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Wednesday: [w] Priority Origami

You may be familiar with the concept of the "fold". In the case of a broadsheet newspaper, it refers to what you see when you fold the closed paper and rest it with the top side facing upwards. The closer to the top any given bit of content is (headline, photo of current event, ridiculous column by popular writer in enclosed tabloid supplement, &c.), the more likely it is to catch the eye of the passerby, who will then purchase the paper. Or so the theory goes. For web designers, the fold is the point at which your reader has to start scrolling down to read the rest of the page.

Now, that point's pretty arbitrary. The best thing we can do is make somewhat informed guesses, do a lot of reading, compensate for certain alternative browsing environments, make the layout as semantically correct, as fluid (or, at least, as spare), and as gracefully degradable as possible under the circumstances, and roll with it. Still, the salient point remains: you want as much of your essential content -- stuff like core navigation, certain forms of advertising, a reasonable amount of branding, and, uh, your comic -- as near to the top of the document as possible, because your audience is there for a reason.

All of this blather is so that I can pull a nit out of my hat and beg of you, the creators, the people: Please resist the urge to randomly push your comic's starting frames below a sensible fold point in favour of chrome or secondary content. The more stuff you cram at the top of the page, the less important your comic seems to me.

I love Bruno to death, so it rather pains me to cite it as an example, but I'm going to anyhow because it's recent, and because it self-corrected. On occasion, such as this past week, Chris Baldwin will completely displace the comic with a very large announcement for something else -- in this week's case, a book release, along with the cover art. At first, where the comic was, you got the cover art and a lot of text, and there was a fair amount of scroll until the day's comic became visible.

Now, I'm not opposed to scrolling, but, at a first glance, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that there wasn't a comic that day because instead there was a book announcement. There's the space the comic occupies... and it's full of something else.

As of Friday, possibly a bit earlier, the comic was on top of the announcement, albeit dwarfed by the cover art. I don't know if Baldwin changed his mind about positioning, or got complaints, or what. The problem was remedied, and that made me happy, but there was still a nagging sense of disorder. Like the rug had been a little bit pulled out. And I remember having seen this sort of thing before. Perhaps other people don't notice or keep track of trends like this, but it registers for me as a metaphorical collar-grab -- "no! Look at this first! It's more important than the whole reason you're here!" I'm sure that's not the intention at all, but that vibe still remains for me.

I've seen a fair few comics do this sort of thing over the years. A large, splashy logo shoving the comic a little ways down... and then the adbanner at the top gets a little bigger, a little fatter... and then it seems like a good idea to put a great big link in to the con countdown, or the news about the new book, or the big graphic letting people know that such-and-such another strip has moved to a new site...

The more emphasis goes to an element which is not vital to the purpose of a comic, the more one gets the impression from a site's design or layout that the comic's not as important as other stuff. Stick an extra lump of text, or an extra picture, on top of the strip one day? What you're telling me is that the comic's not as important that day. Let that build up, and you're telling me that the comic is sliding down the list of priorities. Consistent elements are something else again (although I'd beg people not to take up huge amounts of vertical screen real estate with logos if they don't have to, especially if nothing else usefully occupies the horizontal); fluctuating ones, though, diminish the amount of trust I have, as a reader, in your priorities.

It's not that I'm too lazy to scroll. Far from it.

This sort of fluctuating element thing can be done well, and unobtrusively; consider Achewood, whose occasional insertions of update status/short announcements don't displace the comic in any significant fashion, and whose on-again, off-again banner ads slot gracefully into the layout. It's more spartan than some approaches, but it does work, and work well. The eye is drawn to where it needs to be drawn.

Which is pretty much all you really need to do.

Posted by Wednesday Burns-White at May 29, 2005 10:08 PM

Comments

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at May 29, 2005 11:22 PM

Sinfest seems to glory in being below the fold. I have to hit "page down" four times to get to the strip.

Comment from: slabgar posted at May 30, 2005 12:15 AM

I can't help but agree. In fact, I remarked (to myself, admittedly) that I was happy with Wapsi Square's move to Blank Label, since the new format brought it (mostly) above the fold. (Schlock Mercenary also saw benifit from it's move, IIRC.)

The presentation of a number of comics in my pull suffer because the content is below the fold. :-(

Comment from: Alexis Christoforides posted at May 30, 2005 2:07 AM

It's weird that even before I even had names for the protagonists in my hopefully up-and-coming webcomic, I decided that the page layout would de-emphasize all elements BUT the comic page itself. I'm not much of a web designer, but I'm a programmer and a UI nerd and holy hell is Sinfest's page stuck in 1996 or WHAT (PS: I love Sinfest. We all do.)

