This article was written in 2016. It might or it might not be outdated. And it could be that the layout breaks. If that’s the case please let me know.

Layout on screen is like a sculpture

Last week, while I was looking at some layouts for websites my students presented, it occurred to me that a layout for a webpage should be compared to a sculpture, and not to a painting. There is a very big difference between how you see a poster, or the cover of a book, and how you see a webpage. A poster is seen as a whole, and should have a single, striking composition. Whereas a webpage is viewed in stages, while scrolling. Which means that it doesn’t have one single composition. This also means that it’s much harder to make the layout of a webpage look balanced, wherever you are on a page.

You can compare posters and books to paintings. There’s basically just one way to look at them: full-frontal, and as a whole. Similarly you can compare webpages to sculptures: you can walk around them — or scroll though them — and see a different composition every time your position, or the position of the scrollbar, changes. I studied sculpture a long time ago and I was very bad at it. It is incredibly hard to make a 3D composition that is never dull to look at! I graduated with cubes, since they are equally boring from each side.

Most of the work my students presented to me looks beautiful printed on A3 paper. Some carefully crafted, well balanced compositions. But when I masked parts if it, to emulate scrolling in a viewport, most of the compositions collapsed. Even exciting asymmetrical layouts can look very boring when parts of it are hidden. This next week I’ll ask my students to treat their work a bit more like a sculpture. Let’s see if it works.

And if I’m ever in a position where I have to hire a visual interface designer, I might start looking for a sculptor, instead of a painter.