtis, with his highly art directed articles, might disagree, but then, looking at the irregular rate at which he publishes content, Vinh’s argument seems to still hold true. Social media even further dilutes any existing art direction, says Vinh, as content is shared and aggregated, you’re no longer looking at the design of the New York Times, but the headline designed by Facebook, Digg, Twitter, and a pared down version of the article in Instapaper, among many others.

“Digital publishing and art direction are fundamentally incompatible.” — Khoi Vinh

Is art direction in the digital publishing space dead? One could certainly argue that some of the magazine and newspaper iPad apps such as Wired, Popular Science and co. are examples to the contrary. Vinh says we’re in a bubble where publishers are trying to bring their old way of thinking to a new platform, and having used some of these apps, I’m inclined to agree. Wired’s iPad team has been boasting about beautiful, high-resolution graphics on the iPad available in portrait and landscape orientations, but this comes at a high cost to the user, who are burdened with apps that are hundreds of Megabytes in size and incompatible with the device’s native copy/paste and other sharing functions.

So where does that leave art directors and publishers in the digital space? Vinh suggests that user experience and interaction design are the logical successors to art direction, and that we look back to its roots to figure out what art direction brought to the table in the first place: helping content creators tell their stories. There’s no use fighting aggregation services and social media; They’ll both continue to evolve and become more sophisticated.

Vinh cited Flipboard (and by extension, our own forthcoming app, TweetMag) as an app that’s at the forefront of digital publishing templatization. Most aggregators don’t go much further than presenting content as the traditional River of News that we’ve been accustomed to. These next generation of apps will likely allow for some pretty sophisticated features like intelligent article layouts, facial recognition for image placement, type and orientation sensitivity. Not only will these automated features provide a great reading experience to the user, but they’ll also reduce costs to publishers who are willing to focus on their content.

While the role of art direction in digital publishing still remain uncertain, one thing is clear: publishers’ loss of design control is a golden opportunity for interactive designers, developers and device manufacturers.

Update: Some good discussion in the comments – I don’t think art direction and interaction design are mutually exclusive in every instance, but in the digital publishing space (the subject of this post), that seems to be where things are headed.

Consider the chart above, with a tweet at the low-end of the scale and a highly art directed digital spread on the right end. A tweet requires less time to create and is of a lower fidelity than the spread, but I’d also suggest it requires more thinking in terms of interaction design than art direction. The line is certainly a little fuzzy where interaction design or art direction are the focus of the application, but at the pace of production in the digital publishing space, it’s hard to argue that sophisticated art direction is very sustainable.

Adam Schwabe More posts by Adam Schwabe