When studying the history of graphic design, students earning their Graphic Design degree at FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising discover how famous designs reflect social and cultural attitudes over time. This brings up an intriguing question. How will the famous designs of today affect these attitudes in the future? Recently, FIDM Graphic Design Student Richard Noguchi dissected the social networking website Pinterest, covering content that ranges from the history of the websites conception, to a complete break down of the overall design and the impact it has made on the world. Scroll down to read this fascinating report and to download the designed PDF version.
It all started in 1991. This was when the World Wide Web was invented and renowned British computer scientist Tim Bergers-Lee “managed to connect hypertext technology to the Internet” (Dijck 5). This gave birth to a new way of communicating and information exchanging—simple social technologies as email, chat clients, and groups emerged from this beginning. However groundbreaking the technology may have been at the time, it was inevitable the leaps and bounds the web would make at the turn of the 21st century.
The next level up in web technology was dubbed Web 2.0. Essentially, it took the plain and static websites, which served mostly a few purposes then—to provide and act as a repository for information—and make these websites more dynamic and functional to the everyday life of a web user. The technology that once had a modest engrossment in people’s lives had become “interactive” and “two-way vehicles for networked sociality” (6). The websites that emerged from this movement allowed users to socialize on a virtual level, share and build content, collaborate, and leverage applications that were based online. Foremost, the culture’s quest that emerged from Web 2.0 was to make the internet a social playground as well as a personalized experience.
Websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin allow users to connect, network, and disseminate information with relevance. Not only did these websites make it easy for one to keep in touch with friends and family, and get insight into their lives, but they brought people together who shared similar interests. By connecting people in that manner, leveraging human information was pertinent. Through the personal information users shared, the web became a more custom-made experience. Now, an online shopping experience or the type of content delivered to a user was relevant to him or her. Furthermore, the personalized experience was also supplemented by web users who would generate or find content and then share with other web users who are seeking it. The mark in the rise of content consumption, creation, and sharing initialized a trend in how content should be produced and delivered to consumers. As the old adage goes, there’s not enough time in the day, which prompted creators to focus on building content that was more easily consumable. The combination of short attention span and limitation in an individual’s time brought prominence to content that was more visually-oriented. Images were easily consumable, compelling, and persuasive to an audience that sifts through so much information on a daily basis.
Capitalizing on this trend were websites that were very photo-centric in nature, such as Pinterest. Pinterest, which “is the fastest-growing website in the history of the internet” (Miles 188), was co-founded and was the vision of Ben Silbermann. The function of the website is of a hybrid one, where you bookmark your favorite image (it’s like you’re placing your bookmarked images on a pin board), but in the process you can share it with the Pinterest community. In addition, Pinterest allows users to comment on bookmarked photos and borrow other user’s bookmarked photos, which adds a layer of social stickiness to the site. According to Reuters and ComScore, as of February 2013, Pinterest had 48.7 million users worldwide.
In the past decade, social network websites have been contenders to search engines in terms of delivering relevant content to consumers. The power of social network websites stems from the information provided by the user and taking that data to better serve him or her. Through explicit or implicit user information garnered by the website, a site like Pinterest can give the user the most applicable experience. When Silbermann first launched Pinterest, he had a general idea of what the website was supposed to do, but as he saw site visitors use the site, it started to dawn on him that it went beyond what he thought it would be used for—“it was an inflection point” for him (Carlson, Pinterest CEO: Here’s How We Became The Web’s Next Big Thing).
From a consumer standpoint, Pinterest is a fine line between an application and a networking tool. A gamut of utilization is explored by the average Pinterest users. The following are examples of how people bring Pinterest into their lives.
Many users use Pinterest as a shopping inspiration tool. They create boards to formulate their dream outfits or even build a wish list of items they want to buy later. These boards may also serve as a shopping reference, especially when the user is looking for a particular style or design. Clicking on the product image, may take the user to the website where the item is sold. Like shoppers, hobbyists use Pinterest as a source for inspiration for future projects they would like to work on. Image after image of projects are riddled throughout the website. Usually, clicking on the image of a finished project will direct the maker to a website that provides step-by-step instructions on how to complete it. Designers use them as a reference point or inspiration and serve them as mood boards.