The best site layout I've seen is Van Von Hunter, I think. You want a full "paper page" comic? Then, for crying out loud, do it in landscape! The comic appears front-and-center, and your eye catches the surrounding menus only if you actively look for them.

Comment from: J. Sandas posted at May 30, 2005 3:43 AM

For years, Sinfest was an enigma. When somebody sent me a link to an individual strip, I would read it and enjoy it, but whenever I tried to go to the main page, there was nothing there.

I started to work on a theory about the temporal unstability of Sinfest, and eventually tried to use it to look into the future (a bit like astrology, only there was never anything there so I never had to do anything).

Scrolling down was a bit of an anticlimax.

Comment from: Mithandir posted at May 30, 2005 4:46 AM

I agree completely, the comic should always be the focus of the site unless you have very good reasons for it not to be (and those are very rare).

Personally I aim to keep my comic fully visible on a standard browser (e.a. running without a ton of extra toolbars) at 1024x768 and at least halfway visible at 800x600. I'm currently about 30 pixels off on the first one on my mozilla, but then mozilla (not firefox) has a bit less vertical viewing area than most browsers.

Furthermore I use landscape comics that are sized such that they can be fully viewed at 800x600 (after scrolling down past the header of the site).

That said I must admit I recently added a little icon above my comic witha menu to things related to that specific strip, which pushed teh comic down some 24 picels. The above 'rules of thumb' are still obeyed however.

Comment from: Tangent posted at May 30, 2005 9:18 AM

Two of my favorite comics came up with an ingenious way of allowing news to be upfront and easily visible while not (usually) pushing the comic off the main page.

College Roomies does have a newsbox on top, but more often than not it's a "headline" box and you can click on links to get to the news in question (often Maritza's Livejournal).

El Goonish Shive has gone one further. Dan has a top box with four sections - Latest Update, Latest Newsprint Update, Latest Filler, and Latest News update. You click on the date to see the latest thing in there.

(btw, Dan, looooved seeing TGed Tedd in the kitchen. I love his excuse for turning into a girl... because "she's" in the kitchen and she's hot! (definitely true...))

In fact, one of the problems I had with Outta My Head is that I didn't know there was a comic initially. I clicked on a button to find it. (Of course, it could be I was approaching from the wrong angle to find her comic...)

Dominic Deegan is another strip I've noticed you need to page down to even get to the comic. The "title page" takes up a bit of room, as does the links below the title. Still, in this case it works a little because the comic is big enough that you need to page down a little to read the comic in any event.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents reviewer

http://tangents.keenspace.com

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at May 30, 2005 12:00 PM

I don't recall it being a conscious decision that my site's comics would always be at the top right under the logo. I have announcements next to the logo sometimes but I don't believe they've ever lowered the comic. Usually the navigation buttons are all above the fold too, but if they're not it's because it's a Sunday comic, and then I put First Previous Next New buttons on top of the comic.

Comment from: Misha Grin posted at May 30, 2005 3:57 PM

Well, I've never had much of a problem with having to scroll down a bit to get to "today's" comic on most pages, but then again two of the comics I was weened on were Sinfest and Baldwin's Bruno, so... I'm used to it. What REALLY kills me is when the main page doesn't have a comic AT ALL! Just alot of news and some site navigation buttons and a LINK to the comics. It's not all THAT common, in my recent trawls of new, smaller comics, I've run across it five or six times. What's up with THAT?! You do a COMIC! You're not (primarily) a blogger or an e-commerce site or a marketting site! You do COMICS! Comics are what you do! So... shouldn't the COMIC be on the index page?

And, for preference, "above the fold?"

Comment from: Chris Anthony posted at May 30, 2005 4:09 PM

Paul - amusingly, the thing that bugs me about AKOTAS (and I admit it's a little thing) is that I have to scroll down to see if there's news or commentary. ;) I'd appreciate something above the fold that let me know if there was commentary below. (But, again, it's a small thing, and it's certainly not going to keep me from reading AKOTAS if you decide that it's too much work for too little benefit. :)

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at May 30, 2005 4:23 PM

Misha: Yeah, that bugs me about Twisted Kaiju Theater, which goes beyond your complaint and doesn't even have a bookmarkable page for the latest strip. At least places like Penny Arcade or VGCats have a bookmarkable page for the latest strip, even if it's not the front page.

Sexy Losers also does this, but at least they have the excuse that they need to make sure people hit the disclaimers and warnings first.

Comment from: Trevel posted at May 30, 2005 5:43 PM

Doesn't bug me so much on the main page.

