The concept of ‘above the fold’ is probably something that you’ve all heard of. Some of you, depending on your job, might react similarly to myself upon hearing these three words – whereupon some of the most desperate fight-or-flight instincts kick in and your head starts shaking emphatically of its own accord – or perhaps, like many people, you understand this to be one of the ‘rules’ of web design. Today I’m going to explain to you while this might have once been the case, it’s not anymore.
For those who don’t know, the concept of things being placed ‘above the fold’ is actually something that originated in print design, specifically newspapers, which were sold folded in half. It’s perhaps obvious that the ideal placement for anything on the front page was in the top half – an important story, or photograph - as it was what was immediately visible on the stands, before readers had even made a purchase. It’s what newspaper sellers held above their heads and yelled at you about while you were walking to work in the morning. The content above the fold was what made you buy the whole paper, without knowing what (if anything) else of value was inside.
When applied to a website, it means the portion of the site which is visible to the user without the need to scroll. It’s a favourite catch-phrase of many a client, and something which, in our current digital environment, is a wholly arbitrary and irrelevant measure of space
It’s been this way for ages, too. Five whole years ago Paddy Donnelly wrote this witty article, “Life, Below 600PX", and, to my chagrin, people are still banging on about it. Now. In 2015.
Back in the dark ages, when we used displays with a 4:3 aspect ratio and charity shops actually accepted CRT monitors as donations, most people had the same resolution and we designed fixed-width websites. Responsive design and having the internet on your phone/television/watch wasn’t yet a twinkle in anyone’s eye (can you imagine it? Text messaging and polyphonic ring tones were enough to blow anyone’s mind in those days). Back then, this ‘above the fold’ concept worked. Most of the web was still fairly static, and it was easy to predict what we would be designing for. People weren’t yet used to scrolling.
I’m not going to get all existential about it. There is still a fold. The problem is that the position of the fold changes, dramatically, depending on how you look at it.
Fast forward 10 or 15 years and our digital displays vary from the biggest Smart TV’s to the smallest smartphones, with myriad resolutions and devices in between. Portrait, landscape, we often switch between orientations depending on something as simple as how we’re sitting or whether we have both hands free. We can pick our computer up from the desk, yank off the screen and carry it to the couch and use it like a tablet. The same website needs to fit all of these requirements and for every single situation, the ‘fold’ is in a different place. As you can probably see, applying such a static concept to a fluid environment like this just isn’t going to work
Scrolling should not be seen as a bad thing. People’s behaviour has evolved and now, pretty much everyone expects to do it - they’ve been using the internet long enough that we can now trust it to be part of their natural behaviour. We still need to place the most important content at the top of the page, but when designing a responsive site, the concept of there being a set fold no longer applies. Instead, pages should be designed effectively and content should be written in such a way that whatever does show before they start interacting with the site is engaging enough to ensure that they stick around long enough to do so.
Don’t just take my word for it:
Time.com – “What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong”
Mobify Developer Blog – “Global Screen Size Diversity Infographic: Sizing Up Man’s New Best Friend”
Huge – “Everybody Scrolls.”