Pinterest Design Ethos Echoes With Publishers

The visual Web continues to push forward, one publisher site at a time.

Publishers across the digital media landscape are redesigning their sites to mimic the photo-friendly grid layout of social sites like Pinterest. Media companies from The New York Times to CNN to Mashable are falling in love with the less-is-more design approach, both as a way to create a better user experience and a route to integrate ads less awkwardly.

“The holy grail is how advertising feels more integrated to the pieces,” said Dan Gardner, co-founder of design shop Code and Theory. “As a page becomes more visual, it allows advertising to feel more integrated. It’s not to confuse what’s advertising and what’s editorial, but advertising can now be more part of the experience.”

That experience is transforming websites. Instead of putting up blocks of text, publishers are understanding that big, bold, beautiful images attract more attention from visitors. The old-fashioned way of presenting information was to offer an inherent hierarchy: news story headlines get bigger treatment, other articles get smaller text. Visual approaches change that.

“Most of the content sites — Mashable, Digg, Fast Company — are leading with very heavy visual,” said Heather Harrigan, svp of user experience at Rokkan. “To use net-speak, it boils down to tl;dr [too long; didn’t read]. This trend is reflective of the fact people don’t have as much time. They’d rather be shown what’s trending or what’s interesting to them. When it’s visual, the eye goes to bigger images.”

The bonus of this approach: it’s easier to reconfigure a grid to appear correctly on many devices. Publishers can no longer treat mobile as an afterthought, not when it accounts for 30-40 percent of traffic.

“A visual grid offers all cards on the table, which gives users a highly scannable table of contents that makes sense of a large amount of content,” said George Eid, co-founder of design shop Area 17. “Users don’t navigate websites anymore, they scan and click. And that is why the grid becomes more consumptive, satisfying the publisher’s needs.”

Beyond the growing influence of social networks’ image-heavy design, publishers and designers are understating user needs better.

“There are certain things people put on a page — once you start thinking about a page, you start putting things there,” Eid said. “If people put right-hand columns with additional content on the page, we know by experience they don’t work. No one clicks on them. All this effort to manage the right-hand column, so why do we keep doing it? As publishers start to realize that, we start to realize each stroke on the page or canvas has to have a purpose: satisfy the user or business — or both at the same time.”

Another design trend that stems from this less cluttered approach is making it easy for readers to get to the next story or find content within the site without having to click. Quartz, which looks more like an app than a typical content site, is the poster child for this approach. The endless experience pushes the user from one article to the next. There is no homepage; there is no main navigation, just trending topics and a table of contents on the left with tools to help the reader.

Another example of this is Deadspin, Gawker’s sports site. Comments appear and the end of stories. When readers continue scrolling down, they see synopses of relevant articles and links to those articles. While infinite scrolling isn’t new, new design tactics like this are keeping readers on a site longer.

“In an article, you want nice clean design,” said Jon Jackson, creative director at Huge. “How do you do that in a way that doesn’t compete with what you’re reading, making sure someone can get to main content, read it and find something else very quickly.”

One thing that’s universal on the Web is that people will copy things from successful companies. Yet often they don’t know whether the thing they’re copying is what makes the original company successful. With the “Pinterestification” of media sites, some designers, like Ryan McManus, creative director of design agency Hard Candy Shell, thinks this misguided approach could backfire.

“There’s a me-too philosophy inherent in design, but it’s most amusing to us when people apply it to a different category — like social content to a written content,” McManus said. “Trends become trends when people use them without using the strategy behind them but instead use the superficial representation they see elsewhere.”

And as Eid said, “Design trends are reflective of user needs, not necessarily because it’s trendy.”

Image via Shutterstock