In praise of MailOnline (yes, really)

The Daily Mail website’s Grand Prix victory at the Design Business Association’s Design Business Awards is sure to spark debate.


Aside from the frequently justifiable misgivings about MailOnline’s journalism (the website is probably the most criticised, as well as the most visited newspaper website), the site design itself – developed with Brand42 in 2008 – can hardly be held up as a thing of beauty.

Headlines are long and often grammatically clunky. ‘The Houdini horse who keeps her owners on their toes by refusing to stay locked up and regularly leading a jailbreak from her stable in search of food and fresh air’ reads one from yesterday.

The homepage, meanwhile, is a hectic vertical scroll, and features the infamous right-hand panel ‘sidebar of shame’, in which scantily clad celebrities are served up for the reader’s delectation.

The Daily Mail's three-column homepage, featuring the 'sidebar of shame'
The Daily Mail’s three-column homepage, featuring the ‘sidebar of shame’

‘I didn’t look at that many websites for design ideas,’ MailOnline editor Martin Clarke told the New Yorker last year. ‘The site breaks all so-called “usability rules”. It’s user-friendly for normal people, not for internet fanatics.’

So user-friendly is the Daily Mail, that it is now the world’s most-visited newspaper website, attracting an average of 84.9 million unique monthly browsers.

The afore-mentioned wordy headlines and lengthy homepage scrolling are there for a reason – they helped shoot MailOnline up the search-engine rankings.

An addition to this, Brand42’s three-column homepage structure allows MailOnline’s team to juggle stories with the flexibility of a newspaper layout, rather than the restrictions of a website.

The colour-based branding system and clean typography helps readers to make sense of what could be an overly-messy page design, and features such as pop-up previews and interactive elements draw readers into the site and (crucially) keep them there.

The Daily Mail website in 2007, prior to Brand42's redesign
The Daily Mail website in 2007, prior to Brand42’s redesign

And all this was achieved for a brand that, certainly a few years ago, was hugely wary of the internet. Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre was quoted as saying in 1999, ‘A lot of people say that the internet is the future for newspapers. Well I say to that:’

There is, of course, plenty more to design than simply effectiveness. But to use design to such a dramatic effect – to become number one in the world in your category – is a compelling story.

Brand42 and the Daily Mail have torn up the web design rule-book, and the results, while not always pretty, are incontrovertibly effective. You might not want to admit to visiting MailOnline, but you have to acknowledge its success.

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