The constant evolution
The World Wide Web is constantly evolving as new technologies and trends arrive on the scene, which means that some rules that applied the previous year are no longer applicable in the current year, and vice versa. When we don’t acknowledge this, we resist change and, in the end, cause considerable damage to the effectiveness of our online presence.
That is why it is so important to stay alert and up-to-date with how the web is changing.
As a web designer, I find that I must constantly change my web design strategies in order to match or exceed the effectiveness of current design trends.
Unfortunately, this effort is often hampered by recurring myths – many of which are merely outdated rules – which some people believe about the web. It is understandable to have some misconceptions about the web as it exists today, since it is constantly changing.
However, in order to combat ignorance in favor of the advancement of effective visual communication on the web, I would like to devote this article to tackling one very common misconception: the relevance of… The Fold.
What is the Fold?
“The Fold” is a term used to describe the base of a webpage’s visible content as it appears the moment it loads on your screen. In other words, it is the boundary that separates immediately viewable content from content you must scroll down the page to view.
In order to visualize this concept as a literal fold, think of it as if you took a letter written on a piece of paper and folded the paper in half.
When you lay this folded letter down and attempt to read it, you will find that the second half of the letter, which is beneath the Fold, is no longer visible. The content is there, but you must perform an action in order to view it, such as unfolding or flipping over the paper.
The same is true for the Fold on the web. Only the content above the Fold is visible until you perform an action, such as scrolling, to view the content beneath.
The Fold Philosophy
When the World Wide Web was first conceived, there were few computer monitor resolutions other than what we would now call “diminutive,” and computer mice would not witness wide-scale inclusion of the scroll wheel for another decade. As a result, it was never guaranteed that visitors to a web page would make use of a browser’s scroll bar in order to scroll down a page to view all of a webpage’s content.
This meant that whatever was visible on the screen from the get-go needed to effectively keep the intended visitor’s interest. Everything of importance needed to be housed above the Fold so that visitors would be sure to see it right away. All other content of less importance was allowed to sit below the Fold in the “basement” of the page, where few people would ever be adventurous enough to find it.
Unfortunately, most of the content on a typical website is too valuable to place beneath the Fold. Thus, the “Fold Philosophy” of content stuffing began.
As a result of this philosophy, early web design structure was plagued by small, nearly unreadable type, busy / distracting structure and an obnoxious sense of content competing for attention. Clear visual communication was often abandoned or compromised for the sake of delivering a splash page that bombarded the viewer with information.
Over time, designers have attempted to stylize webpages to make content more visibly appealing, although the very nature of this bloated structure defied any sort of ease in visual communication. Paying homage to the “Fold Philosophy” ultimately applied a clamp press to website content, forcing it into a much tighter space than what good design requires.
Much the same way you or I might feel uncomfortable being crammed into an elevator with fifty other businessmen, crowded content becomes uncomfortable to view, no matter how you dress it up.
Is the Fold still relevant?
Having researched the design trends of 2011 and projected design trends for 2012, most every article I’ve come in contact with agrees that the fold is no longer relevant for website design considerations.
Many cutting-edge designers believe that it is a myth that people do not scroll down a page to see the majority of the content, and this is reflected in their designs. Here are just a few articles by designers that support this claim:
So, what has changed that makes the Fold obsolete? There are two major factors to consider…
1 – Screen Resolution Diversification
Computer monitors have changed and advanced rapidly over the last decade, and, as a result, so have screen resolutions. While monitors from the previous decade were typically designed to accommodate 800 x 600 or 1024 x 768 pixel resolutions, modern day monitors now range from 800 x 600 to 2560 x 1600 pixel resolutions.
Does this affect the Fold? Drastically. A higher resolution screen means that more content on a page is visible at a time than what is visible on a lower resolution screen. As a result, the Fold shifts up or down, depending on the resolution.
Designing for any sort of average Fold location means that those with a higher-than-expected resolution screen will see more than what is intended at a time, with the opposite being true for those with a less-than-expected resolution screen. Therefore, the Fold’s actual location is, at best, arbitrary.
2 – Ease of Scrolling
The term “the Fold” was developed before the scroll wheel was invented and, therefore, the only way to scroll down a page was to use the clumsy scroll bar on the AOL browser.
Nowadays, there is sufficient evidence that people do, in fact, scroll and that as many as 22% will scroll all the way down to the bottom of a page before leaving a site.
To learn more about these statistics, take a look at this blog post by UX Myths: http://uxmyths.com/post/654047943/myth-people-dont-scroll. Since the “Fold Philosophy” was developed when scrolling was much more difficult, it must be determined that the Fold is an outdated and irrelevant concept.
Ding dong, the Fold is dead…
So, with the Fold no longer a hindrance to good design practices, what can we expect to see in the imminent future of web design? Well, it’s good news / bad news time. Here are some things that disregarding the Fold allows:
- More vertical (and horizontal) white space – content will be able to breathe a bit easier, since we won’t have to scrunch everything together at the top. This alone should be enough to bring unparalleled joy to web users (and web designers)… But wait, there’s more!
- More room for typographical/visual expression – I have seen countless beautiful (and often award-winning) web designs that are accomplished solely because the fold was disregarded and larger imagery was allowed to occupy what fold-faithful websites consider “reserved space.”
- More flexible design – while past web design trends tended to box everything up into horizontal clusters, double – or even single – column designs are now acceptable. This inevitably leads to more and more flexibility options as content changes and shrinks/expands.
- Text can get *gasp* BIGGER! – Whereas small text sizes were required to fit relevant content above the Fold, bigger text is more plentiful in a Fold-free world. This means that websites will not only be more legible to a wider audience, but also more inviting and informative from a visual communications standpoint.
This is all very good news, so what could possibly be the bad news? Unfortunately for some, the elimination of the Fold has raised the bar as far as user expectation is concerned.
Several modern day websites still betray bondage to the “Fold Philosophy.” This is because news has not reached all ears – even among designers – that the Fold is a myth.
As a result, many spanking-new sites appear outdated right out of the box. In the coming years, more and more websites will be released from the cruel grasp of the Fold. It is important to realize this and to consider jumping on the bandwagon if you haven’t already.
A Word of Caution: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water
The end of the Fold does not, in any way, signify an end to structural philosophy. In fact, the current best practices in structural hierarchy still get their cues from the old days when the Fold reigned supreme.
The order in which you put your content remains important, even though it no longer demands to be crammed up above an imaginary line. Place content in an order that makes sense, with a gradient spanning from most important content at the top to least important content at the bottom.
Above all, a visually appealing and informative header area at the top of a webpage is always advisable, since it acts as a hook to draw the viewer into the rest of the site. I believe the header of a page should typically be used for the sole purpose of:
- establishing the brand
- capturing interest, and
- listing some primary keywords for SEO purposes
Once this interest is established, we can all agree from our own past experiences that our next move is to tap that scroll wheel a few degrees down to get to the meat and potatoes.
So, that’s todays update on current revolutionary web design trends. Have fun exploring these new, uncharted waters, and always remember to sail with caution!
Have any thoughts, comments or questions about this subject? Be sure to post them below!