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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...

Massive ads

Wired produces some great content, so why is it so allergic to words?

The Telegraph also loves these big ads:

 

As does The Independent:

Immense images

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:

Haphazard layouts

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.

 

Econsultancy's Punch event is where 'Marketing meets Creative in the age of data and insight'. Curated by Creative Review, this event showcases the best of insight-driven creative. This event forms part of our week-long Festival of Marketing extravaganza.

Chris Lake

Published 25 June, 2013 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

Comments (27)

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Keith Campbell, Head of Digital SA at Change The Conversation

Interesting article, and i partly agree, but as they say, "a picture is worth a thousand words" but on the other hand ,the Chinese say, 1001 words is worth more than a picture." so it all depends on context.

about 3 years ago

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Andrew Grant

Thank you Chris - is this the start of the backlash? I hope so.
I despise the quick, easy, gotta have a picture, or I'll bounce, dumbing down of the web. I this a thousand years of civilisation in mental decline? We might as well go back to pictograms to communicate, instead of words.
A picture is not worth a thousand words, because pictures don't explain, they simply create spectacle without taking responsibility for how they are interpreted.
Bring back MS-DOS, now!!

Andrew Grant

about 3 years ago

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Mark Schroeder

Short attention span? Where was I?

Words communicate complex ides and issues. The reliance on pictures does indicate a dumbing down in my view.

Also don't underestimate the role of web design fashion. For all their claims of originality, designers can be sheep.

Often the pendulum swings too far....it will swing back.

Oh, and big ads is surely a separate issue ... involves factors other than just design.

Have I gone 'below the fold' yet?

about 3 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Keith - Absolutely, context is everything. Fashion sites may benefit from an image-rich approach in a way that news sites don't. As ever, it's horses for courses.

@Andrew - I like great pictures, but three-quarter page stock photography is utterly lame. I too fear that TL;DR syndrome has reached crisis levels. I'm reminded of the Bill Hicks gag about the waffle house: "Hey, what you reading for?" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OUA7486Oqk8).

@Mark - Maybe it's the brain's reaction to the sheer amount of information we process in any given day. You talk about web design trends - I agree, and the more popular sites will be more influential in that regard (which is why I highlighted them). As for ads, they *are* designed into the page, and to the user it's all one and the same. The end result is that people need to scroll immediately to see the content. The irony here is obvious: these massive, expensive ads are effective... at disappearing quickly. Scroll, scroll!

about 3 years ago

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Keith Campbell, Head of Digital SA at Change The Conversation

@Chris - Oh Yes, definitely, I also think audience profile woud be a big factor. So maybe a bit more time in research and planning before jumping into the latest design trend.
Interesting to think where we will be in a few years, will it be like any fashion and repeat, or is there a new direction, maybe driven by tech advancements?

about 3 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Chris

Thanks for sharing your examples.

I still think typography is hugely important but not in isolation - it works in conjunction with imagery because of the different types of online visitor (those who respond best to images, those who like copy etc).

What I find interesting is brands using HTML5 to create rich content experience where imagery (often animated) enhances the copy but the focus is on the story. Story telling has an important role to play online.

A few examples:

http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/#/?part=tunnel-creek
http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9175394/out-great-alone

And for me the ultimate image-led play thing is from Nissan, the Japanese lading page for their Note car:
http://www2.nissan.co.jp/SP/NOTE/SPECIAL/

So by default a webpage shouldn't be '95%' anything - it should start with an understanding of the user needs and journey, then match the content to those. If that means 95% typography, then so be it. Horses for courses (to throw in a cliche!).

cheers
james

about 3 years ago

Tom Howlett

Tom Howlett, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

I would say that it definitely appears to resemble a print/magazine style way of doing things.

I personally tend to like the Pinterest style layout (in a tidy grid fashion) as I find it easy to scan.

The only thing I would say is that large images tend to effect the page load time and sometimes this can be frustrating. I do notice this sometimes on Fast Company; however it may be the visuals that initially draw me in.

about 3 years ago

Craig Brewster

Craig Brewster, Founder at your mum

Interestingly, Neilsen has adopted a slightly contradictory stand to the “Users don’t read from screen” theory. The new line of thinking suggests:

“When web content helps users focus on sections of interest, users switch from scanning to actually reading the copy.”

You can find the summary and full report here: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/website-reading

Although the report seems to be largely about reading text on screen, I think it’s fair to say that this principle extends beyond words to include pictures, video, animation, etc.

But I don't think it is about words being better than pictures, or vice versa. As Chris Lake states in this comment thread, it's all about context:

1) How can we allow users to quickly get to what they want
2) How can we serve them with the knowledge or level of engagement they need when they get there?

Interesting article.

about 3 years ago

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Nikhil

Very true, completely agreed with the statement 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".

We all always wanted to gauge context of the webpage at glance so that we can finished with that rapidly and start engaging in other activities. So for designer it's really important to take care of visitors and to deliver your massage to them as quickly as possible and it could in any type Images,video or normal text. It's like just get in to mind of your user and show them what they would love to see. Right?

about 3 years ago

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Mary Meehan, eMarketing Lead at DuPontEnterprise

I've been noticing the popularity of the large photo/scroll-inducing design style, which to me looks optimized for tablets (whether it's adaptive or not). But many of the sites that are using this style are B2B, or seem to have audiences that would view on a PC rather than mobile device. So it makes me wonder if it's just a design fad gone wrong rather than smart UX.

about 3 years ago

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Sarah Louise Dean

I hate the way the new Google+ account pictures are enormous. Not only is it silly, but the quality of the photos has to be so high res now. That being said - the rise of Tumblr shows how a smart gif and minimal words on repetition is now the opiate of the (Gen Y) masses.

about 3 years ago

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Barry Rutter, Digital Marketing Manager at Reed Exhibitions

I think this trend ties in with another recent blog on the slow death of the home page. The home page is now more about brand, simple pathways and funnels than about trying to highlight content. Social media and email is often the route directly to new content which allows for the de-cluttering of the home page

about 3 years ago

James Carson

James Carson, Founder at Made From MediaSmall Business Multi-user

I think TL;DR has probably reached crisis levels, but additionally I think for a long time web designers have felt constrained vs. the beauty of print. With faster connection times and more (responsive) screens, the ability to create better imagery and actually get it served has improved.

