Black, after dropping out of the University of Chicago in 1970,
became one of America’s leading magazine and newspaper designers.
Over the next two decades his bold and innovative designs renewed
such major reads as Esquire, Rolling Stone, Newsweek,
and the New York Times Magazine. In the 1990s he also became
a leading designer of websites and internet-delivered content.
His Interactive Bureau (co-founded with S.O.J. Spivy and David
Berlow in 1994) emerged as a leading-edge New York Silicon Alley
boutique for high-end design, with an enviable stable of New Economy
and established clients such as Parent Soup, Discovery Channel,
Bristol-Meyers-Squibb, USA Today online, American Express, MSNBC
and the @Home Network. In 1999 Interactive Bureau became part
of Circle.com, but Black and his colleagues have continued their
work at the frontier of design and Internet website usability.
Proud disclosure, by the way: LiNE Zine’s own original visual
design was done by Black’s team at Circle.com.
studio has been distinguished by a sophisticated and integrated
approach to typeface, color, navigation, and content display and
management. They combine a deep historical appreciation of reader
usability from the print world with now almost a decade of market-driven
lessons about the web. Black offers a thoughtful, hype-free perspective
on the visual experience of the Internet.
interested in “Black basics” will enjoy his book Web
Sites that Work (with Sean Elder, Adobe Press, 1997).
There he lays out a retrospective reflection on design success
on the web, articulating pragmatic and insightful rules such as
“content on every page,” “make everything as big as possible,”
and “get lumpy” (i.e., vary your look and feel with a deliberately
uneven design landscape of graphics, text, and space). A valuable
and complementary volume is that of Black’s colleague, Steve Krug:
Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (Que/Macmillan
USA, 2000), which includes a stimulating preface by Roger.
caught up with Roger Black in his Circle.com office in New York
in November. The main theme of the discussion was learning about
learning on the web; and what his design experience can tell us
about how people learn through interaction with Internet-based
Let’s start with web design. Since your 1997 book, has your thinking
evolved further? Do the basic rules still hold?
Well, since then we have a lot more data about people’s experience
on the web. Most of my general perceptions about design, however,
have held up pretty well. Many of them actually relate to a longer
timeline of historical experience that’s a lot deeper than just
the last few years—the long tradition of the printed page. You
know, we have a 500-year-old body of evidence to examine in terms
of the way people read. Remember, 99% of the Net is still reading—and
people and reading haven’t changed all that much.
said, today there is more pressure on people’s time, and attention
spans have been assaulted. So, we tend to see people scanning
and dipping in and out of things a lot more. Web design needs
to respect that.
Some of the principles of my 1997 book may be in need of revision.
My plea for preferring white, black, and red as primary colors
(“the first color is white; the second is black; the third is
red: the three together are the best”) didn’t really pan out on
the web, but that doesn’t mean the success of those three working
together isn’t valid. Right now, most websites seem to be either
blue or green, but I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily the best
My principle of “content on every page” has certainly held true,
though I didn’t really invent the concept. The websites that follow
this rule are always among the most successful. I still believe,
as I said then, design must be more than decoration: it must convey
information. My favorite example of a website that understand
this is what we did with MSNBC.com.
How does that principle play out on MSNBC.com?
Content on every page means real content as opposed to teasing
or hype—not “click here for more cool stuff.” At MSNBC.com each
headline gives some information so even if you’re only marginally
interested, you still get a little factoid. For example, in sports
news, the headline immediately tells you who won the pennant instead
of just saying “Baseball.”
difference between information and labels is still lost on most
people. If you’re in a learning environment, nothing could be
more important. The more you can put on the surface, the easier
it is for people to absorb, and the more they’ll learn. One of
the implications of this is that you have to break content down
into small pieces and serve it up in on the screen for very easy
Actually, that’s only half the challenge. The other half is about
enabling people to easily drill down once they’ve gotten interested
in something. That’s the beauty of the web. Consider the behavior
of people who are genealogy buffs using the Internet to find out
about their families. The amount of time—and the paths they’ve
followed—as they go drilling down is an example of what I’m talking
I was consulting at Newsweek along with Edward Tufte (now
of Yale), he made a very good comment about information graphics.
