The Next Big Idea From Twitter's Founders? Pinterest, Basically

Evan Williams and Biz Stone are launching a familiar-looking service called Medium. Here’s why tile layouts like Pinterest’s are becoming the go-to design strategy for emotional heft.

Evan Williams and Biz Stone think their new site, Medium, could mark an "evolutionary step" in web publishing. It’s a lofty aim. And if the two weren’t responsible for Twitter (and Blogger before that), we probably wouldn’t have much faith in them. But their new venture, a platform for collecting and displaying stories, images, musings and more, isn’t just noteworthy for its web-visionary pedigree. It’s got something else going for it. It looks just like Pinterest.

In a sense, Medium’s intended to be a Pinterest for our own lives, an elegant repository for photos, projects, and stories we’ve actually lived, as opposed to a re-blogged clearing house for pictures of wedding dresses and eggs baked into avocados found elsewhere around the web. Here’s how Medium works: A user posts an item and assigns it to a collection. Collections are presented as a series of tiles laid out in a clean grid. Some sample collections already live on the site include When I Was a Kid, a series of childhood images, and This Happened To Me, a collection of amusing, inspiring, or unlikely real world anecdotes. Readers can peruse other people’s posts, note that they thought a particular item was cool and leave a comment, or, if the collection is open to the public, add their own content to the page. The most popular tiles get prominent placement up top. Basically, Medium combines the noncommittal ease of posting to Facebook or Tumblr with the strange allure of Pinterest’s tile-based layout.

Okay, maybe the allure isn’t so strange. After a decade and change of wearing out our scroll wheels on vertically oriented blogs, Pinterest arrived as something strikingly different. Unlike those earlier blogs which put every new post above the last and encouraged readers to flick through at top-speed, the Pinterest-style grid forces the eye to zig-zag through content, slowing down your scrolling but packing more images onto the screen at any given point. David Galbraith, the web giant who co-created RSS and Yelp, wrote recently for GigaOM about his experience developing Wists, a grid-style visual bookmarking site that predated Pinterest. Comparing the grid-style layout with the traditional "river of news" model, he writes, "they look pretty, but require scanning in two directions. This is not good for news, where you need to understand the timeline at a glance. However, for scanning thumbnails, a grid is particularly efficient."

The inherent inefficiency of tiles might seem like a failing. But then again, consider that the very ease of whizzing past so much content using a vertical scroll is a problem in itself: It doesn’t lend itself to lingering a while. It doesn’t lend itself to emotional heft, but rather transactional speed. By contrast, the tile-based layout urges the user to consider objects as a group instead of discrete items. For Medium, this may be just the point: The tightly packed tiles serve to visually reinforce the idea that these photos and stories are part of a collection. If you’re flicking through a blog, a 200-word story titled "Beat-boxing saves lives" probably wouldn’t grab your attention. But when it’s a tile in a collection headed "This Happened To Me," you automatically have a context that makes it a bit more compelling.

There’s also something about the grid and tiles, on a visceral level, that just feels more cohesive and still lively. Where the standard river of news-style blog post comes with all the traditional blog trappings—headlines, timestamps, bylines, and the rest—grids put all the focus on the content. It’s equal parts organized and overwhelming. There’s so much visual stuff on your screen, you can’t help but feel like someone has designed the experience for you. The tiles impart a sense of curation—and thus, human emotion—to the content.

If you need further evidence of the Pinterest-ization of the web, look no further than Facebook. While the News Feed is still a pure river of news experience, Facebook’s much-ballyhooed Timeline profiles are distinctly more tiled in appearance, even though they’re still organized reverse-chronologically. On Facebook’s newly redesigned photo pages, the Pinterest influence is even more apparent. The thumbnails are bigger, the borders between them are smaller, and options for liking or commenting materialize on top of the tiles as you float your cursor above them, just like they do on Pinterest.

Medium’s vision of the web’s tiled future may be right on the mark, and as readers continue to migrate from mouse-bound desktops to trackpads and touch screens, the informationally dense experience offered by the tile format—one predicated on scanning as much as scrolling—will likely continue to thrive. Still, there are times when the tried-and-true river just makes more sense. Take a look at Medium’s own About page, and you get the idea that tiles can actually end up obscuring content, especially when it comes to text. Scanning may be easier than scrolling, but scrolling’s still easier than scanning and clicking, and that extra click is necessary any time you want to jump from a short text preview to a full story or blog post.

It’s no small irony that Medium, a bold step into a tiled future, is being made by Williams and Stone, along with former Twitter product lead Jason Goldman. Twitter took the river of news concept and turned it into something like a fire hose: all the content, all the time, with very little curation outside of who you chose to follow. The emerging popularity of tile-based layouts could even be seen as a response the breakneck speed and Sisyphean scrolling engendered by the Twitter timeline.

Currently, anyone with a Twitter account can log in to Medium to browse collections, though posting is currently limited to a small group of test users. Whether it will achieve the popularity of Twitter or Pinterest remains to be seen. But at the very least, it’ll be a beautiful way to look at everyone’s Instagram photos.

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  • zancler

    Right, so because it has a grid, it's a ripoff of Pinterest? Don't right about web design if you don't know what you're talking about.

  • Jordan Koschei

    You're right, it's a Pinterest rip-off. Sort of like how this publication ripped off that other site that has a content column and a right-hand sidebar...

  • KathND

    So, it's a re-designed tumblr (in which the tile/grid layout is pretty popular?) 

  • Henning A. Sillerud

    Please... stop referring to Pinterest as the mother of all grids! Grids were around centuries before Pinterest... 

  • Tenten

    Print Yellow Pages is the mother of grid column layouts... 150 years old that is. 

  • Simone Oltolina

    mmm, seems pretty useless to me. If you want to share pictures, you already have Pinterest (...and chances are your friends will be there already). If you want to post have Tumblr, which by the way offers some layouts that are also grid-based. (now, if they would just improved their search function...).

  • Derrellwilliams

    One of the poorest Co.Design articles I have ever read. To think that Pinterest came up with a flexible image based grid architecture is ludicrous.

  • michaelparks

    You could argue Pinterest is Twitter with pictures.  

    So if they want to make what seems like Pinterest combined with FB's timeline, all is fair in love and the internet!

  • Nowayinhell

    Yay another social site to post pictures and make funny notes. Just what the web was missing!

  • Jonathan McConnell

    You make it sound like you've never seen a grid before (DeSandro should get credit for this one not Pinterest) and let's talk about maybe what Medium is doing / could do for the social web. 
    Read Anil Dash's thoughts on what matters-

  • Kevin Gordon

    One of the worst articles Co.Design has ever published. Medium does look interesting, and certainly deserves some attention. However, not at the expense of being linked with Pinterest every other sentence. People have been building websites on grids for a long time before Pinterest ever existed. 

  • anonym

    Spot on. Medium may look mildly similar on the surface, but at any depth it's very different from Pinterest. 

    Honestly, I very much dislike Pinterest's grid, and find Medium's to be significantly better.

  • Christine de la Garza

    I think they're mashing up and it's got real freagin potential to capture all of us ― yet again. ...CowBird meets Pinterest = pretty powerful platform that appeals to our visual nature and our hardwired attachment to storytelling. I think I hate these guys! 

  • Grave Hurst

    Whenever I read yet another article gushing about Pinterest's "innovative" layout, my soul dies a little for David DeSandro, the original creator of jQuery Masonry (now Isotope) upon which Pinterest was built.