Beyond the inspirational motif, Pinterest has had a positive impact on the education system. Teachers utilize the platform as a reference for school lesson plans and class project ideas. It also serves as a way for teachers to network and use each other as support to improve teaching methods.
Finally, Pinterest is used as an entertainment channel, where people can share themed images, such as cats, or create a hub of silly images and memes. To whatever purpose Pinterest may be used, ultimately, the convenience of not having to physically collect images (in the past, you would be cutting out a photo in a magazine), or save an image file to your hard drive makes it an appealing web product for someone who is visually inclined.
Where consumers roam, businesses are going to follow. With the boom of social media marketing, it’s not surprising to discover many brands, from small to big, are leveraging the Pinterest platform to bring attention to their business. The act of shopping is an optical activity and for businesses, they see Pinterest as a destination for consumers to do some virtual window shopping. Brands upload an image of their product and then consumers will click on the image to land on a product page to get more information, while businesses hope that it will convert to a sale. Businesses are also banking on consumers to do their marketing for them. As these product images exist on Pinterest, there is a potential for users to share these images with their followers. The conceivable result is a viral effect, where followers after followers will share these images and buy the products shown in these images.
Both consumers and businesses co-exist in this eco-system that manages to take a simple functional concept and processes it into a social experience that yields productivity and innovation.
Silbermann had discussed with a friend of a friend the Pinterest idea before the platform became a huge success. That friend of a friend was Evan Sharp—he is the co-founder as well as the key designer behind Pinterest. Evan Sharp had a background in architecture, but later decided to go into the world of web product design. His discipline in architecture facilitated him to understand the “value of iteration and working long hours on the same problem to find the right solution” (Petrunia, Working Out of the Box: Pinterest Co-founder Evan Sharp). Also, being an architect major, it aided him to look at web pages spatially, ensuring that every area on Pinterest was utilized in a way that a person would intend to use it.
Sharp’s web design pioneered the concept of not being afraid to let images take precedence over text. When entering the Pinterest website, you’re greeted to a series of images vertically and horizontally. Interestingly, they are not overwhelming and give the polar opposite effect—they are engaging and one can’t help but scroll through the levels of images, anticipating that the next line of images will be something more appealing than the previous. The stylized layout and images are a reminder to the creators of why they built this website in the first place; it’s to collect. Both Silbermann and Sharp are avid collectors of images. However, with any collection, it can get out of hand and organization can become cumbersome. This is when Sharp came up with the prototype of what will become the Pinterest the public will come to know.
The masonry-style layout that Pinterest is well known for was unlike anything else on the web. Blocks of images stacked on top of other blocks of images is a welcoming difference and broke the monotonous mixture of text and image, where text normally tends to be the dominating element. The website didn’t shy away from being a photo-centric entity and the images took center stage. At an age of limited time and short attention span, “images are often easier to digest than words” (Simon, The Pinterest Effect), and Pinterest made finding and sharing content effortless. If rules were meant to be broken, then Pinterest had done so without offending anyone. Web users who were accustomed to content being presented to them in a chronological order with the most recent content in the forefront (this can be attributed to Facebook’s design) were in for a surprise. The creators didn’t see any boundaries in the shelf life of the content. Images are many times evergreen and can be, just like music, new to someone even if it was from the past. If the user hadn’t seen it before, then it’s new to him or her. The mindset of the creators is to give equal weight to all content that lives on the site; it’s about presenting interesting and engaging content relevant to the user, no matter how old or new it is. In alignment with the non-existent expiration on content, one will also notice the infinite scrolling feature that promotes a never ending flow of content.
The fresh interface from the mind of Sharp was cutting-edge in the web community. The design was so influential that other web businesses either incorporated a similar masonry-style to their existing website, or tried to one-up the competition by creating a similar Pinterest-style website, but follow a different business model. Some notable websites that employed the Pinterest-style were Quora, Luvocracy, Fancy, and Tumblr. However, in the advent of Pinterest’s success, there are a fair amount of websites beyond the ones mentioned that seem to be riding on its coat tails as well. Many companies make the mistake of copying what is trending at the time and not really think through whether it would make sense for their business. Just because you build it, it doesn’t mean they will come. As for the direct copycats of Pinterest, we can only hope that later down the line they will come up with an innovation that will differentiate them from Pinterest.
