Designing for the long read on Inside Government
At GDS we intend the web to be the primary platform for publishing things like policy, speeches and detailed guidance, with any print documents taking a supporting role. As a consequence legibility online becomes hugely important, because the reader will be using these texts to either implement government policy or form opinions about it.
At the very least the material needs to match the legibility of the printed or pdf documents it is replacing – a job which webpages don’t usually manage. Generally the internet has favoured universal access to material over the quality of that material, but at the moment here at GDS (like many other publishing organisations) we’re wrestling over how we can combine the two.
“The designer should not be looked upon by companies as a means of accomplishing a purpose, but as a meaningful mediator between the maker and the user, between company and product. In the near future the surveying of man’s real necessities will become increasingly important: to understand what man really needs”
- Dieter Rams interviewed in Domus, April 1984
In designing these long-form documents for the web, it has been helpful to step back from thinking about the traditional elements of design, focusing instead on the core function – publishing meaningful words.
Working through our 30+ page templates for Inside Government, I wrote an example of each document type as linear plaintext in IA Writer, including all document chrome and metadata. With this Neil, Pete and myself could quickly discuss, edit and refine the content in a way that was true to both the act of authoring and reading text documents.
It has the added advantages of both encouraging natural-language interactions and producing an artefact which is very close to being an HTML outline – keeping the design process in-tune with the construction material without yet being bound by its constraints.
We divide navigation-focused pages into two categories:
- an index page is a complete list of documents in a linear order, with filters to allow the user to cut directly to areas of interest
- aggregation pages are more like traditional webpages, bubbling up different types of content from Inside Government on a common theme or publisher, such as ‘Housing’ or ‘Department of Transport’
By separating the function of page-types in this way, we can concentrate on only providing relevant information – reducing distraction to help the reader with focus and comprehension.
Of course when designing for legibility, the greatest contributing factor is the writing itself. At the point of reading, a reader makes no distinction between the visual appearance of words and their content. Dense texts filled with long, elaborate sentences make things difficult in even the best-designed documents.
Whilst our content designers (editors focused on style) have done a wonderful job setting the initial tone of Inside Government, this is a publishing platform for the breadth of government, where ultimately each department will be responsible for writing much the content themselves.
This is where our typeface New Transport makes such a difference. For those living in the UK, the typeface Transport is such an omnipresent part of our environment that we don’t really notice it anymore. So much so that it’s easy to overlook the Department of Transport’s consistent and functional restraint with language on road signs, a writing style that is indelibly linked to the typeface.
When we discovered Henrik Kubel was redrawing the typeface with variants appropriate for longer passages of text, I hoped that by using it we would somehow be able to piggyback on those pre-existing language conventions to encourage more straightforward writing.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised to hear that (at least anecdotally) this is the case. Texts which would previously have seemed respectable in traditional document fonts like Times are revealed as opaque and clumsy in Transport. People have then rewritten these, un-prompted, after writers has seen them on the site.
Good writers – like designers – understand the value of consistency, so establishing that link with the stellar information design from the Department of Transport is encouragement in the right direction.
GDS has 10 design principles, but above all there is a single defining idea; ‘Digital by Default’. When talking about long-form writing this is more revolutionary that you might initially think, as even commercial publishing industries (newspapers, books etc) still treat the web as a supporting platform to their printed documents.
We hope that by focusing on the content, and by using typeface, layout and style to shape the tone of each page, we can make the web the native home for all of the information people will find on Inside Government.