Combining rich imagery with video and long copy has been the success of websites like IGN and The Verge, which I see as editorial leaders when it comes to reviews. Check this out: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2013/06/25/deadpool-review certainly not 95% typography, but a pretty gorgeous blend.

about 3 years ago

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Stuart Anderson, Web Manager at AXA Commercial Direct

Apologies, On a totally irrelevant note i am currently partaking in a twitter whisky tasting!

This article has a silly title - it all depends on the purpose of the website that determines whether the proportion of content is either imagery or text (typography is a totally different matter).

Some great comments on here. Imagery and text (not typography) are mediums that portray content in a different way. Its how it the two are executed that matters.

about 3 years ago

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Caleb O'Loan

I am not too keen on large pictures, and similarly slideshows, right at the top of the home page. However, often clients I deal with have competitors who have something similar (usually slideshows) and I am torn between keeping up with the others on the one hand and on the other hand making the website straight to the point and keeping the page speed nice and high.

about 3 years ago

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Onetomarket

Interesting article.

I do love big images and also think that the web is becoming more and more visual because people do not like to read generally. BUT I do agree with you that a bunch of stock photos in a site look pretty lame...

People can not forget that browsers love text before images and that text content have a positive impact on their SEO rankings. We have seen several sites underperforming in terms of SEO because the lack of text on their pages.

about 3 years ago

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John

Interesting article, but I'm not convinced.

Most of the sites you've picked have got strong and consistent typography. They happen to have a lot of big photographs too, but they are all very clean designs.

I think the web is a far more interesting place now that web fonts are in common use and we now get interesting designs that aren't just something fancy cooked up in photoshop.

Good typography puts content back in it's place as the most important element. Big photos are just another aspect of the focus on content, and aren't in any way in opposition of good typography.

about 3 years ago

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Michael-Web Design

Yes pictures get peoples attention but it doesn't convey the message your trying to give off. Its better that people read what is going on rather than see. But I will say I remember pictures more than I remember words

about 3 years ago

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Taylor Dean

i agree that images help a lot in getting the attention of internet users, specially when using images of popular individuals and etc., your idea might improve my web designing skills. :) Thanks by the way

about 3 years ago

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Tarjinde S. Kailey

As far as web design goes I think the primary concern is to catch the target reader's attention. People surf the internet in passing and only those that are "attention-catchy" has that chance to get read. Using big images are a good. You can also try using colors to your advantage. A combination of image and color schemes can be the one-two punch that knocks visitors into going deeper into your website, so to speak. Here's a neat guide on using colors for your website that will help you catch users attention. Pick a color that not only catches attention but represents what your website is all about as well. http://bit.ly/1b6yoPg

about 3 years ago

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Robert Grace

A web designer plays a crucial role when you are developing your brand website. If you are not tech savvy or creative, designing a website may seem like a mammoth task to you. If you are tech savvy and creative you exactly know the amount of effort that goes into designing a good website.

about 3 years ago

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John Lewis

Website design plays very important role in online business and advertising of this business. An attractive and unique website can easily get good response from market but the most important thing every designer and webmaster should keep in mind is that website design should not be complicated. It should be easy to navigate and search engine as well as user friendly.

about 3 years ago

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Robert Smith

I think you've got a good point here. But saying that 'web design' is no longer concerned with typography because a few select news/tech websites use massive banner advertisments on their homepage, is completely false.

You've taken less than 10 websites and concluded that 95% of the web profession is longer concerned with typography? That doesn't even add up.

If anything, with the emergence of web fonts and services like Typekit (https://typekit.com/) and Fonts.com (http://www.fonts.com/) I would actually argue the opposite is true. Typography (even if mixed with imagery) makes up a massive proportion of the web design profession.

Typography is something that has long eluded web designers, largely because the technology was never really available for designers to focus on typography in a consistent, standards compliant way. But in 2013 that has changed.

http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2013/02/20-typographic-websites/

http://www.1stwebdesigner.com/inspiration/45-creative-uses-of-typography/

Are some examples of the massive amount of typography that can be seen on the web.

Thanks,
Rob

about 3 years ago

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web designing

Web Design is surely no longer typography. I would like to appreciate this article as it’s the best one in attracting its audience via unique yet essential points as well as the clarity it assists in making us understand its motive.

about 3 years ago

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Web Designer Preston, http://www.pumpkinwebdesign.co/

Great Article! I really like your blog post. I would like to share 2 more points to make more attractive you website. Add Social Networking Webpages link on your Main site, Be updated with networking sites. and also update unique content on your blog webpage. Plus website design should be unique and attractive.

about 3 years ago

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Android app development

Most of the sites you've picked have got strong and consistent typography. They happen to have a lot of big photographs too, but they are all very clean designs.

about 3 years ago

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Ducktoes Web Design

Very insightful, thanks for sharing!

about 3 years ago

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