LA Times redesign doesn’t quite click

The LA Times website used to remind me of an old-fashioned hardware store – things were plopped wherever there seemed to be space. That changed when Meredith Artley took over as editor of the site in early 2007. Under Artley, quickly became a leader in design and in featuring content that celebrates the special qualities of its metro area. So why is the site’s new design, despite some welcome improvements, specked with so many user-unfriendly mistakes?

The gray (screened) type is gone, thank goodness, but it has been replaced by type that, because of the limited way it’s used, produces an even grayer look that extends to the entire layout:

LAT website front page

The new typeface is Georgia, a serif version of Verdana, which Microsoft commissioned early on for its online readability. Georgia, which was inspired by Times Roman, is fine, but not when, everywhere, it is uniformly presented in regular font.

Gutenberg would be proud,” the Times presumptuously brags about its new Web typeface choice. But even Gutenberg used boldface and other typographical devices of contrast in his Bible, the first example of printing with movable type.

To achieve its hyper-cleanness, the redesigned LAT site often eliminates information that would be an important cue to the browsing user. In this strip of three homepage promos (below), the browser is not told that authoritative Hollywood staff writer Claudia Eller was the author of the first promoted piece.

Feature promos

The second promo is for the popular Column One feature, but who’s to know?

High up on the page on Monday, Aug. 17, was this headline:

Alcoholics misread facial expressions, study shows

The linked piece would surely have gotten more hits if browsing users knew it was written by Melissa Healy, the Washington-based Health section writer who specializes in articles on human behavior.

The site’s feature on “our new look” says it “better showcases the world-class journalism our newsroom produces around the clock.”

I wonder if the un-showcased Eller and Healy would agree.

The site has redesigned ads, but it’s not a good idea to format editorial promos in the same size as ads and then juxtapose the two, like here:

Ad on top of Entertainment promo box

Navigation has definitely been improved through dynamic subsection tabbing that changes when the user’s cursor rolls over main headings like LOCAL, NATION, WORLD:

LAT news nav bar

The redesign has earned plaudits from commenting users (“magnificent change! much more readable, and elegant.” “Oooh! Nice, very nice,” “MUCH BETTER”) but there have been dissents too. Stephen wrote on Aug. 12:

“At first glance, i didn’t like it. maybe it will grow on me. maybe what’s ‘under the hood’ is impressive, but the previous design was much more elegant and sophisticated….”

“Our work is not done,” online managing editor Artley and LA Times editor Russ Stanton blog on the site.

Maybe that means they’ll revisit some of work they’ve already done.

A final suggestion: To help users wrap their heads around all the news the LA Times serves up, the site should hire what I would call a “Web maitre d’,” who would, each day, in a one-minute video, summarize what’s featured – from the biggest to the quirkiest stories. Talented would-be presenters – we’re talking LA here – would be lining up at the Times’ Spring Street entrance for auditions. The overview would be delivered with a soupçon of drollery (no Daily Show stuff) – just enough to encourage users to keep coming back for more.

About Tom Grubisich

I write about hyperlocal grassroots sites regularly for Online Journalism Review. What I've seen checking out proliferating sites has not been encouraging. The content is generally dull "happy news" or aggregated wire stories and doesn't seem to tap into what's special about the communities being covered.

I am senior web editor at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where I help develop blogs and other content aimed at broadening the Bank's audiences around the world.

Earlier in my career, I was managing editor of news for Digital City/AOL and before that co-founder of the free-circulation weekly Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Earlier yet, I was a reporter and editor at The Washington Post. For more information, consult, Who's Who in America (2008 edition). I'm reachable at [email protected]


  1. Tom,

    I agree with your remarks about the pieces of information left out on teasers to the Times’ primo work — especially bylines where the writers are name brands.

    Give the designers a break on use of the Georgia typeface, though.

    Until all the various forms of custom font embedding being considered by Web standards bodies and programmers shake out, Georgia and Times New Roman remain the only two “Web-safe” serif font families. That’s because they’re the only two that are almost always resident on almost all versions of Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.

    So why not use more Georgia Bold? Well, have you seen Georgia Bold? For all the practical beauty that is Georgia, the Bold version looks too expanded, too filled-in, too different.

    The best way to use Georgia in Web design is to apply sufficient contrast in size, not in weight. So there I agree with you, the site could use a touch more size contrast. At the same time, default body text is a tad too small for my eye, at least.

    On balance, I think the redesign is a win. Usually, when I see user comments 50/50 or better favorable on a redesign, that looks like gold to me, and this one appears to get quite a few compliments.

    (Incidentally, the designer of Georgia considers it a “brother” to Verdana, but not the “serif version of Verdana.” The two families have very different characteristics, beyond just that one is serif and one is sans serif.)

  2. I disagree about the bylines. Bylines are not essential information to the page-browser and would only add to visual clutter.

    I think the LAT did a great job with this redesign. And if you want an idea how this grid could go wrong, you need look no further than other Trib sites which use the very same bones.

  3. Tom Grubisich says:

    Jay, you’re right about Georgia bold. It’s too much. I hope it won’t be too long before the Times can find (or develop on its own) a bold version that doesn’t deliver sledgehammer impact.

    Tim, some bylines are brands (to use Jay’s characterization). Why doesn’t it make business sense to give them at least 6-point type mention in the promo?

  4. says:

    I agree about the bylines.

  5. Also have to disagree about the bylines. like he says above “bylines are not essential information to the page-browser and would only add to visual clutter.”

    And there is nothing more to say.

  6. Tom Grubisich says:

    The procrustean contortions to which the Times submits for its new minimalist design is typified by this prominent teaser on the homepage of the Aug. 27 edition:

    “Column: Is Fiorina