The Year Most News Home Pages Looked the Same

Box. Image. Text. (Rinse and repeat.)

Earlier today, Bloomberg View—the online opinion arm of the Bloomberg News behemoth—unveiled its new homepage design. The site, below, presents itself as a set of mostly gray boxes with mostly white text:

It’s a fine design. Typographers have long prized grid-centered layouts for their elegance and extensibility, and the new View site takes “the grid” to an extreme.

To many viewers, though—including myself—the View site looked a little familiar. You see, the White Text on Gray Rectangles School of news site design is having something of a moment. Just yesterday, the NYC metro blog Gothamist unveiled the beta version of its own new homepage:

And Gothamist’s new site didn’t look altogether dissimilar from the redesign that The Atlantic launched in November*, for its news service The Wire:

Which itself somewhat resembles the NBC News redesign, unveiled earlier this month:

And that—though this is more of a stretch—also echoes the New Republic’s homepage:

Substitute teal and purple for gray and you get Vox Media’s video games-focused venture, Polygon:

So. It’s a thing.

At first, I thought I knew why. Many of the sites above are responsive: Instead of offering independent desktop and mobile versions of their layout, they offer just one, which resizes dynamically to the size of the browser window. Responsive web design have a rap for sometimes emphasizing a more rectangle-heavy design—the boxes can fold in and down as the screen gets smaller.

Ethan Marcotte—who literally wrote the book on responsive web design—disagreed.

“I don’t think this is anything related to responsive design. (Heck, for what it’s worth, [the beta version of Gothamist] isn’t really ‘responsive’ as such.),” he wrote in an email.

The Atlantic’s own web team concurred with him. Design responsively, they said, and you have options beyond the text grid. The grid, though, lets you “promote” many stories above the fold—to showcase the work of many writers on the website’s most prominent page.

The grid also looks like some popular social networks: Michael Learmonth of Advertising Age said that someone called their griddy redesign “a drunken mashup of Pinterest and Tumblr.”

“Like anything else, it’s best when used judiciously,” said Marcotte. “Hypothetically, if a page were overrun with those photo/caption pairs, it’d be easy for the reader’s eye to get lost among the boxes.”

He pointed to the Pew Internet Project and Al Jazeera’s Arabic news site as two home pages that used an image-heavy grid while still providing a clear visual hierarchy.

He’s right on both counts, I think, which makes me wonder all the more about this trend. My bet is that it springs from editorial need and ease of technical implementation. Editors and managers at one site see others doing it, notice that it solves their problems, and adopt a variant—and so a trait becomes a trend.

via Josh Benton and Shane Ferro

* This article originally said that The Wire relaunched in January; it in fact did so in November 2013. Thanks to Arit John and Gabriel Snyder (its former editor!) for highlighting the error.