A decade and a half ago Jakob Nielsen announced to the world that people don’t actually read websites in a linear way. Instead, they prefer to skim read, scanning the page to find what they’re looking for.
As such, content creators were advised to format articles in a way that encourages readers to avoid reaching for the back button. This meant using bullet points, meaningful sub-headers, and highlighting key phrases / words in bold.
Roll things forward a few years, and Oliver Reichenstein published an article that contains one of my favourite quotes: “Web Design is 95% Typography.”
In his article he says: “A great web designer knows how to work with text not just as content, he treats text as a user interface.” This still resonates so strongly with me, as a creator of content, as somebody who is deeply interested in web design, and as a heavy web user.
But does the 95% quote still stand up? I fear that recent design trends have stomped all over text and typography, and that pictures have deposed words.
For some sites, a picture really is worth a thousand words, but I keep seeing examples of redesigned websites that have increased the prominence of images for reasons that are I think misguided, and which negatively affect the user experience (assuming you believe, as I do, that forcing the user to immediately scroll down is a sucky thing to do).
Below are a few screenshots from some of the web’s top publishing brands, which have decided to promote (massive) images over words. In many cases you need to scroll down in order to view the content.
Then there is the curse of those half page display ads, for example on Wired. A commercial decision that puts the web design team firmly in its place. Let's start there...
Wired produces some great content, so why is it so allergic to words?
The Telegraph also loves these big ads:
As does The Independent:
Then there is kind of thing from Fast Company, where a huge image is used to draw the reader in. And maybe it does precisely that... certainly I’d love to see some stats to see if scrolling is still a big deal, or whether prioritising text encourages people to hang around.
Mashable, meanwhile, unveiled a new design in December 2012, and it is very big on the visuals. Here’s how its article pages look:
Quartz also favours a scroll-inducing gargantuan image:
As does Jalopnik:
Finally, let’s look at the revamped Google+, which has fallen in love with images and a wiggly Pinterest-style layout, but not with typography. The reason that this kind of layout works on Pinterest is that it is all about the images, but I don’t think it’s the right approach for sites with lots of text-based content. It hurts my brain to make sense of pages that look like this:
I still think that words - despite the rise of images and videos in recent years - are what the web is all about, and web designers need to pay more attention to typography. Thankfully I’m not alone: here’s an excellent piece on words by Justin Jackson.
What do you think? Is this image-first trend to be encouraged, or is it misguided? Do leave a comment below, and please flag up any other examples you’ve come across.
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