Design: pictures vs words

Text originally posted on http://blog.omnicom.rs
No pictures were retrieved after the blog was taken down.

When you think about design, you think about pictures. You plan positions, shapes and colours for the best possible effect. You plan fonts and spacing for the best readability. And then you leave the words to someone else.

Among many communities and social networks that I use, there are two sites that I would like to write to you about. Both very minimalist, both very well designed. But in their core, so different.

Pinterest

A pin-board of pictures, Pinterest allows you to make your own themed collection of pictures, browse through other users’ collections and pin and like their pictures. Using a very simple fluid-grid design and JavaScript code that calculates and repositions pictures on screen, Pinterest looks its best on every device. Besides, apps for both iPhone and iPad have been developed soon after site launch.

It’s focus is on the ease-of-using: just one click and you’ve started. Whether used for business or private purposes, Pinterest is a good place to gather ideas, display your work, or just pass time. Many people have found their interest there: it was one of the fastest growing networks of all time. The site has about 70 million users worldwide.

What’s so great about it?

Simplicity. What you see on your screen is no more than pictures with captions. That’s exactly why more and more sites look like Pinterest. If your business is selling images – perfect design. If your business is displaying random or newest information to the visitor – works quite well. You have a web shop – why not? After all, jQuery plug-ins that will help you make your site look very similar, are freely available online.

But is it all about pictures?

I read this article recently and it made me think. Have we lost sense of what is important? Are we trying to make up for the nonsense we are writing on our websites by wrapping it in nice colours and patterns? That’s why discovering Medium was a revelation.

Medium

From their own description: “Medium is a beautiful space for reading and writing — and little else.”

With a surprisingly minimalist design, and very low (almost none) possibility of customisation, Medium displays stories written by its users, edited by its users and commented on by its users. The designer found a perfect solution to commenting: an unintrusive option to leave a comment on any line or any word of the text. Comments appear on the side, easily readable by site visitors. Similar to Pinterest, Medium allows you to place what you see into collections.

What is quite different about Medium, compared to other blogging platforms, is a simplified text editor. It really encourages you to focus on words, rather then looks of the text.

Medium is displayed nicely on all screens, but there is not yet support for writing on mobile devices.

I can’t find data about the growth of Medium community, and I know it’s a young site (launched about a year ago), but I can imagine that its user base will not expand nearly as quickly as that of Pinterest.

The truth is: pictures are faster. In the fast world we live in, fewer people have time and/or attention span to focus and read an article from the beginning to the end. It can a beautiful article, or a useful one, or maybe something funny, but many people will give up if there is more than two mouse scrolls of text. That’s why even Medium, a platform made exclusively for reading and writing, displays estimated reading time for each article together with its excerpt in the list.

That’s roughly it. When making websites for clients, we advise them not to make their copy too long, and to break paragraphs with pictures to keep the visitor engaged. Of course, we never tell them: “Try to write a beautiful story. Keep your site visitors interested.” We take that as given – if they are on your site, they are surely interested in what you have to say.

Few people actually focus on words as one of the big elements of design. I’ll finish with the quote from the article I mentioned earlier.

At its heart, web design should be about words. Words don’t come after the design is done. Words are the beginning, the core, the focus.

Start with words.