Nathan Leigh Davis is a designer and developer who writes about design, technology and things that inspire him.

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Debunking the fold

I think all web design professionals have felt the pain that accompanies one of the industry’s oldest and most enduring myths concerning usability: the fold. Most of us have presented a design that’s gorgeous only to have someone in the corner of the room worriedly ask if we’ve considered the fold.

Most designers realise that the theory surrounding this design standard is flawed, so we’ll try to argue against it. We’ll explain that the 600px convention is an arbitrary standard from a time when everyone had a 1024x768px screen. We’ll explain that users are accustomed to the conventions of the web and will realise that more content lies beyond the fold.

Inevitably though there will be some smart arse present who cites how many clicks occurred above the fold in an existing site. Defeated by the use of statistics and flawed logic we’ll concede and admit defeat. The only thing left to do is to attempt to cram as much as we can into the top of the page. We know of course that the result will be a generic and cluttered vanilla design.

Given the implications of the myth it’s surprising the web design community still hasn’t been able to stamp it out. However like all stubborn design conventions the fold has been around for a long time and has many advocates and a wealth of literature supporting it. The only way to truly dispel this myth is to understand both its history and self-affirming nature...

What is the fold?

The concept of the fold is as old as the discipline of web design itself, but strangely is a convention burrowed from the newspaper industry. In publishing the term refers to considering the way in which a newspaper is folded in half, implying that the most interesting content should be placed on the top half of the front-page to lure readers.

However in the context of web design the fold refers to the point at which users will need to scroll to view additional content. Given the plethora of screen sizes, devices and browsers such a measurement would seem impossible to ascertain, let alone standardise across the entire industry. Despite this though we’ve arrived at a standard depth of 600px.

A legacy of a time now passed

The standardised depth of 600px reflects how old this convention is. Back in the day designing for particular screen sizes was easy. Users either had a screen with a standard resolution of 800x600px or 1024x768px and either used Internet Explorer or Netscape. Therefore designers could accurately predict where the fold would fall. Following the demise of 800x600px resolutions the industry was able to arrive at the fairly safe convention of 600px.

Since then we’ve seen a massive array of screen resolutions emerge and screens that are limited to 768px in height are now a minority. However the 600px rule of thumb endures. For the vast majority of desktop users though the point at which fold falls is greater than 600px, demonstrating how ambiguous the fold truly is.

Usability and the perils of scrolling

The fold is also a convention born from the naivety of early users. In the nineties the idea of a web page was still something of an abstract concept for a lot of people. Many developers and designers working within this period worried that users would not intuitively realise that they could scroll pages to see more content. Especially if content was arranged in such a way that it wasn’t obvious that more lay below the drop.

Enter the cut-off look

The cut-off look was a solution that many designers arrived at to resolve this problem. As the name suggests it involved designing layouts so that content was cutoff by the fold, providing a visual cue to users that scrolling was necessary to view more of the page. An article written in 2006 by Jared Spool about utilising the cut-off look indicates how widespread this approach became. However the approach itself is flawed, even if you ignore the ambiguity of the fold itself.

The discipline of industrial design has a great concept know as affordances. An affordance is a design element that indicates how an object should be used. In the context of web design the scroll bar is an affordance that indicates the depth of a web page relative to the viewport and whether there is more content below the drop. Therefore the cut-off look was always redundant, because the browser itself provides an adequate afforadance for users.

A self-confirming practice

By this point though the mold for standardised web design had already been cast and would allow the myth of the fold to endure. Since the birth of the industry we’ve been obsessed with placing content above the fold and unsurprisingly analytics show that the majority of clicks occur above fold as a result. The fold is a self-affirming myth! A positive feedback loop we cannot escape from!

Therefore the fold endures as far to few of us question the statistics that we gather from the sites we create. The industry is far to reliant on quantitative data to determine best practice, leading to flawed design conventions. However if you take the time to observe how users interact with web pages you’ll quickly realise a simple truth...

Left to right. Top to bottom

Advocates of the fold would have you believe that when a user lands on a web page they quickly assess all the content above the drop and determine what to click on based on the options they can initially see. However this belief assumes that users are rational creatures, who weigh up all their options before making a decision.

Users aren’t rational creatures though. They land on a web page and scan from left-to-right, top-to-bottom, looking for something that is either of interest or will help them achieve a specific goal. Therefore they’ll click on the first thing that’s either interesting or relevant. They don’t continue to scan and weigh up their options as many would believe.

Therefore content hierarchy and organisation is key, not half-boiled conventions such as the fold. Users will scroll and do scroll if they cannot see anything that they regard worthy of clicking on. However because so many of us cram so much content above the drop, the way in which users interact with these layouts mistakenly confirms the myth of the fold.

Information overload

Another falsehood concerning the fold is that we have three seconds to convince a user to stay on a page. Therefore marketing managers encourage designers to cram as much as possible above the fold.

However this overwhelms users with options and requires more effort to scan. The result is information overload! Such layouts are complex and hard-to-use. Contrary to popular belief though users are hardy creatures. They’ll persevere with your 11px type, complex navigation and cluttered layout. They just won’t like it... Or your brand.

Moving forward

Because of the constraints that considering the fold imposes a lot of web pages are sadly very generic. Vanilla design is the prevailing standard in our industry and all too often it occurs from rigorous adherence to conventions such as considering the fold.

Far too few of us question such conventions and pander to flawed data and the wishes of clients. Our industry has become one where the intuition of designer’s is spurned in favour of design by committee and analytics. Too few designers take risks and produce bold and unique websites. I often wonder what design masters such as Paul Rand, whose self-belief was legendary, would make of our industry.

While it’s easier to conform to standards, even if we intuitively realise that they’re wrong, we need to question conventions such as the fold. We need to passionately argue against them and educate our clients about such follies.

Great designers are marked by an ability to question conventions and shirk them if they believe that they’re flawed. We owe it to ourselves, our clients and industry to ditch the fold and other conventions that prohibit the creation of exciting design. Design that connects with users on both an emotional and intellectual level and delights them.