On a recent afternoon, the lead story on Buzzfeed.com ran under the headline “What a Pain in the Pass 💳😬.” The piece, a straightforward account of the tribulations the doomed-to-fail MoviePass faced, was in many ways standard BuzzFeed fare—it had a quippy, emoji-filled headline, slapdash top art, and plenty of Twitter screen grabs amidst some solid reporting.
Yet something was different. Clicking through on the headline loaded a new page, with an entirely new header. In the place of BuzzFeed’s signature red sans-serif wordmark was a new visual anchor: a serifed “BuzzFeed News” wordmark with a red dot in the place where the N’s stem should be.
BuzzFeed has spent the last seven years ramping up BuzzFeed News, its division dedicated to original (and occasionally Pulitzer Prize-nominated) reporting. But it wasn’t until last month when the company unveiled a redesign of the BuzzFeed News landing page that the separation between its alter egos—the “Which My Little Pony Is Your Spirit Animal?” BuzzFeed and the “Investigators Are Scrutinizing Newly Uncovered Payments By The Russian Embassy” BuzzFeed News—became more obvious.
While BuzzFeed proper remains the same (OMG stickers and all), BuzzFeed News’ new look is buttoned-up by internet standards and with roots planted squarely in the publishing norms of the past. Body copy is now in a serif typeface, and there’s a lot more white space to work with. News got rid of the stickers (but not the emoji) and refined BuzzFeed‘s wild color palette to a simple black, white, grey, and red. These changes sound basic, and they are, but they’re effective in making News feel like the grownup version of BuzzFeed.
The redesign comes at a time when other digital-first publications like The Outline are pushing acid-laced squiggles and hyper-colored backgrounds. BuzzFeed’s tact, on the other hand, is a bid at seriousness at a time when the news itself is seriously at risk. “We wanted to create some sort of scaffolding in which all of the reporting can really stand out,” says Dennis Huynh, BuzzFeed News’ creative director.
Using visual design to lend gravitas to content is an age old trick. In 2012, the film director Errol Morris conducted a revealing, if not entirely scientific, study that looked at how typography can impact a person’s willingness to believe something is true. He found people were more likely to trust content that was printed in fonts like Baskerville, a dowdy 18th century serifed font, over more modern varieties like Helvetica, Trebuchet, and Comic Sans.
The study had a whiff of pop-psych bullshit, but it served as an interesting case study for something that many of us intuitively understand: Design can change the way we process information. “It’s not more bullshit than anything else,” says Stéphane Elbaz, who until recently worked as The Outline’s creative director, of design’s ability to give content gravitas. Elbaz, who led the redesigns of The Intercept and the Los Angeles Times’ online, says connecting the present to the past, while not getting mired in its shortcomings, is the key to a successful online publication. “If you’re building something for the future, it needs to be relevant,” he says. “But you also need to invent something new.”
BuzzFeed had been dealing with the Comic Sans-ification of its content for years. Write about economic policy and social justice as much as you’d like, but if there’s a dancing Troll doll gif right next to it, it’s probably going to undermine the story’s intellectual heft. Separating BuzzFeed’s news division from its entertainment content was a natural decision; what to do with that content was another thing.
“We want it to feel sophisticated and modern and fresh and interesting,” Hunyh says. “We wanted it to feel like the internet, which is a very nebulous description.” For the most part, News’ redesign does feel like the current internet publishing landscape. There are columns, modules, and relatively clear hierarchy. The only time News’ design nods to BuzzFeed orginal’s history of ignoring publishing norms is with the navigation bar that cuts across the top of the page.
Instead of assigning static categories like “science” and “business,” News’ trending bar navigation is a constantly changing, contextless row of words that act as a pulse on the news. You might see “California fires” next to “Cardi B” in the morning and “Alex Jones” next to “Pokemon” in the afternoon. Each word links to a single story, subverting the expectation of another landing page. “We want to get people reading right away,” Huynh says.
The design decision is at once confounding and clever. The opaqueness of the nav bar isn’t intuitive, but it is a smart acknowledgement that in 2018, no one gets their news from one source anymore—by the time readers get to BuzzFeed, most already have a sense of what the news is that day. It’s also a reminder that though BuzzFeed News wants to be taken seriously, there’s still a glimmer of the internetty irreverence that made BuzzFeed so wildly successful in the first place.