I invited the founder of Wonderly—the firm which designed the publication’s new web site—to chat about the design process that culminated in thefoodsection.com. Allie Lehman was very patient as my phone recording app malfunctioned repeatedly.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Hanna Raskin: Hello?
Allie Lehman: Can you hear me?
HR: I am so sorry about that. There were about 10 things that went wrong, but I think they’re all fixed now. I feel like I’m pushing my luck when it comes to tech this week.
AL: There’s a lot going on! This seems like it’s working.
HR: So, I thought a good place to start might be: I recall you asked for a lot of stuff from me when we started this process, and I’m really curious about what you were looking for.
AL: That’s a great question. We start off by sending what we call a prep packet. It’s essentially a Google doc [with] a lot of different questions.1 And the thing I’m looking for is: Who is this website trying to connect with?
That’s important because I don’t want to make websites that only I like. My preference isn’t the right answer all the time.
HR: I would imagine that those audiences could be wildly different. Can you give an example of an audience that emerged from prep work which might be different from you?
AL: Yeah, a couple of different examples. One of our clients is a nonprofit out in California called Beam, and they serve the Black community; a really inclusive, intersectional community. I’m not Black, so it’s important for me to see the work they’ve produced, and to leave time for collaboration, because I want the product to feel like their team contributed to how things ended up.
It’s important for me to not bring just my own perspective and biases to design. Saying something like, ‘That’s good or bad design,’ is actually very subjective.
Another project we just finished is targeting nonprofits, cities, and towns, and I am not any of those things. And a third example is a membership [program] for people who listen to a podcast about reality television. I definitely dabble in watching some reality TV, but I’m not a member of that community.
It’s why I really like to tell my potential clients, if work on our website doesn’t connect with you personally, I also feel that way. We make something for your audience and for you.
HR: As I’ve demonstrated during this process, I am not a visual person.2 Are you visual enough that when you review the prep packet, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re doing diamonds,’ or ‘We’re going green!’
AL: Yeah. I can relate it to: If you’re thinking about eating dinner, maybe you haven’t picked a recipe or a restaurant, but you kind of know what sounds good. That’s how it feels for me as a creative person. I can read your answers, and talk to you, and look at what The Food Section has been until this point, and say, OK, I’m kind of feeling like it’s going to go in this direction.
HR: Where did you think things were going after you got the prep packet that I submitted?
AL: It was really amazing for me to see your office. I remember I felt the analog come through. I didn’t feel like I was looking at a super high-tech office, which I really loved. I felt connected to the clippings and physical printed pieces: I am a big admirer of fonts that older publications chose to use. I felt like I got a lot of warmth, and there were some good anchoring colors in there, but it still felt really inspiring.
Also, you communicated, ‘Hey, I don’t have a lot of websites that I am going to bring to the table in terms of inspiration.’ So, I knew that I could bring my vast knowledge of user experience and look at how people use sites that are made for publications, and kind of pull the best of the best.
I wanted it to feel really an elevated experience from where you were on Substack. I’m very familiar with what Substack looks like, so I didn’t want to confuse readers, but I was excited to give them something more varied and robust.
HR: I’m glad you brought up the user experience. A lot of the firms I talked to had never done any media work. In fact, some of the firms I consulted said, ‘We just not going to do that.’ Can you talk about how you manage the user experience when you’re dealing with journalism?
AL: Starting a bit more detailed, things like: Do you include the byline? Do you want a one sentence summary of every article you’re publishing? Will you have images for everything? Those feel like building blocks.
Obviously, we want it to be a great user experience for the reader, but we also want to give you the ability to curate [from] an editor’s perspective. We start to think through what’s possible, and what allows you to have fun as a site owner. We’re not just solving problems for your readers, but for the people maintaining the site.
When we met, you brought so much creativity to the table. It might not have felt visual, but thinking through the different ways that your pieces can be categorized clued me into the fact that you were open to showcasing pieces in a different light.
I love the idea of a user coming to a website and saying, ‘I want to find something that I saw in an email or on social media. Can I find the search bar? Or am I just open to finding something that catches my eye?’ That’s where the homepage for The Food Section feels very much like a buffet of options.
HR: One of the very preliminary user experiences that was reported back to me, from one of the few people I had look at it, was, ‘Oh, I feel like I could get lost in it.’ To me, that was the ultimate compliment. I was like, ’That’s wonderful. I’d love for you to stay all day.’
AL: I agree.
HR: Can you talk about how to make that feeling not disorienting and upsetting, but a good feeling?
AL: Yes. There are a few things that we think about when we’re talking about that idea of getting lost but not overwhelmed. The first thing that comes to mind is hierarchy. Things that go from biggest to smallest alert us to the biggest thing being the most important thing.
We’re also trying to work with a set number of fonts and sizes, so it doesn’t feel like you can only see so much, whether you’re on a computer, or a phone, or something in between. Even if the actual design ends up being very tall, that’s not how a user will experience it, unless they decide to zoom out to 1% or something.
In terms of it not feeling overwhelming, I think that comes down to: Is there too much movement? Is there too much color, to the point where it’s jarring or hard to read? And phones are so different as well. So, really making sure that people can find the search bar, and find something newer without digging too much.
HR: When you think back on this project, what do you think you’ll remember? It could totally be something like, “I was so annoyed with…” whatever it was.
AL: When [designer] Kelsey [Gonzales] and I were done with the project, we both commented, ‘I’m so proud of how this looks.’ It ended up looking better than we probably even imagined. We love everything we make, but there are times where naturally the design strays: It’s exciting when we feel like we were pretty close.
I also really love your color palette.3 It’s easy for us to get really creative with layout design when we know that there’s a palette, because we’re not trying to convince you of so many new things. We’re not trying to say, ‘Look at this completely new design. Also, do you like these fonts? Also, do you like these colors?’
And I felt like the typeface, and fonts that we chose as complements, felt foundational, traditional, and yet really modern. I felt like the contrast alluded to that feeling of how I felt when I looked at your office.
HR: Right. That’s great. Lastly, I’ve been staring at this site nonstop for weeks, so I know exactly what it looks like, but we’re about to share this with readers who have no idea what’s coming. Do you want to give the elevator pitch for this site, and what’s going to be exciting about it not just being a Substack site anymore?
AL: I would love to. I will say the entire website feels like a choose-your-own-adventure. I feel like you can get into a post, and see related posts, or choose to browse different ways.
Then, I would say it feels like you get The Food Section really quickly when you visit the site. A lot of times with Substack, you’re focused on the most recent, and you lose a little bit of that amazing back archive. Here, you can find things that are true and interesting that were true and interesting three months ago.
It just feels like a place that I would want to spend time hanging out. If it was real life, I would love spending time inside: That’s really the feeling we wanted to give The Food Section’s new site.
HR: Well, I think you did it. I think it’s great. Thank you.
- Questions include: “What do people misunderstand about your business,” “How do members of your target audience try to grow as human beings,” and “How do you want someone to FEEL when they visit your site?” ↩︎
- I was flummoxed when prompted for a “Pinterest mood board” of “color palettes that you enjoy, the style of photography you envision on your site, and graphic design elements that catch your eye,” and ultimately decided to instead send pictures of my office, which I reasoned must reflect some kind of design aesthetic. ↩︎
- The Food Section’s palette was selected by Gil Shuler, who designed the newsletter’s logo. ↩︎