Vertical Web Sites and Changing Perspectives

While looking at information for this weekend’s Rocket City Lit Fest, I was struck by the verticality of their web site.  This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this trend toward having a single long page with a large amount of information and large graphics.  This style seems to be gaining popularity as a modern look for the web and a more logical layout for mobile devices, allowing one site to work well on both a full screen and a handheld.  My workplace has even adopted one recently.

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I’m a bit torn on this particular trend.  It’s antithetical to everything I was taught with regard to web design: that users don’t want to scroll; that important information should be accessible above the fold, so using multiple pages is better; that loading this amount of graphics is going to take far too long.

Of course, some of this information is pretty dated, and I’m doing my best to adjust my thinking.  The vast majority of internet connections and computers can handle larger downloads far more quickly than even a few years ago, so the longer graphic-intense pages really aren’t an obstacle.  Rules about the “fold” are the result not only of borrowing from print rules because they’re already established, but from meeting the expectations of most readers that online media should be similar to print media.  They expect to turn a page rather than have a 6-foot-long newspaper. But is scrolling really more labor-intensive than clicking a link?

I’ve been forcing myself to look at the advantages of this layout, and there definitely are some that I simply can’t deny.

  1. Since internet speeds and processing times are pretty quick these days, loading this huge page with large, simple graphics generally doesn’t take much longer than loading a smaller page, and the graphics below the fold will very likely finish loading before the reader finishes with the initial view.  Then the user will have access to all of the information on the page without waiting through additional load times – which, while quick, are not as fast as essentially 0, which is what this method gives you.
  2. The lack of side navigation means that all of the real estate is used for the main content.  I’m all about simplicity and use of white space, and the minimalist possibilities here are a plus. It really takes aesthetic advantage of the width of modern monitors, using the space as one big canvas, and it minimizes clutter.
  3. It’s hard to deny that the larger graphics are great for accessibility, and the text tends to be much larger, too. Users with vision problems are going to be very happy.
  4. Because of the verticality of the page, there’s less worry about juggling containers across the page – which isn’t horrible but is additional work. Just center everything, for the most part. Not that you CAN’T add horizontal division, and this is often done in some sections of the page.
  5. It’s great for branding – the user gets a single, large, unified impression of your aesthetic. There’s no denying that it can make an impression.

This layout isn’t without its problems, of course.  Nothing is.  One thing that bothers me is that any navigation or information contained within the footer is going to take a while to get to, and users may not bother.  Another is that having everything on one page makes it feel more difficult to find what you’re looking for.  This isn’t usually the case in actuality because the problem is easily mitigated by adding links to anchored “pages” within the page in the top navigation bar.  It can still feel like too much to search through, though.  I also find that the size of the text and graphics makes it more difficult to see everything, especially on a larger screen.  I can only focus on one thing at a time, so I can’t immediately find the details that I might want, even though they’re just as large.  It’s kind of like looking at a billboard while standing within a few feet of it.

Insisting to myself that I try another perspective has made me see that this style represents a change in how we think of visual communication.  Ever since we left the scroll for the codex, quarto, and folio, we have had a shared idea that reading and information sharing should happen in pages. (Heck, even scrolls were very often horizontal.) It was necessary at the time so that we could bind more information into a single object, but the strategy chosen for addressing that need went on to color our expectations for all visual communication, from web sites to e-readers to virtual photo albums and notebooks.  It took some time, but we are coming to realize that that expectation is a construct that simply isn’t necessary in a digital medium, allowing us to play with what works in our current, heavily-mobile environment.  I don’t know if this particular format will be what works in the long term, but it’s an interesting experiment.

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