I absolutely *hate* it when I'm trying to read through the archives and I have to hit page-down EVERY SINGLE PAGE just to get to the comic.

I love it when I don't even have to move the mouse to get to read the whole comic and go to the next page -- not an option for large comics, but should be for strips.

I understand that you love your logo and your news, but if I'm reading the archive, I don't need that.

Comment from: quiller posted at May 30, 2005 6:40 PM

You know, I think this has been Wednesday's most Ericlike snark yet. Terminology was explained, not so many obscure references and discussing an aspect of what makes one webcomic friendlier than others.

But I do think one of the reasons I like using the Quickkeen interface is because of how much easier it is to navigate compared to hitting individual strips with the dropdown bar. I take too large a chunk out of my day reading webcomics as it is, reading every rant and having to scroll to find comics is just extra time out of my day. I suppose I'm not spending the time to truly appreciate the artistry of the strips, but I'm not an artist. My main criterion with art is, I like it or I don't care for it. I can appreciate how artists improve over time, but it is usually less on how they are playing with the frames layout, and more how their art looks less like ass now...

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at May 30, 2005 7:05 PM

Dave - (shoulda thoughtta mentioning this in my earlier post...) I find it useful with Sinfest to hit end and then page up.

Chris - Thanks for the input. I'm disinclined to do anything about it though, I'm afraid, because: 1 - I don't see how that's different from many, many other webcomic sites with the comics above the fold; i.e., it's well within the accepted conventions of the medium, within even, dare I say it, "best practices". 2 - Since I code by hand I actively discourage myself from picking up new things to track daily and so could get wrong. 3 - Since - despite postitive reaction to some of my commentary from The Living Comic - I still believe that it oughtn't take more time to read the text on a webcomic site than the cartoons (but can't help getting wordy when I do have something to say), I'm not too concerned about drawing attention to it. But thanks for reading!

Comment from: J. Sandas posted at May 30, 2005 7:17 PM

"What REALLY kills me is when the main page doesn't have a comic AT ALL! Just alot of news and some site navigation buttons and a LINK to the comics. It's not all THAT common, in my recent trawls of new, smaller comics, I've run across it five or six times. What's up with THAT?! You do a COMIC! You're not (primarily) a blogger or an e-commerce site or a marketting site! You do COMICS! Comics are what you do! So... shouldn't the COMIC be on the index page?"

It makes some sense to do it if you post more than one page at a time, and post a link to the beginning of the latest update. That's what I was planning to do when I first started planning my not-yet-realized comic, simply because it was the first solution that came to mind.

(That was before I realized how much high-quality procrastination material you can get out of thinking about web design, of course. It's almost as good as changing the page layout fifteen times before drawing the first page)

Another reason to do it would be if you update irregularly and want to save the readers' time (and your own bandwidth) by having the people who just drop by to see if you've updated yet load a small banner or preview image instead of a page.

(but now I'm thinking about other people's site design instead of working on my own comic. That's just weird)

Comment from: Wednesday posted at May 30, 2005 7:44 PM

quiller: You know, I think this has been Wednesday's most Ericlike snark yet.

You realize, of course, that the process of soul devouring takes some time. The merger probably won't be complete for another three to four weeks. At that point, there'll be a shell in New Hampshire which punctuates every third word at random and a dual consciousness in Thames Valley who reads Sluggy.

Comment from: DanShive posted at May 30, 2005 8:11 PM

I wonder why those who have comics that would require the reader to scroll down to see them on their front page don't employ a link? It's a simple matter to include a link in a page that auto-scrolls the user to another part of the page; it's a staple in FAQs these days.

Heck, I have it on my site, and it really is overkill: http://www.egscomics.com (click on the far-left button with "EGS" in the image).

The only reason I bother with such a thing is to keep the table uniform (the other three columns are buttons, so I want the first column to be a button too), but there are sites out there (SINFEST!) that could benifit from the one-click-you're-there interface.

A valid concern is that someone would bookmark the page that way, thus doing a run-around the author's money-generating ads with every visit. I have it set up so the name of the internal link changes daily, however, so if someone DOES bookmark it that way, it'll only work for the rest of the day. After that, the same bookmark will start them off at the top of the page.

My apologies if all that was unclear; I'm hungry and speed-typing before leaving to get food ^^;

Comment from: Chris Anthony posted at May 31, 2005 6:28 AM

Paul - no worries. I completely understand your position, and it's not going to stop me reading AKOTAS in any event. :)

Wednesday - I sense a Heinlein parody coming on...

I Will Fear No Snarking! Live on Broadway!

...*cough* Sorry.

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