Why Image-Based Design Rules the Web

By Tuesday November 27th, 2012

Increasingly over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift on the web from largely text-based layouts to a focus on imagery. While a desire for engaging visuals definitely plays a role in this shift in design style, another factor plays into this as well─ our decreasing attention spans.

Increasingly over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift on the web from largely text-based layouts to a focus on imagery. With the ever-increasing growth in popularity of Apple products and their attention to aesthetically pleasing design, as well as the creation of visual inspiration sites like Pinterest, consumers are now seeking a more visually stimulating experience online. While a desire for engaging visuals definitely plays a role in this shift in design style, another factor plays into this as well─ our decreasing attention spans.

Successful design, above all else, displays its message in a clear and concise manner with respect to aesthetics. We live in a world where you can never be doing enough, and you’re often taking on as many projects as you can handle. Most people just don’t have the time to scour over a page trying to find what they came for─ they want it immediately. Browsing is faster and easier when you can scroll through images, as opposed to having to search through a list of categories or read product descriptions to find what you’re looking for. This is especially prevalent on mobile and tablet devices, where text-based layouts are much less effective. Image-based layouts really thrive on devices with smaller screens because you simply cannot fit very much text within the screen dimensions without sacrificing readability.

Our attention spans have been decreasing for the past 30 years. It takes about 12 minutes for a person to begin feeling anxious when involved in a task that doesn’t hold their interest. Our attention spans are affected by our usual patterns in behavior. If you’re used to jumping around from page to page on the web, it becomes a bit of a habit. There are an absurd amount of places you can land on the internet, so if you’ve gotten someone to land on your site, you want to keep them there. On average, internet users spend less than a minute on a single page. That’s quite the challenge to undertake. This statistic puts into perspective why it’s so important to have eye catching graphics to get users on your page, and engaging content to keep them there.

People love pictures. That sounds like a pretty simple statement, but it’s true. Images grab our attention much more quickly than a few lines of type. Consider Facebook’s switch to Timeline. Timeline’s layout places a heavy emphasis on imagery, with the cover photo feature and much larger image displays on both the news feed and profile pages. Twitter has also adopted the cover photo feature to help visually stimulate its users. But this isn’t just for social media sites. It’s fair to say that the creation of sites like Pinterest influence this desire for imagery, particularly in a clean, dynamic grid layout. E-Commerce sites have also begun making the shift toward image-based layouts. Have you seen the new eBay layout? It’s dominated by imagery, helping to illustrate this shift in design trends across the web. Etsy has also made some changes to help users browse images of their products, rather than relying on those users to navigate through various categories.

But how can you ensure that your site is going to engage users enough to stick around? Well, there are tools available that analyze the way that people interact with a visual stimulus, like heat maps. A heat map determines where users’ eyes gravitate toward when presented with an image. There are plenty of heat map services available online for a more thorough evaluation, but generally there are some basic elements of a site layout that are analyzed by heat maps that you can take into consideration when designing your site. There are a few design elements in particular that should never be overlooked when designing a beautiful and effective website.

Color is key, and likely one of the first things people will notice when absorbing an image or layout. Bright, clear imagery is a great way to catch the attention of a visitor to your site. Similarly, enlisting a harmonious color palette in the design of the layout can work wonders for a web page. Colors can evoke different emotions, so if you’re trying to create a certain mood or call to action, you should carefully consider your color palette.

Orientation, or position on the page, is also a key feature to consider. The hierarchy of your content is naturally expressed through orientation, so be sure you’re placing emphasis in the right places. The location of your content is extremely important, and you want to be sure the most relevant content is in a position where it will be noticed immediately. Banner images are popular across the internet because large display images quickly grab attention. You can also incorporate text into these banner images to convey important information right off the bat.

Density and contrast play an important part in web design as well. To help visualize the concept of density, consider the amount of type you see on a web page. You’re more likely to want to read a sentence or two for an overview of the information before you decide to delve into an extensive case study or research report. That’s why services like Cliffs Notes are so popular. There are plenty of people who don’t have the time (or desire) to read a ton of content. If you’re working with an image-heavy layout, be sure to give the images plenty of room to breathe. Enlisting the grid layout with comfortable, even margins is a great way to do this.

These three design principles play an important role in creating an appealing and effective image-based layout. There are also a few other features that are considered subconsciously when taking in an image, such as size, weight, and shape. Considering all of these principles when designing imagery and a systematic layout for the web can help you determine where users eyes will go when interacting with your site. You can help retain visitors to your site by having an effectively designed page. Keep in mind that a lot of your site visitors may be pressed for time, so you want to be sure to communicate your message to them quickly, and keep them there with eye-catching imagery and engaging content.

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About the Author

Hannah is a designer at Brolik Productions. In addition to designing for the web, she has experience with branding, traditional print design, and package design. When she isn't scouring design blogs, Hannah likes exploring new places around Philadelphia and coming up with weird nicknames for her cat.