OK, so I am by no means a neutral observer here, so DISCLAIMER DISCLAIMER DISCLAIMER! Yeah, I worked for CNN Headline News for five years, and for two and a half years, I was as intimate with the CNN.com web site as anyone would be, because I wrote the on-screen headline "ticker" and sourced much of my material on the CNN.com web site. I also wrote a cyberculture and technology column for CNN.com for several years. And I currently work for a web development company that contributed to the above-mentioned redesign.
But even so, I had NOTHING to do with the project, at either company, other than just being intensely interested in the process and its outcome, and sure enough, I couldn't stop caring about what happens on this site if I wanted to.
So, my first reaction was immense relief... YES, it is an improvement! There's nothing I hate worse than to see a site I personally rely on get worse. I hate when that happens (Chris invokes the ghost of the NYTimes TimesSelect, for which I still haven't forgiven them).
Then, my later reaction was... whoa! This is nice! This is cool! This is boo-tee-ful! (There's a longer time frame here, beyond last weekend's launch, but I won't go into it)
Then today, I was holding my breath on the launch, wanting to see some elements that were I guess still launching as I peeked in. Panic! Then, oh, all is good. The banner search is there, it just didn't show up for a while.
So what the hey, I obsessed a bit on the site today. I lived on it for so many years, I had to give it some time, to go beyond aesthetics, and just see how it wore on me, whether it got under my skin.
And I was adjusting to a new computer monitor today too, but bigger is better, for my aging eyes.
Even so, here's the part where I get to say "Wow! I LOVE this redesign!" I mean I do, I really hugs and kisses love it. At first I was a little worried about the absence of the obligatory TV-Station-Electric-To-Royal-Blue-Gradients as a dominant color (go ahead, look at any local TV site you can find, and that will be the base).
But the CNN.com accent red, with the open white and gray thing going on, the airiness of the page is just so... fluid? Is that the word I want? Liquid? Yeah, it's a CSS-based design, which is great, but the widths are pretty fixed, so it isn't TECHNICALLY liquid, but by the end of the day, that white/gray combo was just WORKING on me. It felt good. I'm sort of self conscious to admit how good it felt. Comforting good, open good, home-base good, comfortable old shoe good.
I think the thing I love the most are the bits of gray separating the rounded-corner modules. I love those little margins. I can breathe easy in those little margins.
And no left-side menu. I'm not attached to left-side menus, so that's fine. The CNN.com site always had horizontal navigation as well, but because I LIVED on that site so much, that left side rail wasn't so much a menu for me as it was an anchor point, a solid place, like a brick building, as other stories and facts changed dynamically.
But the white and gray make me feel so good, so comforted, so light and airy, I don't feel like I need my steady anchor to hold on to. (Note, I held on to that left rail "anchor" through some of the scariest events in recent history, so my attachment is as much emotional as anything. I didn't realize it until I left my spot on the ticker and went on a show team, how much I worked through those scary days all by myself, figuratively, and often, on weekends, literally alone, like the day the war started in Afghanistan, a Sunday in a nearly empty newsroom, and I was the first with the only live content on our air, for a war that just happened to be starting. Are you kidding? I was practically pissing my pants.).
So it must sound silly, my going on and on about this fluid white/gray thing, but honestly, it is my favorite feature (and there are a bunch of other really terrific features). I realized by the end of the day today that it had something intangible, the kind of intangible thing that we superficially call "look and feel," but which, when it really happens, signifies so much more in web design, signifies "placeness," the feeling, when you open a page, that you have arrived somewhere.
And when you go, you will leave that place, like saying goodbye after an afternoon at Grandma's for dinner, rather than just mechanically "viewing pages" like they were various Microsoft Word documents.
It's why I harp so much on a dominant or lead image above the fold, when a page loads. Yes, that was my mantra as a newspaper photographer, but I never really had to sell that idea in newspaper newsrooms. Print editors got it. The above-the-fold image had a job to do. It had to "carry the page."
But more than that. I worked as a staff photographer with some young guys who didn't yet know how to shoot for the front page. I may not have been the world's greatest photographer, but I could always shoot for the front page without really thinking about it. Those young guys took technically fine pictures, but the shots didn't have broad enough shoulders to carry more than just that photo's boundaries, not enough to carry an entire broadsheet page, to move readers' eyes all around, direct the eye to this headline, that mug shot, and so on.
A front page photo that carries the page gives it that "placeness," someplace for your eye to drift back to, while you read this thing or that thing. Having a person you can make eye contact with, or semi-eye contact, is half the battle. Bold light areas as well, help the visual movement, more so than dark areas (especially in newsprint).
Notice how Scooter Libby has three-quarter eye contact below, and a boxed in bright area right in front of his profile. How long did your eye sit there? And where did it go next? To the eyes of the child in "Impact Your World," and then to Robin Williams, if you even got that far.
What I'm saying is that I do have decently high standards when it comes to this sort of thing, the intangible aspect of it. When a site already has this aspect, insensitive redesigns can feel like you are turning your friends out of your home. Redesigns can FEEL scary (magazine art directors know this too). It may be why no interface metaphor yet has been able to trump the desktop/mouse graphical user interface (until we get used to pinching stuff on our iPhones? Just a pinch between your cheek and phone?).
Should I detail all the terrific features of the CNN.com redesign that make it so valuable? The much-improved inline Flash video player? The tandem pre-roll and right box ads that have so much potential for advertising and marketing cleverness, sequencing, visual "echoes"?
Or perhaps the social media/Sphere/blog link features, and the self-organizing site features, running on AJAX, Most Popular, Most Emailed, etc, swappable without the page reloading. Those are great.
Do I need the Local Weather and Local news angles? A friend asked about that today, and my answer is that when local radio became little more than taped repeaters for giant corporations, people had to go elsewhere for tornado watches, weather updates, road closings, train derailment hazards, out in the boonies. Do I need local weather right now? I am a weather geek and will always be one, so I got tons of weather widgets, but I still run to weatherunderground.com for the blogs when there's big weather.
But I mean. I'm the kind of person who got up in the middle of the night to watch the Katrina eyewall come ashore, live, from Montana. Most people are not the kind of weather geek I am. Or news geek.
I am also loving the topical information pages, with tabs for video and other material. Really nicely done, that interface is. (the ratio of that big and wonderful flash video screen sure does make people look fat, however, even more than regular TV ratio does... how many more celebrities will have to succumb to a life of barfing because of this?!)
And I could go on and on over all these features, but instead, all I want to say is a big "Ah" to the wonderful white space around the headlines, paired with those Story Highlights. I mean it. Ahhhh.
The white and the gray. Oh, that is just SO nice. My home. You've redecorated my home. OK, I'm ready to move back in now. Take the plastic off the furniture. Pull the tape off the baseboards. Open the windows to get rid of the new paint and varnish smell. What a very pretty site.