It’s easy to get caught up in the latest trends in web design. Web technology is constantly improving, and today developers have a formidable range of features at their disposal. This makes for a forward-thinking, innovative space — as it should — but also one at risk of being unrooted. Every art has its ancient masters. In the case of websites, it’s newspapers.
When you dig into the basic principles of news design, overlaps with the web are frequent and oftentimes indistinguishable. Many web design best practices can be traced directly back to news design. When it comes down to it, websites are made for users to engage with, and hopefully return to. Newspapers have been playing that game for centuries, and winning.
Anyone with even a passing interest in web design stands to benefit from knowing how news design works, and why it works. This piece will examine several tenets of newspaper design and show their connection to best practice online. At the core of that connection is a principle childlike in its simplicity, one newspaper and web designers alike would do well to remember.
Hold The Home Page
Newspapers have been around since the 17th century. They’ve worked hard for their rules, and because their content changes daily the rules have to be abstract. Ninety-five percent of what we see in any given newspaper will not be there the next day. It is what don’t see that is essential for wrangling the contents of newspapers into shape.
This framework is what we’ll be looking at; some of the invisible rules that hold newspapers together. They are concerned mainly with form, and how readers process information. The parallels with web design will soon become clear, and hopefully the lessons too. Let’s start with an obvious one — above the fold.
ABOVE THE FOLD
If you’ve worked on the web you’ve likely heard the phrase ‘above the fold,’ meaning the content you’re met with when you land on a web page. It is a newspaper term, and it dates back centuries. Due to their size newspapers are often stacked folded in half, so above the fold literally means the content visible above where they’re folded in half. It is the first thing potential readers see. It is often the one and only chance to make an impression, to get people to buy a copy because they just have to know more. If the newspaper isn’t worth picking up for the front page, what reason is there to think it’s worth picking up at all?
The space above the fold is the domain of the lead story, the most important piece of information in the entire paper. It has to hook the reader. This usually equates to big headlines, key pieces of information, and striking imagery. That said, there is not a rigid format. Whatever grabs people’s attention without distorting the truth is on to a winner.
Above the fold is a newspaper’s first and most important answer to ‘the pub test’ — what you’d blurt out if you were telling someone the crux of the story in the boozer. If you had the chance to tell your friends men walked on the moon yesterday, you probably wouldn’t open with the brand of shoes involved. You’d sprint in and yell, “Men have walked on the moon!” That’s above the fold. It’s where newspapers condense the most important story (or stories) of the day to the key points.
The same applies to websites, which no doubt is why the terminology has carried over. ‘Above the fold’ in web design (which online means what you see before scrolling) is the website’s answer to the pub test. What’s the single most important thing people should know? Though this is particularly relevant to home pages, it applies everywhere.