The past few days, there was something about the website of The New York TImes that was bothering me, and I finally figured out what it was: serifs. A serif is a small line that you see at the end of a letter or character- letters with serifs were most popular with old forms of printing- such as block prints, typewriters, etc. As you can see below in a screenshot I took of the NYT today, the section headings under the masthead are displayed in a sans-serif font. This is something that is exclusive to the online version of the NYT because the paper edition does not have this feature on the front page. Although a font change may not seem like a big deal, I think this reflects the fact that news companies are increasingly seriously thinking of their online counterpart as something that stands on its own rather than just being a digital “copy” of the print version.
Traditionally, the Times font (a serif font) was considered to have the best readability in print. Despite the fact that sans-serif fonts were more widely used in website design, the NYT persisted to use serif fonts in its headings. Even in the Jan. 7, 2014 edition (the closest one I could find through the Way Back Machine, which documents previous versions of websites), it was clear that the section headings were in a serif font. As you cab see in the screenshot below, the section headings under “NY/Region” show all serif fonts.
Today’s version of the NYT, however, not only has sans-serif section heads, but has incorporate a Google-esque design in which when you are within a certain section, you don’t see the headings of other sections unless you open up a “list” through an icon on the top left of the page, which I indicate with a red arrow. As you can see, these section heads are also written with a sans-serif font.
Even more interesting is NYT’s China site, which can be accessed through a link at the very top of the NYT main page just above the masthead, along with a link for International New York Times (formerly the International Herald Tribune). These links, of course, are exclusive to the online version of the NYT. When I visited the Chinese site, I was also very surprised that while the masthead is still in the traditional serif font, the Chinese section headings also use a sans-serif font, giving it a very modern look. One thing that is different in the Chinese site, however, is that the headings of the articles are uniformly in one sans-serif font and the text (body) of the articles are uniformly in one serif font. The US NYT site still has some remnants of print journalism layout such that the headings of the articles are different and all in serif font.
Changing fonts can be a risky thing, especially because people can develop emotional attachment to different fonts and can also have certain perceptions (such as credibility, authority) associated with certain fonts and not others. (For example, one would probably not want to write a resume in the font Comic Sans because it does not look very professional.) For many people, especially older readers of the New York Times, may feel uncomfortable with different fonts. They may think the sans-serif fonts have less gravitas. Readers who grew up reading more things on the web than print, however, may feel more comfortable with sans-serif fonts. People may think the font shift reflects a philosophy change, or even a political orientation change of the company. It could mean that the NYT is trying to reach younger readers, or hired someone with user-experience design recently. These are all speculations that are not scientifically proven, but in any company, major design changes often reflect a bigger change.
Who am I to give advice, but I hope that the NYT develops some more sans-serif fonts for its digital version to design a way to deliver its digital content that is different from how news is presented in a paper format. I say this with great respect to paper, because I am one of those people who love touching the grain of paper and appreciate the physical elements, such as different weights, fibers, and presses. I don’t think, however, that digital content presentation should be a mirror of the paper version. Just as digital lends its way for more content in general, as well as inclusion of more multimedia, it is archaic to think that the two modes should look exactly the same. This argument can made made for choice of photos, too. With someone who is looking at a physical newspaper, it may make sense to have a large landscape photo. But for someone who is viewing the same article on a mobile device, perhaps a close-up or tightly cropped photo is more appropriate. (That said, I absolutely loathe the crude design of the Huffington Post, which, while very mobile-friendly with its huge headline and huge pictures, lowers my perception of how good their content is.)
Although the NYT certainly has not been at the forefront in terms of digital content distribution, its reputation as one of the leading journalistic venues makes me hope that these design changes will cascade to other news venues, and lead the way to more innovate ways of distributing digital content. So while I cringe at the front page of NYT online because it is a messy juxtaposition of at least five different fonts, I am glad that the company is taking a step in a different direction.
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