There has been a flurry of verbiage recently on the redesign of the Macromedia Home Page. Among other things, I observed that someone had criticized it on the grounds of having a lousy "data-ink ratio". I think the criticism is interesting, and the notion of the data-ink ratio is worth a deeper look. (Warning: lengthy and quite graphics-heavy)

I grabbed a snapshot of the page for historical purposes, because it will change.

Macromedia home page, March 13/2003

I think it looks pretty nice. It's a little information-light, but so what? White space is a critical tool in the repertoire of the high-end designer; turn the pages of any good magazine and you'll see lots of naked paper deployed in the service of both content and advertising. So, I disagree with some of the flamers: I think that for a portal page, particularly for a design-centric company like MM, going sparse is OK.

On the other hand, if you're trying to get a job done, to tell someone what they need to know, to help a working person do their work, well, you need to think seriously about that data-ink ratio and its friends the Ratio family.

I don't know if Edward Tufte actually invented the term "data-ink ratio", but he certainly popularized it. It means exactly what it says: what proportion of the ink on the page (or pixels on the screen) is at work communicating information? Any that aren't are just decoration, and decoration gets in the way.

Tufte argues this with immense persuasiveness, and I've worked through a graphical argument in his style, starting here.

Data-ink ratio demonstration

Let's get back to Macromedia. I think the data-ink ratio is actually pretty good; most of the pixels on the screen are trying to tell you something. But that isn't the only ratio to think about; there's also "data density": How much information are you packing into each unit of real-estate? Obviously, high data density is in direct conflict with the effective use of white space, and that Macromedia portal has poor data density. I still think this is excusable in this context; I personally would have tried to work in quite a bit more content, but then I'm not a design geek.

However, this did make me take a closer look at ongoing, and I decided that the way the material on the upper left was being done was bogus, with overdecoration and space-wasteage. The picture below shows what the top left corner of this page used to look like.

ongoing, before redesign

See how the date and two content-hierarchy entries have been melted together in the current version, without loss of information? I'm actually pleased with the top left corner now; everything is usefully clickable (including all the parts of the date).

Of course, if you really want to hit the max in both the data-ink and data density ratios, you need to use techniques from cartography. Which is what I do for a living.

Visual Net screenshot

Postscript on Production · Having an automated production system is nice, but it sure gets in the way when you want to do some page engineering as in that chart example. I ended up having to write some real dodgy ad-hoc code to discard the right-side apparatus in certain poorly-thought-through special cases. Hmm... I don't want to write a bloody soup-to-nuts editorial system by accretion, but the slope is feeling slippery.

I'm also already wanting to make ongoing look a lot better. Hanging around with my colleagues (design gods all) in the Web Standards Project has given me an eye for how good a modern page can look; if not, perhaps, the talent to achieve those effects. And ex-WSP Jeffrey Zeldman on a regular basis takes my breath away with the grace and integrity of his pages... I really have to do something about that green splodge in the upper right.

Postscript on the Postscript · The self-referentiality of weblogs bothers me a bit, it seems they focus in on themselves too much rather than out at the world the way Wendy does. But I guess at this point we're kind of making it up as we go along; were there lots of programs, in the early days of television, about how television worked?


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March 13, 2003
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