The lost art of longform

There’s a slowly building change in web design when it comes to longform copy. What do I mean when I say ‘longform’? Basically, this means an article that uses significantly more text than your usual web page – so for instance, a report, narrative story, detailed cased study or guide. But it’s not just about amount of text, it’s about depth too – longform copy allows the writer to explore issues or stories with much greater detail – these are not pages to be skim read, they demand a certain level of attention from the reader.


The problem has always been that when it comes to longer passages of text – it’s always been preferable to read on paper than on screen. And on paper these articles or stories have much more freedom to play with the design, adding images or charts where relevant – controlling and aiding the reading experience. Whilst the all pervasive PDF has usually been the most common way to turn longform printed material into something digital – this is rarely to the benefit of those actually reading on screen (especially tablet sized screens). Technically this is all possible on a website too, but it could be argued that people just aren’t used to viewing online content in such a way.

The iPad has really changed the game when it comes to the possibilities of digital publishing. With many respected newspapers and journals now available as dedicated iPad apps, people are starting to get over the barrier of actually paying attention to more in-depth articles on screen. But what are the benefits of reading on screen as opposed to print? We need to find a way to really take advantage of the medium in a way that enhances the copy and doesn’t just distract the viewer with ads and ‘calls to action’ away from the story they’re reading. It needs to be fully responsive and touch-screen friendly – so it works just as well no matter what sized device you’re reading on.

Last year, Google updated their ‘mobile playbook’. This is an informative and graphic-rich guide to best practices for using mobile to enhance your business (worth a read!). There’s a lot of information here, but they really took the time to create something that was much more than a PDF or standard website. This is a really nice example of creating something that moves beyond simply echoing a printed brochure and starts to take advantage of the benefits of screen, touch and interactive longform media.

» The Mobile Playbook – Google

However, this is a very ‘self enclosed’ approach – it’s a confined site in its own right, it still adheres to a very ‘page by page’ approach and it doesn’t use conventional responsive standards (ie. there’s quite a difference between the mobile and desktop experiences).

So where next for longform online? Well, one current approach is known as ‘snow fall’ and was coined after an article created by the NY Times (an evocative piece about an avalanche at Tunnel Creek, USA).

» Snow Fall – New York Times

This mixes longform copy with large images, short video clips and the technique known as parallax scrolling. (side note: to see a nice example of parallax scrolling in action, visit this website for Charlotte St. Studios that we created recently: Whilst not being as involved as the Google example above, this still works really well and the additional rich-media elements serve to aid the story rather than just adding gimmicks – popping up only when the reader gets to the relevant point. This technique is now being picked up and used for all sorts of more in-depth online articles, a recent example being the BBC and their story on the Reykjavik Confessions (a strange story of people confessing to murders they may not have committed):

» The Reykjavik Confessions – BBC

And the Telegraph’s ‘Automatic for the People’ article on US gun control which uses a more infographic approach to add simple animation, icons and statistics to the article as the reader progresses through it:

» Automatic for the People – The Telegraph

These both work really well as the entire page is devoted to reading the full story, it’s designed to work across devices and any interactivity or video material is there to aid the reader at the right time, rather than to detract from the story. The technique itself isn’t too complicated, so it’s an approach that we’ll probably see being more widely adopted as we slowly move away from self-enclosed, device specific apps and towards an online media culture where the idea of multimedia, apps and websites (and even print) merge.

more info:

» Snow Fall – marrying longform narrative with captivating visuals

» What ‘Snow Fall’ means for online journalism’s future