He said that there really should be two kinds. The first is small—the
quick summary, the scores, the top five in the industry, the election
results, or whatever might be essentially tabular or visually
displayed, or essentially a quick snapshot that you can put in
a small space to help people understand what happened or the relationship
between things. The second kind of information graphics should
provide intense detail in some depth—it would be more detailed
and may take two pages and tell the whole story of the election.
People will pore over this kind of information. Text on the Internet
will increasingly need to reflect this duality of information
is a Black/Circle.com designed 24-hour-news site.
Its editors select and refresh news from sources around the world.
Let me pick up on the theme about breaking content into small
pieces. A lot of interest in the world of elearning now focuses
on “chunking content” and creating “reusable learning objects.”
The idea is that these “objects” can be combined and recombined
in different ways, and the individual nuggets of knowledge can
be found more easily in a body of content. Does this kind of vision
fit with your design perspective about the future?
Absolutely. But it also means that anyone organizing bodies
of information for learning on the web will have to concentrate
on the indexing problem. Using tags for text so it can be resorted
and found is increasingly important. Technology will be part of
the answer but not all of it. Editorial and design talent will
still play a critical role in this field.
Another art that is not appreciated enough is the presentation
of text: understanding the messages, themes, and overall information
conveyed by unifying a photo, a pulled-out quotation, a subhead,
and the content of a text itself. You’ve got to help the reader
immediately find what’s interesting or most salient about the
body of content. I come from an editorial background and understand
this stuff, but a lot of new web designers don’t. They miss opportunities
tried and tested by centuries of teachers and readers.
you don’t have design and editorial staff working very closely
together, things get very flat and grim, like a lot of textbooks.
We think that we will force learners to read whatever they’re
given—so we’ll just pour it in and they can just jolly well read
it. Things don’t work that way, especially in today’s web world.
A lot of the early interest in printing on demand made this mistake.
People started thinking that course material could be assembled
from a lot of places and packaged together quickly and in a customized
way—but they gave no real thought to the old editorial issues
of overall readability and usability. So they neglected things
like summaries and indexes and overall look and feel because that
wasn’t the way the technology worked. We now know there’s a more
effective way of presentation.
of the things missing from a lot of the educational approaches
today is the role of drama. The best learning is exciting and
theatrical, and that needs to be on the web too. Most of us remember
great teachers because they were great actors. We had this physicist
at the University of Chicago, Roger Hildebrand, the head of the
Fermi institute, who was a real showman. He taught us Newton’s
laws of mechanics by twirling himself on chairs on the stage,
and the students must remember it thirty years later. We need
a certain showmanship, a certain flair, to get attention and get
people to focus and remember. Before writing and reading, all
learning had to be remembered through song, memory and acting.
In the age of the Greeks, Homer used poetry and mnemonic devices
to help people remember things; they were rhymed and very vivid.
We need to recover that approach. Most of the materials for training
or education on the Net assume that the work will be done by the
student, by the receiver. That’s stupid; people just don’t learn
designed the Guinness
site as a "webzine"
of sorts, for the UK market featuring articles about music, pubs,
Right now we’ve reached a plateau, waiting to discover how people
really learn on the Internet. There seems to be a general acceptance
that the portal is a metaphor that works for people. And sure
it works if you’re looking for a quick phone book of the Internet—typical
Yahoo searches turn up hundreds of thousands of web pages. The
problem is that as Yahoo grows larger and larger, it gets less
useful. I’ve been predicting that Yahoo will scale itself out
of existence. It can’t crawl the whole web anymore and can no
longer give value-added reviews about websites. The search engine
with Google has improved, but it’s not great. The end result is
a kind of gray morass. I used to say that the Internet is a dark
and kind of mysterious place. But now I’m beginning to think the
Internet is gray...just an unrelieved gray.
Say a bit more about drama and theatre and how it might relieve
A good example is the search service “Ask Jeeves.” They’ve
put personality together with functionality—adding some human
beings into the process. [Ed. Note—The personality works so well
Macy’s even had a Jeeves balloon in its Thanksgiving Day Parade.]
