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Magazine Café

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    Visual Arts Trends


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    I can't believe it's now clutter

    The latest web design trend seems to be clutter, writes Jack Yan. Published in association with Visual Arts Trends

    WE HAVE already been through several phases in the design of web sites. The original ones were functional, aimed at delivering information. Yahoo! still retains this philosophy and its appearance hasn't greatly changed since I first visited it in 1994 on an early Power Mac and Netscape 1.0.
       Then they became more design-oriented as the commercial web began to be exploited. A common device was the splash screen, with a single logotype in the middle of the page. This was fine for branding purposes, but when I put the question to readers at the LinkExchange Digest a couple of years ago, the consensus was that this was passé and annoying. Still, there are some sites that retain the splash screen "cover page".
       The next generation of sites tried to create more practicality while not losing the branding. This was prevalent around the time I first art-directed Lucire and the magazine retains the same principle, if not the look. When The New York Times launched online, it, too, followed this. The appearance is not unlike some of the French print magazines—Capital, for example, has various headlines splattered over its cover, divided into rectangular sections.
       Then the big wave of "portals" struck. Everyone suddenly figured out that Yahoo!, Excite, AltaVista and others were doing well. That must be the way! Swiss site Annabelle, which was once among the splash screen brigade and still a very credible fashion site, took the portal route. As did a lot of amateur designers wanting to cash in on the web. While some have worked because they are genuinely portals getting information from different sources—Ninemsn is an example—others are half-hearted. This coverless look—thrusting the user directly into what would accurately be called a contents page—drove me when I redesigned CAP Online this year in favor of simplicity. Other sites based around information, such as The Wedding Channel, adopt this style.
       From my surfing, there seems to be a move now to combine all of these ideas into a more cluttered look as the web evolves. Men's magazines are strong on the web and they cater to a fairly sophisticated, affluent audience in a competitive market-place. Of these, both American Maxim and Magazine Café have the current æsthetic of having a "contents page" as their cover and stressing the branding. A main image is also chosen—in both cases this is regularly of a model with an unrealistic figure.
       The benefits are obvious. The brand is conveyed through the appearance of the masthead in these cases and partly through the arrangement of the pages. The girl catches the eye. Then, you go down the page to see what else is on offer, hopefully making more stops than you otherwise would.
       The name of the game is visitor numbers, leading on to banner exposures. Given that not everyone will read every article and a new issue won't be up for another month to coincide with the printed magazine's publication, then visitors will take their time, read some articles (or ogle) and return later on.
       Additionally, there are square and vertical banners to make full use of web-page real-estate. They add to the clutter but also increase the likelihood of clickthroughs. If an advertiser cannot catch you at the top of the page, then maybe it can catch you at the bottom. Or at the side.
       The cluttered look will not be for everyone and should generally remain the realm of content-rich, publishing-related sites. And it'll keep evolving.
       There will be brochureware sites that don't require visitors to visit every virtual nook and cranny but are produced to reinforce either the brand or the client's ego. Lucire will retain its massive pull-down menu widget—it's not universally popular but I dislike the idea of forcing the reader back to the contents or home page each time, which I have to do with Maxim and Café. New sites such as RedFilter aren't as content-heavy and have gone with the opposite style: a clean, contemporary look. Visual Arts Trends itself has an organized, clear style to the home page.
       There is something to be said for the clutter: it is not wholly impractical, it combines the movements we've seen to date, and it's bound to be influential when carried by two very popular stops on the web. It may even be adopted by some amateur sites out there. Yet another sacred print rule is turned on its head online. Watch this webspace.

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