Those of you who’ve attended a Fastspot project kickoff may be familiar with the term “Wall of Words.” Unfortunately for many, the expression sounds a lot cooler than its acronym implies.
The dreaded “Wall of Words.”
For the uninitiated, a “Wall of Words” is a webpage with an ungodly amount of text, on occasion masochistically set in small typeface. Even when set in a beautiful font at a legible size with a perfect line height, too much copy without any distinction will repel users from engaging with digital content. A “Wall of Words” doesn’t provide enough guidance through design or structure.
To some degree, these pages are remnants of earlier methodologies where designers assumed users interacted with digital media like books. As Frank Chimero noted in his fantastic 2013 talk “What Screens Want,” the natural “grain,” or the inherent aesthetic of digital media, is flux (the capacity for change). A "Wall of Words” is essentially the opposite of that.
Digital media is not literature.
Maybe the conflation of book reading and digital absorption is the root of the problem. After all, research shows that brain pathways are created when we deep read, and short-circuited when we scan. That’s a vital distinction since the brain has adapted to read (there are genes for language and vision but none for reading). Book reading will always foster comprehension that we should cherish and practice — but it is inherently different than our online experiences and habits. I think we’re beginning to see that realization blossom in contemporary web design.
Visual hierarchy allows for storytelling.
Our brains love good stories, and the best stories are told in a way that dramatically elevates and emphasizes certain aspects to get a point across. Last week I was researching the origin of our Baltimore Orioles. In 1953, our Baltimore Orioles were the St. Louis Browns. A group of investors pushed out then majority owner Bill Veeck and the team relocated to "The Greatest City in the World."
I discovered that here:
That very same information is also available on this website:
Which brings up a key point: The flat presentation of content without distinguishing qualities leaves little, if any, space to qualify important content as such. So even if a user stays around to slog through your content (which is only about a 50% chance in the best case), a wall of words is not going to create an emotional connection with your audience. When comparing the websites above, which website does the Browns legacy some justice? Sports Encyclopedia with its bombardment of tiny text, or thestlbrowns.com, with its well constructed, curated content strategy and smooth interactive design elements?
The Promise of digital media.
I’m not a digital native. I clearly remember where I was when I saw the first iMac. I think it’s easy for my generation to forget that engaging digital media is something entirely different from reading. The internet offers a much broader promise: gps, sharing, video, researching, translating, etc. It’s very well documented that the Arab Spring was in part driven by social media. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that digital media has the power to be revolutionary, yet in many cases the way that content is presented online is literally centuries old.
The use of a flexible medium as if it were a static medium isn’t just boring, it also prevents users from understanding and interacting with your content. While the wall of words approach (if one could call it that) is negatively impactful, having a lot of text doesn’t make you a bad person. There are reasons — managerial, political — to keep voluminous chunks of copy cemented in place. Nonetheless, engagement with your content is at risk if you aren’t treating the medium with the type of respect it deserves.