Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Pinterest “breaks” the grid

In the tamest, most conformist way imaginable

Nearly two months ago I wrote a post in which I said that I’m fascinated by Pinterest but I have difficulty figuring out why. On the face of it, Pinterest is a site that doesn’t have very much to offer me. In a little over two years, I’ve opened and deleted two accounts (one business, one personal) and eventually gone back and set up a third (definitely personal). In the end, the best explanation I could come up with for my inability to break away from Pinterest was that the typical book cover has the right proportions to make an ideal pin. And I was sure that had something to do with it but it didn’t seem to be the whole story.

Then yesterday, I saw a story on Medium: Anti-Grid Design Icon David Carson Says Computers Make You Lazy and Indie Magazines Need to Liven Up. I didn’t actually read the piece because it’s for members only and I’ve allowed my Medium subscription to lapse. But what the headline suggested to me really doesn’t have much to do with David Carson, whose designs have nothing at all in common with Pinterest’s layout.

I don’t have much in the way of a visual sense, so it hadn’t really occurred to me that it might be something about the graphic design of Pinterest that had been holding my attention and that kept me coming back. But when I read the phrase “anti-grid design”, I began to make sense of Pinterest’s otherwise inexplicable attraction for me. Pinterest breaks up the grid — or at least it cleverly gives the impression of doing so.

I visit Pinterest almost exclusively using the iPad app, in which the pins are laid out using a very regular 3-column scheme. But, while the sense of columns is very dominant, there is no corresponding sense of rows. All pins are displayed with the same width, but their heights vary quite a bit.

Pinterest home tab

If you compare Pinterest with Mix (as I did in my original post) you’ll see that, while the heights of items often vary a bit, there’s nevertheless a much stronger sense of rows than you get with Pinterest. Then I think back to Google+ — which I used daily for about 2 years before it closed its doors to all but enterprise clients earlier this year — the grid was very dominant and conspicuous. In retrospect, I’m sure that accounts for a lot of my ambivalence about Google+: I found it useful and for the most part enjoyable to use, but I regularly had to fight an urge to ditch it entirely. I didn’t understand that urge till now. I think I was simply finding the grid too oppressive, too regimented and regular.

There’s more than a little irony to my (unconscious) embrace of Pinterest’s grid-breaking. As I’ve suggested above, when you look closely, Pinterest is actually very regular: the column are evenly spaced and of equal width, everything is mathematically calculated and follows the rules. But the absence of discernible rows is enough to conceal the regularity and mask the rule-keeping — at least to someone like me who lacks a visual sense.

There’s another irony too. I tend to find the Home feed, which is algorithmically generated, more or less useless. Instead, I prefer to browse the Following tab, which just shows pins from the people I follow. But, in the iPad app at least, Following isn’t arranged in an irregular, grid-busting layout. Instead, it’s a single column of pins, all of equal width. Sometimes, several images will be grouped together but they’ll be arranged in a perfectly regular grid. The feature I like best about the app doesn’t even make use of the visual characteristic that attracted me.

Pinterest following tab

Now that I have a better understanding of the nature of Pinterest’s hold over me and of its limitations, I think I feel happier about continuing to use the site/app and I’ll feel more comfortable, when the time comes, about deleting my account for the third and probably final time. Till then, my profile is here.

Posted by Art, 24-Aug-2019