On the importance of images and layout in writing.
Load up your favorite tech blog. Or almost any blog, really. There’s a good chance it looks like shit. There’s a better chance that the reading experience is even worse. And we put up with it, day in and day out.
Why? Because that’s where the content is.
Enter Medium 1.0. While there are some questions as to what exactly Medium aims to be, there is no question that it’s already a beautiful product. As a writer, it’s evolving into exactly the tool I want to use when writing. It started with a focus on the fundamentals: words. Now the product is wrapping those words in an obvious trapping that has long been under-appreciated in writing: images.
I think back to when I was a kid and would sit for hours mesmerized by a magazine. Was it the writing that had me so engrossed? Sometimes. But sometimes it was the visuals. And more often than not, it was a combination of the two.
Somehow that symbiotic relationship was all-but destroyed as content moved onto the web.
Sure, there are some newer players out there now that are trying to bring back some elements of this relationship, namely the Vox Media properties (here’s one great example). And yes, all the traditional magazines have been ported (often quite poorly) into apps for iOS and Android. But Medium is the first product I’ve seen that opens up the tango of words and images to all.
During my tech blogging days, people used to ask me why I would always use images from films in my posts — even when the content seemingly had little to do with the visual. The answer is pretty simple: those images create an immediate bond with the reader, even if they don’t realize it.
I feel the need. The need, for you to read.
Maybe I was writing about a fairly obtuse tweak Google was implementing to increase the speed of a product. To some people, that’s interesting. To others, nothing could be less interesting. But to most people, they weren’t sure if they should care, and as such, few read such stories. So that’s where you have to get creative. Hook them with a headline, and keep them with an image they can relate to — say, something from Top Gun vaguely related to what was being talked about in the post: speed. Boom.
And that’s just one, albeit sort of gimmicky, way that images can augment words. As you’re undoubtedly aware because you’re a human being, sometimes visuals can be 100x more powerful than any words. And again, I think back to my favorite magazine experiences: words with the right images can be 1,000x more powerful together.
Sadly, the main way most of us see visuals next to text these days is in the form of an advertisement. Not only does this form of visual not augment the reading experience, it makes it roughly 10,000x worse.
One problem is that we’re no longer talking about beautiful, Mad Men-esque advertisements. We’re talking about flashy banners, tiny squares, or ugly links. And unlike in magazines, those hideous ads sit right next to the content you’re reading — sometimes even embedded within it!
In other words, not only do images and words not form a symbiotic relationship, in many blogposts, they’re antagonistic. These types of images aim to stop you from reading and focus solely on them. And, in an ideal world for the advertisers, you’d click the ad, taking you away from what you were just reading. What a shitty reading experience.
So I applaud Medium’s move to take us back to a time where words and images were far more complimentary — and in some cases, inseparable. And I hope it spurs the development of more content and tools that are presented to us as if images aren’t a complete afterthought.
Just compare reading this post thus far to reading something like this:
Or yes, this:
Clutter. Clutter. Clutter. Clutter. Image overload. Ads galore. Very few images that actually augment the reading experience. Many that take away from it.
This is why people miss the glory days of RSS (maybe the only reason). You could argue that this is one of the main reasons to use Pocket or Instapaper (they strip out a lot of the gunk). Hell, Apple even felt the need to build a “Reader” feature into its Safari browser. Think about how ridiculous that is for a second. A web browser needs a feature to make it easier to actually read on the web.