Evaluating Pitchfork’s New Design

Speaking as a developer, I have to confess I find the new look rather underwhelming, both inside and out.

I realize that bashing Pitchfork is a bit of an “in thing” amongst indie-music types, and for good reason I suppose. The site is well-known for some pretty pretentious, if not downright silly writing, writing that oftentimes seems far more concerned with proving how witty and pithy the writer is than actually saying something about the music being written about (though I still chuckle over those Jimmy Eat World and Desaparecidos reviews).

But all ridicule aside, Pitchfork has undoubtedly struck a chord amongst many folks with their style of writing, becoming a very influential website. Chances are, those same folks who bash Pitchfork’s reviews still visit the site regularly, and probably come away with a good recommendation or two. I know that my discovery of Pitchfork in ’98 or ’99 was a big deal, for several reasons. Without them, I don’t know if/when I would’ve discovered many of the bands that I listen to now, and they were definitely an influence on me as I started posting music (and movie) reviews on the Web.

I say all this so that this little blog entry o’ mine doesn’t come across as yet another case of one pissy little music listener bashing Pitchfork simply because they’re Pitchfork.

Pitchfork has almost always been rather subpar when it comes to being a well-designed site, something that founder Ryan Schreiber has admitted as such. Much of that is simply due to the fact that Pitchfork is a very sizable site (they’ve got to be pushing several thousand reviews by now). Opus is barely a medium-sized site, and even that can be rather difficult to manage on my own.

But the fact remains that Pitchfork always seems to be in need of an overhaul design-wise, and now they were getting one by a real design firm. Obviously, as both a designer and a music fan, I was pretty excited about what would happen when Pitchfork recently launched their brand new design, courtesy of Someoddpilot. However, I have to say, I find the new design rather “meh” overall.

Being the geek that I am, I quickly started looking under the hood once I’d gotten my fill of the design (more on that later). Viewing the source code, I was immediately hit by several things that just didn’t seem right.

No valid DOCTYPE

I know this is really geeky of me, but it bothers me when I see a site that doesn’t contain a valid DOCTYPE, regardless of whether it’s “HTML 4.01 Transitional” or “XHTML 1.0 Strict”. And that’s doubly so for a site that is of Pitchfork’s magnitude (and no, the DOCTYPE that it does have is not the real deal). Invalid DOCTYPEs mean no code validation, and in this day and age, that’s becoming an increasingly big “no-no”.

Deprecated Code

Thankfully, I couldn’t find any <font> tags or other such nonsense on any of the pages that I visited (though there could still be some lurking here and there). However, deprecated HTML can still be found here and there, such as all of those attributes which can and should be controlled by the CSS, which brings me to my next point.

Poor CSS Implementation

As my co-workers will attest, I’ve become something a CSS nazi, but only because I’ve completely fallen in love with benefits of taking a CSS/semantic HTML view of the Web. The fact is that Pitchfork’s usage of CSS is lackluster at best. The CSS that is there is poorly-structured and incredibly redundant (there’s no reason why all of those font sizes, line heights, and color specifications need to be repeated again and again), but what’s more perplexing is the CSS that isn’t there.

There’s no reason why the new Pitchfork design couldn’t have been done using CSS and semantically-rich, structurally-sound XHTML. A quick perusal of the homepage’s source code reveals nested tables, many of them with convoluted layouts, as well as a number of extraneous graphics — most, if not all of which could be replaced by CSS and XHTML. Which would result in a site that’s far more flexible for future modifications, not to mention quicker on the download and easier on the bandwidth (both very good things).

(Now, I realize that criticizing another site’s CSS might be a case of the pot calling the kettle black, as I realize that Opus’ CSS is pretty obtuse itself. But I’m working on it.)

Senseless Flash Navigation

Yes, I realize that Flash is the shiz-nit, but come on! There’s absolutely no reason why the main navigation for the new Pitchfork design had to be done in Flash, and not a CSS-styled list. Sure, you’d lose some rather gimmicky eye candy, but you’d also gain a whole lot more usability and flexibility. Which is a pretty decent trade-off in my book.

No Trailing Slashes On URLs

Admittedly, this one is more for Pitchfork’s benefit, because most people won’t even notice. However, if you click on one of those links in the main navigation, such as “Record Reviews”, you’re taken to a URL that it looks something like


No big deal, right? It quickly changes to


(note the slash at the end of the URL) and all is good.

True, you end up where you were wanting to go, but at the expense of another server request. May not sound like a big deal, but on a site as big as Pitchfork, with literally thousands, if not tens of thousands of people hitting it everyday, they’re going to add up in terms of server resources. (Yes, I realize this one is probably the geekiest of the bunch, but you were warned.)

In his welcome message, Schreiber admits that there are still some kinks to be worked out, so a lot of the stuff I’ve listed might be non-issues in a few days. Which wouldn’t surprise me, because a lot of these things are relatively minor. However, I’m kind of surprised this stuff wasn’t dealt with at the get-go, while the site was getting put back together.

I have no idea what kind of content management system Pitchfork uses, or even if they use one at all (part of me thinks “No”). And let’s face it, overhauling a site with thousands of pages is a pretty daunting task. However, they had to go into all of those pages anyway to get the new design working, so it would’ve been easy enough to take out some of the deprecated code, clean up some of the tables, and whatnot.

Okay, enough about the site’s code. What about the design? Again, I have to go with “meh”. It’s certainly not bad — the new logo is decent, if not a little cutesy, and the spray paint-y stuff is kind of cool — but it’s also not the best thing in Someoddpilot’s portfolio. I’m not necessarily a huge fan of the “1024x768 or greater” approach, though I’d also probably be one of the last ones to complain about that. And the new design is still cluttered with too many damned banners (“Ooh look, another ad for Suicide Girls!”).

Whew… this post became much longer than I had planned. Again, I want to stress that is not another “Pitchfork is so stupid” screed, and I hope that it doesn’t come off as such. Flaws aside, I quite enjoy reading Pitchfork, will still head their way on a pretty daily basis, and will still find some reviews quite useful and others quite infuriating — which is to be expected. But speaking as a developer, I have to confess I find the new look rather underwhelming, both inside and out.