“People wear a lot of different hats” in their work at the New York Review of Books, says technical director Michael King. He’s talking in part about why, until last month, its website had not been significantly refreshed in a decade. But the Review, which has published hundreds of the world’s leading writers across nearly six decades, hired Emily Greenhouse and Gabriel Winslow-Yost as editors in February 2019. The dual appointment re-created the leadership structure put in place by Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein at its founding in 1963. It also pointed toward the future: both Greenhouse and Winslow-Yost are in their 30s. King continues: “I think the new editors added a lot more impetus to get the project moving.”
The Review turned to Brooklyn-based studio Athletics, which had previously helped the publication perform technical updates and add small features. “We optimized the subscriber experience, for example, and added rich-media options for what was then call NYR Daily,” says Jameson Proctor, Athletics’s executive digital director. The question that inspired the website-redesign project entailed another order of complexity: How do you update a legacy media brand to entice new audiences without disorienting a longstanding and obsessive community of readers?
“Perhaps the biggest goal was to present the Review’s content to new people and, in doing so, to make clear statements about what the Review is,” says Allison Connell, design director at Athletics and the creative lead for this project. “In early conversations, a point that arose repeatedly is that everyone knows Joan Didion had written for the New Yorker, so why didn’t they know Didion has also written for the Review for nearly fifty years?” Greenhouse had been hired from The New Yorker and brought to her role an understanding of digital strategy shaped by Condé Nast’s multimedia juggernaut.
The site’s look draws upon the Review’s first heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, when the magazine’s type and images were both big and bold.
One of the first decisions, remixing the content, proved to be most challenging. In addition to an issue-based archive, the Athletics and Review teams came up with four broad content categories: politics, literature, arts, ideas. “That is a huge change for the Review, and one that needed to be handled carefully to reflect the spirit of the print edition, which has never been sectioned off into categories,” says King. “The editors felt this is a way to unify our content as ‘Review articles’ rather than segregate it by medium.”
The site’s look draws upon the Review’s first heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, when the magazine’s type and images were both big and bold. “We wanted existing subscribers to recognize something that was comfortable and familiar while at the same time creating a visual identity that felt fresh, exciting, and contemporary,” Proctor says. “Given that some members of the audience have been with the Review for decades, we were able to play with cover systems from the 1970s and achieve both of those goals. By going back to that period for inspiration, we come up with pairings that are pleasing but also feel somewhat unexpected.”
The bold new homepage and its category structure has more in common with the recent web redesign of The New Republic or The Cut than it does with the changed online face of The Atlantic or the London Review of Books, even taking into account the spiritual kinship between the two Reviews. “The top of the homepage has a kind of ‘digital cover’ featuring the top five or so stories with flashy type and blocks of color,” Connell adds. “Changing the color pairings also helps to signal updates to the site.” But though you’d never accuse the new site of looking staid, it was important to the Review’s team that, once visitors got to an individual article, a cleaner presentation offered a more comfortable reading experience. The color remains, though, because, as Connell notes, “it can give visual presence to an article from, say, 1966 for which the original image rights have expired.”
When asked about how the site fits into the Review’s overall digital strategy, King underscores that “the biggest part of the strategy is still the oldest part of the strategy. Content rules.” The Review publishes an average of two articles a day, and the varied content collections on the homepage are being updated regularly.
Taken together, the decisions the teams made, says Proctor, helped the Review “go back to the well, to the point of origination, and bring some of the excitement and differentiation of those early years to the forefront of its digital presence.” Or, as Greenhouse put it in an email, “Our hope is that the freshness, dynamism, and color of the site communicate something about the writers and thinkers we are publishing today, while also honoring not only the founders but the urgency of the first-ever issues. The websites for many publications privilege the churn of the constant; we’re proud that our site’s structure allows us to make news of the archive.”