Based on a post on Hubspot, they say 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual and 40% of people respond better to visual information than plain text. Those are crucial numbers that are indicative of how people absorb information and why the creators of Pinterest might have taken that as a sign to disrupt web design. Within the excess of images that don the Pinterest homepage, there’s a sense of organization and cleanliness that one expects from a website. As one looks over the website, the images seem to live in an egalitarian structure. Not one photo assumes more weight than the other and the brick layout these photos exist in are balanced and in harmony because of the simplistic nature of the design. The repetitive aspect of the brick layout almost becomes second nature and leaves any doubt of confusion behind. One may feel the vast photos overpowering; however, the bit of white below the photos are enough to minimize the overwhelming feeling a user may have. And any form of pagination is abandoned in Sharp’s design as he clearly is rebelling against the mundane use of clickable links that restricts users to jump from one page of content to another in a rudimentary fashion. He instead proposes an effortless way to consume content by freely letting the user scroll down the page.
Sharp’s architecture background is hinted in the meticulous positioning of all elements on the page. There’s no surplus of parts on the interface and each component is strategically placed for intuitiveness. There’s a sense of hierarchy as to where the different elements are positioned. The most pertinent features are located above the fold, such as the browse menu, search field, content creation button, notifications, as well as the button linking to the user’s dashboard. But what’s most important is the white bar that encapsulates those tools and how it brings them to the forefront. Even with the photos dominating the homepage, just merely having the top white bar go across the screen (beyond the borders of where the photos exist) draws attention to it and signifies the level of importance those tools have. Also, one can’t dismiss how Sharp decided to place the “Friends to Follow” box in the upper left hand of the page amongst the photos. This wasn’t a random decision that took place rather it was a clever judgment. Not only is it above the fold, but it is located in a spot where the human eyes usually start when scouring through a page.
Digging deeper into the content will display the image at a larger scale and once again the primary features, such as the sharing buttons, are located above the fold and at the top of the page. Even on the content page it is quite obvious there’s a visual hierarchy—the designer is attempting to direct how the user navigates through the page. If the user is not sharing the content, then the next action in line is either connecting with the sharer or consuming more relevant content. The designer has decided to put the less relevant user features at the bottom of the page. Furthermore, the page is surrounded by a light gray color, bringing emphasis to the mid-section of the page. However, to not compete with the content located in the mid-section of the page, the close button (which is noted as an “x” in a small box) is located at the top right of the page.
The minimalist design elements and clarity in functionality makes Pinterest one of the most intuitive photo-sharing websites out there. The ease of the interface allows for a short learning curve for even the non-tech savvy individual and the departure from looking too technical (which is indicated in their fun logo and photo-centricity) creates an inviting mood. For these reasons, Pinterest has a huge following that it does today.
Carlson, Nicholas. Pinterest CEO: Here’s How We Became The Web’s Next Big Thing. Business Insider. 2012. Web. 22 July 2013.
Dijck, Jose van. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New York: Oxford Press, 2013. Print.
Duffy, Jill. How Do People Use Pinterest? PC Mag. 2012. Web. 22 July 2013.
Kessler, Sarah. How Pinterest is Changing Website Design
Forever. Mashable. 2012. Web. 22 July 2013.
Miles, Jason and Karen Lacey. Pinterest Power: Market Your Business, Sell Your Product, and Build on the World’s Hottest Social Network. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.
Petrunia, Paul. Working Out of the Box: Pinterest Co-Founder Evan Sharp. Archinect. n.d. Web. 22 July 2013.
Sibley, Amanda. 19 Reasons You Should Include Visual Content in Your Marketing. Hubspot. 2012. Web. 22 July 2013.
Simon, Phil. The Pinterest Effect. Inc. 2012. Web. 22 July 2013.
Tozzi, John. Want to Build the Next Pinterest? Focus on Great Design. Business Week. 2013. Web. 22 July 2013.
In addition to writing this great piece, Noguchi took it upon himself to design, print, and bind it. Click here to download the completely designed PDF version.
Questions/comments? Email the editor, Mani O’Brien at email@example.com