Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The What and Why Behind Charge Shot!!! 2.0



Doubtless, many of you were stunned right out of your chairs last Monday when we launched Charge Shot!!! v 2.0. We hope you weren’t injured, but forgive us for being secretly happy if you were. A magazine, website or similar media venture undergoes a redesign because they want to make a statement.

But it’s tricky business. You want to indicate a new way forward, but hearken to your past. You want to excite readers and widen your audience, but you don’t want to alienate your fans. You want to be bold, aggressive and fearlessly fresh – but in doing so, you don’t want to lose sight of who you are.

When you undertake a redesign, you’re changing the way people experience your product. To be a mite cynical, your look matters as much as your content – for some readers, it may even matter more. Regardless, no redesign is made arbitrarily. Everything, from colors to font, is a statement in and of itself. So what are we trying to say?

I should note that Charge Shot!!! is woefully limited in its resources. We’re all volunteers, relative laymen when it comes to media design. Andrew is the only one who has a clue about HTML. We hit the ceiling of Blogger.com’s capability around month two, and since then, we’ve been trying to make the most of the relatively puny space it affords us. So when I speak loftily of redesign aesthetics and goals, bear in mind we’re better theorists than practitioners.

As my bio states, I edit a merry little rag called Delmarva Quarterly. When I came on a year ago, fresh out of college, I was tasked with redesigning the magazine. After putting out our fall issue under the old style, I threw together a few draft pages and sent them to the publisher. The pages came back without a single red mark. After five seconds of inordinate pride, I noticed he’d sent along something else – the November 2008 issue of Atlantic Monthly. After a brief page-through, I got it.

This was a redesign done right – art and mission statement fused into one. If anyone was unsure as to what Atlantic Monthly was about, a quick scan of the cover would have said everything. Huge walls of block letters crunch into each other like an LA traffic jam, each a question: SHOULD WOMEN RULE THE WORLD? SHOULD CHILDREN HAVE SEX CHANGES: WILL BLOGS KILL WRITING? IS CREDIT CARD DEBT A GOOD THING?

Lording above the punch-you-in-the-face assault of thick, sans-serif headline font, the flag looks out of place – “The Atlantic” spelled out in elegant, almost aristocratic serif font. And above that, in block letters again: THINK. AGAIN.

What the hell? I thought, immediately followed by: I want this. The juxtaposition of sans- and serif font, the gold, black and white on a frankly blood-red, and the undeniably confident reliance on text instead of images: This was a magazine with a message. Should women rule the world? Are blogs killing writing? I need to know. I feel compelled.

The Nov. 2008 stories are similarly aggressive. Andrew Sullivan writes a blogger’s manifesto. James Fallows serves up another peerless dispatch from China. A photo essay shows the Japanese gangsters at a bath house. And Jeffrey Goldberg risks incarceration to sneak terrorist paraphernalia through airport checkpoints – just to prove he can.

Bear in mind, the Atlantic Monthly is no upstart. They’ve been doing this since 1857. While they’ve never exactly been the reserved, pensive types – the January/February cover headline read: BLIND INTO BAGHDAD – Nov. 2008 was less a reinvigoration than a rebirth.

Redesigns are often long, laborious projects – it took my newspaper a little over a year to get a head-to-toe makeover by industry guru Mario Garcia – but I find it remarkable that The Atlantic, quite possibly America’s preeminent monthly, inaugurated its new look at the same time America made an historic decision to elect Barak Obama President of the United States. So really, we have another possibility: redesign as zeitgeist meter.

At Charge Shot!!!, we weren’t aiming to define a generation, an era or even a minute with our redesign. I was feeling a bit cramped writing roughly 1200 words a week about games, gaming and especially the gaming industry. A bit ashamed, I brought my concerns to Andrew and Craig. While I can’t speak for their exhaustion, we came pretty quickly to the consensus that we needed to explode our focus.

We wrote games and only games without missing a day for nine months. Now we’re embracing anything that flickers across a screen, or jumps off a page. We’re expanding our field of harvest a thousandfold, and to help, we recruited writers of embarrassing talent and wit. We needed to honor them with a new look.

A big part of the redesign was inverting the palette. Gray-on-black was attractive, and easy on the eyes, but I found it, like the gaming industry itself, claustrophobic and cave-y, a dark bedroom littered with old socks and pizza boxes. If we were expanding our focus, I thought, we should socialize our aesthetic – you know, drag the old boy out. Get him a new pair of jeans. Put a drink in his hand, and thrust him towards a cluster of like-minded peers. Extrovert the fool.

While given a limited range of fonts, we made like The Atlantic and juxtaposed sans-serif with serif. Sans-serif fonts – Helvetica, Arial – are commonly associated with The Future. NYC subway signs? Helvetica. The font stinks of public buildings, art museums and documentary films. It’s about straight-faced progress, no-jokes modernism.

Serif fonts – the indefatigable Times New Roman, Garamond – tend to be mustier, quieter and slower. They’re also much easier to read. Think of it as a one-two punch: We get your attention with a striking, clean sans-serif font, but when it comes down to line-by-line reading, we play nice and give you a digestible serif.

As for the banner – I can’t say what possessed me. I was thinking something old-school Modern, like Piet Mondrian. With, you know, a little Karen O and Zach Quito tossed in. We kept TempestHeavyItal for our logo, which I think should be renamed ShopRite.

Look: We’re bringing you something new. This has been on the stove for a little more than a month, and we’re embarrassingly pleased to bring it to you. We hope you’re refreshed by our new media-hungry purview, and we hope you welcome Steph, Pankin, Gene, Jordan and Boivin with appropriate fanfare.

And rest assured: we still write games. But now we write other stuff, too.