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I've 15 years of experience in media, product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. On weekends, I read & write on media products. Most recently, I was a Knight Fellow w/ International Center for Journalists for 3.5 years.
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I've 15 years of experience in media, product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. On weekends, I read & write on media products. Most recently, I was a Knight Fellow w/ International Center for Journalists for 3.5 years.

Don’t overspend on web design, themes, and UI

Published Jun 04, 2021
Updated Mar 20, 2022

Over the years, I have seen media startups and businesses focus a lot on perfecting their logo, brand color palette, clean social media cover templates. Others hold off on a formal website launch (sometimes for years) to reach a path-breaking website. Finally, others spend precious capital on high-end design agencies instead of product or business development to signal the suitable class to their stakeholders.

This can be compared to a construction company that wants to construct a mall but starts the process by interior designing shops instead of building architecture or plot selection.

Media companies attracted to branding as a moat.

Of the four moats available, newsrooms and most media companies struggle to create network effects, proprietary technology, and economies of scale. But branding remains a moat that is still available. Hence, media entrepreneurs are attracted to work on it.

However, visual differentiation without substance doesn’t lastBrands are built, over the years, by delivering on promises. After your product fulfills its commitment, the visual differentiation can add to the experience and allow you to charge a premium.

All you need is a good enough website that does not kill the launch. Here is how Google and Amazon looked like, on-launch.

Credits: and

Invest capital and time on building a brand by delivering on your promise

The conflict is between the long-term benefits of subjective attributes like beauty and the short-term cold-hard truth of progress, i.e., launch, measure, iterate. Unfortunately, it is not possible to prioritize both. Successful companies understand this and tend to prioritize one.

Compared to the classy user interface of the now shut, SubStack, or even Twitter, Medium, Reddit had pretty average or banal user interfaces. Craigslist, a billion-dollar company, still has a commonplace user interface.

Yet, they work because the focus isn’t to stand out for the sake of it. Instead, they focus on fundamentals:

  • Most of Amazon’s focus goes on faster shipping, lower prices, and greater variety.
  • Similarly, one would assume, Twitter’s focus would primarily be on speed, better conversations, interest graphs.
  • Google Search’s focus isn’t user interface. Most of their budget and headspace improve the speed, relevance, and breadth of their search engine.

In no way am I saying that TheOutline or other media companies do not focus on fundamentals. But relative to their size and the earning potential of their market, they seem to be spending much more on visual differentiation.

Two designers propose a solution.

So what kind of design should you invest in? Renowned designer Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison wrote a book called “SuperNormal – sensations of the ordinary.”

Encouraged by glossy lifestyle magazines and marketing departments, today’s designers compete to make things as noticeable as possible.

In contrast, craftsmen of previous centuries manufactured objects for everyday use — a ladle, an axe, a saddle — without seeking to express themselves or their age, or even to hold their ground against the products of the competition or forgeries.

They go on to define SuperNormal.

SuperNormal refers to the Normal — in the sense of adopting a familiar form and aesthetic — without being normal. As a result, people recognize it instantly from everyday encounters and can operate it intuitively.

Make it easy for your audience to absorb the stories and information you communicate. And in this process, focus your time, energy, and budget on providing exclusive content.

So how do you choose a website?

Well, how do you shop for your clothes, shoes, and furniture? Do you get them custom-made? Most probably no. Instead, you go to the market, try out a bunch of brands. See if they fit well and look good. If they do, buy them and start using them. If they don’t, you conclude that this product wasn’t for you and move on.