Revisiting “the Fold” in Today’s Digital Landscape

“The fold” is one of the basic design concepts of web design that is widely known in the digital space by layman and specialist alike. It’s a concept that is often debated in design shops and boardrooms. But what place does the fold have in modern, responsive web design?

The term was born from the newspaper industry to describe the part of a newspaper that is immediately visible after it has been folded for distribution. Time and time again, newspapers featuring catchy headlines and compelling imagery above the fold had significantly higher sales. The area above the fold became extremely valuable real estate and the design implications were widely accepted by the industry. Designing for the fold quickly became commonplace.

Borrowing design concepts and principals from other forms of media, early web designers found that designing for the fold translated well to anew platform: the Internet. And with good reason—small monitors with low resolution created a virtual fold. Content found below the virtual fold was sluggish to load because of slow Internet connections, and often difficult to access because the majority of users were often uncomfortable using computers. Scrolling below the fold wasn’t just an inconvenience, it was a challenge.

The Fold Today

Technology has come a long way from the inception of the web. Gone are analog dialup modems, replaced by broadband digital connections with blazing fast speeds compared to their predecessors. Computers have graduated from floppy discs to the cloud storage and monitors with impressively high resolutions come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. And as opposed to early adopters, today’s online audience is experienced and comfortable with computers and navigating the web.

Many of the obstacles early web designers faced that made designing for the fold a good design principle have been removed, creating a divide in the design community about its validity in modern web design. There are those that firmly believe designing for the fold is not a concept or principal but one of the golden rules of web design. Others believe its importance is quite diminished; the fold itself is not as quantifiable as it once was, especially because the introduction of responsive and good design and copy will entice scrolling.

The Debate: To Scroll, or Not to Scroll?

Designers that embrace the fold as a firm rule of web design agree that although the fold’s location is difficult to pinpoint and users are much more likely to scroll, their attention significantly drops off once they are required to scroll beyond their initial view. Those that stick to the fold rule that the value of content below the fold is significantly less.

On the other hand, many designers feel that the concept of the fold is merely a guide that drives design and organizes content into a hierarchy with the single purpose of driving conversions. They believe that good design, well-placed calls to action, and clear and concise language make the fold much less relevant.

There are pros and cons to strictly adhering to the fold:

    • Pro: Users have become impatient and want content that is relevant to them immediately
    • Con: Content can become crowded and difficult to read, compromising the usability of the whole site
    • Con: Defining the location of the fold is a fool’s errand, especially with the introduction of multi-platform viewing, and planning for any scenario is time-consuming and expensive

Who’s Right?

Although there is a fundamental difference, there are some things both sides agree on:

    • Good layout and design will entice and guide users past the fold, or even the homepage
    • Content located at the top of the page is more important than content further down

Personally, I think that whether the fold is a hard and fast design rule or a practical guide is the wrong question. Really, the fold is a moving constraint that designers and copywriters have to work around. The more important thing to focus on is creating designs that focus on good usability.

As a Senior User Experience Designer and web consultant, I often work with clients who are managing the expectations of many groups within their organization that all feel their content is absolutely above-the-fold-worthy. All websites have goals and objectives, and they should be prioritized appropriately. When it’s boiled down, websites aren’t much different than newspapers. Only one or two stories can be featured in the most prominent place without compromising readability and sales, or in the case of websites, usability and conversions.

How much of a factor do you think the Fold has on usability in today’s websites and applications?