This will read like an attempt to offend designers and/or developers in the short space below, but what I really want is to reconcile the polar emotions I have for long-scroll portfolio websites, and maybe learn about why the trend started.
The long scroll has pervaded the internet to become the more-is-more aesthetic employed by design studios, who show all of their work in one area—what most call blog style. From the information architecture perspective, this limits the unique content areas for users to click to and through, but from a design standpoint, it makes creation and updating extremely easy for the designer. Dropping 20-30 images into Dreamweaver or into <img> tags so they cascade downward is as simple as writing a paper in Microsoft Word (and about as exciting to look at). Despite my lack of enthusiasm for how these sites get made, I find the experience of using them quite exhilarating. It’s playful to pull the mouse wheel up and down, up and down. After over three years of experiencing this phenomenon, I now expect portfolio sites to long scroll, and this made me wonder where it all started. The symptoms of this development have not been historically traced, but according to some, it originated with the Cuban Council, who sill use a lengthy layout to showcase their work, location, and background. (Other sources attribute the long-scroll design to Supershapes.) I failed to locate any pre-2006 sites using the way back machine, but my design peers referenced those sites back in 2004 and 2005 when they began mimicking the layout. Coincidentally, this was about the time that blogging software really took off, and designers would take the short route by using blogspot or MoveableType to layout and display their portfolios. To this day, designers use those blogs on purpose, but those who don’t have been labeled: Issara Willenskomer, who has had users call his site a blog, deems this both inaccurate and unfortunate.
Then again, maybe these long-scroll designers have the user in mind, and want to deliver as much content up front to save them from clicking too deeply into a site. Designer Mitchell Phillips believes so: "…they are aesthetically pleasing to view and by providing a continuous stream of information (images, works, examples) the site is catering to the main audience (in this case, a potential client)." Issara Willenskomer saw the trend happening as a way to reduce click through for designers and non-designers: "In many cases, it would take several clicks before you were at the meat of the content. In most of these instances, this process involved clicking, say, ‘work,’ followed by a submenu where you could click, say, ‘print,’ followed by another submenu where you would have to click an actual project before you saw anything." The current trend of bulking all of the content into one area can frustrate the average user (who may not be a designer). What if they don’t want to scroll all the way through your portfolio to get to your contact information at the footer? For a 20,000 pixel-long site, that’s wasted time. Web designs have punished the users for so long, that this seems acceptable. It wasn’t until Google launched their site, with only a search field that less seemed like more.
And perhaps this is the problem we face today: search engines. Are web designers creating with search engines in mind? With so much emphasis being placed on Search Engine Optimization—getting top placement in Google—it may be all about findability. Does having everything in one place, in one content area from the top to bottom help Google, even though it strains my index finger?
A pervading Search Engine Optimization (SEO) myth exists, where developers (or SEO experts) claim overloading a single web page with text content will increase its top-tier listing. I am and have always been skeptical about these statements, as they recall the days when pioneering marketing firms suggested you name your company with an alpha-numeral such as A and/or 1 in order to get top ranking in the phone book. (Look at all of the dry cleaners or take-out restaurants named A1 to see what I mean.) If that alpha-logic made any sense, Ogilvy would have called his firm David, but he didn’t and it still grew into a multi-million dollar advertising empire. Search engine optimization does not rely on alphanumeric order for the same reason it does not rely on massive amounts of content cluttered into one page: search engine results (particularly Google’s) are organically generated, democratically. And even if you can design websites for search engines, it’s the users who matter most, so why over design for the search and alienate the user? Maybe because it’s the norm. Even Amazon.com was designed in a lengthy format, and it has become the norm for organizing vast amounts of information into a singular storefront. And these days, larger displays make Amazon.com more manageable than ever, and further enable long-scroll sites.
Amazon in Christmas Season, 1998, measuring 2,789 pixels long
Amazon in 2008 at approximately 3,446 pixels long (length may vary depending on your Favorites)
The once standard 12-inch monitor has been replaced by 17-inch laptops, 20-inch desktops, and 30-inchers now available at cut rates. Not only does this allow for a wider screen, but a longer one. Reading the New York Times with a 30-inch monitor in portrait orientation is nearly akin to looking at the printed page in its entirety. Long scroll portfolio sites read just as nicely, with sometimes all of the images appearing at once—in effect killing my need for finger flexion. But it’s another piece of equipment that gets me excited about the long scroll, and it’s not a large display, but a smaller one: the iPhone. I see the iPhone as the reason d’être for making these scroll-until-your-finger-bleeds websites, and it’s a kick to experience. The action of viewing a long and winding website through the iPhone, where you can finger lengthy pages is almost as pleasurable as fanning a stack of one-hundred dollar bills with your thumb over and over. While you’re doing the math on how high the stack of hundreds must be to equal the iPhone’s thickness, go ahead and indulge yourself with the New York Times or Amazon.com on your iPhone.
But if you must head to a long-scroll portfolio, Webleeddesign is very cool thanks to its animated background that drips, drops, and bleeds down the scroll. Other fan favorites include dannyblackman.com with its clouds crawling theme—I wonder which came first, the long scroll or the cloud theme. These long sites on the iPhone are iTastic compared with scrolling on a mouse wheel. Go on, touch a portfolio. Although I’m overstating things, this isn’t my attempt to taut Apple, because I must say, I am disappointed in the new MacBooks because I want two touch-screens hinged together that allow a keyboard to pop-up when I need it, only to disappear when I don’t—like when I’m scrolling an extra long website.
Supershapes website approximately 7,935 pixels long (one of the forerunners)
Danny Blackman website approximately 14,524 pixels long (fun theme)
Sebdesign approximately 23,427 pixels long (very long)
Prodigious web designers may in fact think like this ("We need to add more scrolling since screens are getting bigger and the iPhone lets people swipe at our work") and if so, that’s a shame because the interaction becomes more important than the work—something many designers did not want to happen. I became hypnotized (and still get hypnotized) while winding the mouse wheel down. Up and then down, up and then down. And it’s taken almost 3 years for something to happen: I’m over the scrolling action, and now place an emphasis on the site’s length. The more work that’s on one page, the more impressed I am with the studio. Wow, that’s a long scroll. They have a lot of work compared to me. I suck.
And maybe that’s what they want. Like April Greiman’s 12-inch business card—popular in the 1990s as the biggest card in any business meeting—this could be a game of who’s got the longest site. An effort to create envy. Instill fear. The Goliath to your David. A wise mentor once told me that a designer’s talent was disproportionate to their portfolio size: smaller folio, better designer; larger folio, lesser designer. If they have to impress you with the size of their book, how good can they be? In stark contrast to the long-scroll sites, one of the most successful studios in North America transformed their website in February 2007 by placing nothing but a short film and contact information on the index. If anyone was deserving of the long scroll based on merit, it’d be Cahan Associates, but they opted out, and according to Bill Cahan, they have gotten more inquiries from prospective clients as a result.
All pixel lengths above are approximate. Paparazzi was used for all screen captures.