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Subtitle: It must be tough to be “venerable” on the internet.

Wired.com just launched a new look about, oh, within the past hour or so. Well, that’s not quite true. They’ve been fiddling with the look for a couple of months, but that’s mostly applied to the internal page layouts. They just flipped the switch on their new front page. I really want to avoid saying it’s a horrible new front page. Because, really, it isn’t horrible. But I have yet to come across a news site front page that I like.

Anyway, for comparison, here’s the current front page with Wired’s previous two front page designs beside it (newest to oldest from left to right):

(Click here for a larger view)

Now, love it or hate it, Wired is a very influential publication. The oldest design I show here was the inspiration for the “three column” format that dominates online news sites, content management sites, and many blogs. Did they originate the format? I doubt it. But they popularized it. Anyone in tech who claims to never have read Wired is either lying or someone you probably don’t want to hire.

Since its inception, Wired has been an online trend setter, so we are likely to see a whole slew of online news sources get revamps within the next few months that will make them look more like Wired. The problem I have with this, is that the look Wired has gone with this time, is somewhat of a throwback. And it’s a throwback to a design that hasn’t really worked for another “online venerable” for years.

Take a look at Slate and you’ll see what I mean. If you have a multi tab browser, open up Slate in one tab, Wired in another, and flip back and forth between the two, scroll up and down each page a bit. Tell me you don’t see the resemblance.

Slate has never been anywhere near as popular as Wired. Granted, the two sites cover totally different topics, but lets set that aside for now. The actual reporting inside each has been on about the same level. Sure, neither one is “top tier perfect” – they both seek a mass market audience. But for mass market sites, they’re both at the top of their game, in terms of the actual content. Wired is basic reading for the tech set. Slate is basic reading for the political set.

But while Slate may have pulled itself out of the perpetual loss statement doldrums and begun turning a profit, it has yet to gain the same breadth of audience and influence as Wired. And I think that is in part due to it’s weaker front page layout. The three column format that Wired popularized is perfect for an online publication. It gives the main headlines and story teasers that “front and center” position, and the scroll wheel on everyones mice make it easy to zip down through the headlines. Extra tidbits fall into the “impulse buy” sections on either side.

The “headline cluster” approach taken by Slate, and now Wired, is much more confusing to the eye. You find yourself scanning higgledy-piggledy all over the place for interesting headlines. It’s distracting, confusing, and I believe it’s going to lose Wired some readership.

However, it won’t cost them my readership. Front page design became irrelevant to me a couple of years ago when I tucked into RSS in a big way. Wired, Slate, Reuters, the CBC, among others, all have painful front pages, to my eye. And that’s ok, because I still get all their content without ever having to deal with their front pages.

And maybe that’s the subliminal message behind the Wired front page redesign. Their internal redesign is where the meat is at. It’s nice, clean, non-distracting, and almost tailor made for RSS readers.

So maybe Wired is making a good point, probably without intending to. What they’re saying, at least to me, is that “Our Front Page is allowed to suck. Real geeks use RSS anyway.”

Something to say?


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