Maybe it doesn’t net more results than Google, but it’s more fun
and you feel like you’re part of the process. Basically we’re
talking about the difference between talking to a librarian and
just going directly to the card catalog. A good librarian is always
worth talking to.
Looking ahead, I think the next step will be stronger, contextualized
search capability on the web. It will pick up some of the personalization
that the good librarian gives you. The search engine will know
you and what you’re basically interested in, and what you’ve searched
for before. Then it can automatically weed out a great deal of
stuff not relevant to you. Some tools out there do this now, but
they will get better.
We’re also going to have to find a way to preserve the joy and
pleasure of browsing, finding the seemingly irrelevant stuff that’s
just plain fun and interesting. We don’t want to abandon wacky
websites like suck.com,
just because they don’t fit our profiled searches.
Drugstore.com was the
first big online drugstore/pharmacy.
The original design of the site, pictured here, was done by Black/Circle.com
You said that MSNBC.com is one of your designs that you have
a lot of pride in. Tell us more about the how and why of that
website, and the implications for elearning design.
We designed the site about three years ago, and in it all the
things we’ve been talking about work well and together. It’s a
very good example of the principles of content-oriented design,
and the visitor numbers bear it out. On election night, with all
the news, they had a record night, with 40-50 million people coming
in. And it’s been one of the most heavily visited sites among
all media companies.
is that? There’s some flavor to the information. It’s branded
in a nice way. But more interestingly, it’s edited, and offered
up in bright headlines and quick summaries at every level. If
you look more closely at the design, you’ll notice that the content
is chopped up on the screen so that as you go through it, trying
to figure out what’s going on with the election or whatever it
is, you can find the area you want very quickly. It has a quite
robust search engine and everything is very carefully tagged.
There are multiple ways of navigating. You can go the editorial
route through the section front and to the areas you want, or
through a cascading HTML menu that has text in it so you can go
to the category of your field of interest and on to the actual
item you’re looking for.
So it’s what you would call a good “lumpy site?”
It is. It’s THE premium lumpy site, and has been number one
for three years. So I take credit for it in the sense that everything
they’re doing I either designed or agree with. I also want to
give a lot of credit to the great team—at Circle and at MSNBC—and
to the editor, Merrill Brown. I didn’t have to win him over with
any of my ideas; he was already thinking about most of the same
things when we started working together.
What are some of your other favorite websites, Roger? Either
ones that you designed or simply admire?
In the content sphere Salon.com
continues to hold up incredibly well. Although not the greatest
design, its content is very well edited. More importantly, they
understand how things are supposed to work together, and that
you can’t just expect someone to start at the beginning of a text
and go all the way through to the end. One of my corollary rules
is that “nobody reads anything.” And most of us don’t! When do
we have time to read anything all the way through? We usually
just bounce around. Good sites understand that dynamic.
site our group designed which has worked out well is MIT’s Sloan School. We collaborated
with a bunch of people there who really understand the Internet,
so that helped a lot. It’s partitioned for different audiences
and well-organized. We also helped them project a sort of MIT-feel,
which was important for them.
Sloan School of Management
great design is its own art, you can’t ignore the other metrics
of success: return visits by readers and, for e-commerce sites,
of course, it’s click-throughs, transactions…and profit.
So what’s the right metric for a learning website?
Good design needs to support whatever metric of learning the educator
wants to use. It’s old-fashioned, but I still think assessment
and testing are important measurement devices. The design should
be able to correlate with how many people going through the content
score a passing grade on a test. You need to know what people
are actually learning. Without a test at the end, web-based learning
just feels like, “Well here’s a message from George W. Bush!”
[laughter] How do you know anything from that?!
Black is chief creative officer at Circle.com
where he helps coordinate the efforts of several hundred designers,
editors, writers and information architects. You can reach him
Manville is Publisher of LiNE Zine and Chief Learning Officer
of Saba. You can reach him at email@example.com
Copyright (c) 2000-2004 LiNE Zine (www.linezine.com)