Dan Hill on the Monocle Site Design

Monocle, as a business, a magazine, and a website, is an interesting story. I’m not sure how well the business fares, but it’s been around long enough and the content is growing in quantity and richness that it seems the affairs are in order.

Dan Hill recently posted about his work on the design of the site. The design reflects their strategy, which in a word could be summed up as bespoke. They’re differentiating on quality of a hand-crafted nature. While everyone else is installing white label social media packages, aggregating content from all over, and throwing features at the readers’ overwhelmed wall of attention, Monocle redoubled efforts to create a beautiful layout, professional writing and production, and a brand strong enough to extend into physical products.

Here’s a few of Dan’s notes that stood out for me:

  • Monocle was conceived as a multi-platform brand from the start.
  • We wanted to make Monocle a journalism brand that you had a weekly relationship with via the internet, as well as the monthly relationship via the magazine. Ultimately, this should be daily, if aspirations come to fruition.
  • I knew from the BBC that getting the broadcasts into iTunes would be the thing that really extended the viewership of the programmes… we waited until we had a critical mass of content before entering iTunes, with a podcast of all the programmes.
  • We’d seen many other broadcast news outlets appear to be getting ever more parochial, and produce editorial with lower quality (…the apparent step forward of journalists filing video reports via their mobile phone is often merely a cost-cutting exercise, and a step backwards in reporting quality). …we wanted to raise the bar in online video: to shoot things in high quality – we have our own Panasonic AG-HVX200 HD cameras and Mac Pro-based Final Cut Pro editing stations – and edit and encode professionally, embedding on the page in 16:9 ratio, to subtly give a sense of high quality broadcast.
  • I’ve conceived the video player… doubling up from it’s smallest size (470px to 960px) and then capable of going full-screen in the downloaded mp4 mode… We encode our programmes twice – once in Flash (using Sorensen Squeeze) for inclusion on the website, both in ‘lean-forward’ mode as embedded on the page, and in ‘lean-back’ mode when the user hits the double-size button; and then again in downloadable .mp4 files, which are encoded at the highest possible quality settings for iPod/iPhone.
  • Critically, we wanted to ensure that the sound is recorded correctly, so we used broadcast facilities in central London… before converting a space in the Marylebone Monocle HQ into a voiceover booth… Many other players have clearly not thought enough about sound…
  • Creating the right office/studio environment was also key… The centre-piece of the office is a large wall on which the issue emerges bit by bit, as useful for us commissioning video content alongside as for talking people through the brand.
  • Monocle's layout wall

  • We quickly decided we were going to use professional camera crews and director/producers. This ensures that programmes are well-shot to our house-style, feeling part of an overall Monocle aesthetic… no jerky camera movement, careful graphic framing of scenes, two camera shoots and additional sound crew if it’s a big interview, careful and stylish use of graphic elements and so on. Such that every part of the Monocle.com experience is additive, reinforcing and complementing each other.
  • …the website, while containing virtually every word from the magazines in a rich archive for subscribers, would actually discreetly conceal that material in the background, pushing the original broadcast-style programming to the foreground.
  • I’m quite impressed with Current TV’s end title at the moment, as a reference. They use white titles against the final video, and then split the screen vertically with embed/permalinks on the left, and related movies on the right
  • …we produced editorial at a steady rate – essentially a well-made film or two per week – rather than bombarding the user with content. …this was difficult for some to get their heads around, and we certainly have aspirations to increase the frequency to include a snappy daily bulletin, but this sense of quiet calm exuding from Monocle was another important statement: that you don’t have to clutter websites with every possible bit of information you can.
  • timeline of Monocle production schedule

  • Visually, we wanted to make something that didn’t ape current design tropes – the boring, over-used and essentially art-less ‘web 2.0 look’ of bright palletes, gradient fills and rounded corners – but had a more classical view, as befitting something a little more grown up. …the magazine …looks further back into the early 20thC, and beyond the simple serifs and vogue for ornamentation, but look at the engravings, section headers, cartographic styles etc.
  • Working with experienced magazine professionals, it was necessary to reiterate the importance of leaving things online once it was published… A simple point, and one the industry discovered long ago… but fundamental nonetheless. It’s still surprising how often it’s forgotten by new entrants, given this basic premise of pointability has underpinned almost every mature online success, from Amazon to YouTube.
  • They’re running EPiServer for CMS and exploring sIFR for graphic text replacement
  • The black background was selected not because it ‘looks different’ but mainly as it presents video extremely well… with greyed text, so that it is naturally luminous against black, rather than necessitating an interface control.
  • They explored product as advertising, as with Rolex
  • Rolex clocks on Monocle.com


  1. I love the magazine and really appreciate that the same attention to detail is being applied to the online experience.

    The video and audio production quality certainly stands-out for me. I love that the Monocle brand is extended to the almost silent intro to each video piece – intentionally understated, sophisticated and pretty.

    I am interested to see how the navigation system and IA hold up as the site grows in size.

    The site may rely a little too heavily on the assumption that a user is also a subscriber to the printed magazine. Especially as some of the aspirational language used for browsing the magazine (such as “Quality of Life Index”) doesn’t translate so well to non-linear way-finding on the the web version.

    Thanks for the article!

  2. Monocle.com is a great site, but its time for an update – the search is not working, and I just want the shop quickly. But the site still looks great. I heared that Dan Hill did not design the site at-all, but he was the one taking the notes – he was not the designer, but the web and broadcast manager. I dont think he claims to be the designer, but he alludes to it.

    Winkreative designed Monocle.com as well as some other iconic websites: http://www.winkreative.com/portfolio/website_design – which explains the clocks.

    Please update monocle.com, its been a little disfuctional for a while now.

    Love Monocle, I just forgot about it for a while – great find, great notes, could have been more honest about what his roll was though.



  3. Just to tidy something up, Jason. I did direct the design of Monocle, and would claim to have done much of it myself, though working with Paul Finn (a freelance designer I brought in), and supported by Maurus Fraser from Winkreative. We also worked with Richard Spencer Powell and Ken Leung. I made all that pretty clear in the article. Not sure where you got your ideas from. I’m a designer, first and foremost, but was also Web & Broadcast Director – it’s possible to do both, you know. Anyway, glad you like it.
    Thanks, Dan.

Comments are closed.