Visual Transiency

In his post on the visual exploration behind the redesign of the Signal vs. Noise blog, Mig Reyes notes down his insight into the transiency of content that is bound up inside a visual container:

I was married to the idea of putting our posts within a white “sheet,” much like we do for Basecamp. It took me a while to realize, though, that wrapping content inside of a box also feels like putting an expiration date on it. Having content in a box makes it feel temporary, short-lived, even. It’s in the same vein that posts on the Tumblr dashboard feel like one-off posts with no future in sight.

This is an interesting insight. Mig Reyes gives no explanation of this and does not elaborate further, the whole insight is based on his subjective feeling, but just because it is a feeling should not be dismissed since it is exactly such subjective feelings that make up our experience of using a site. I have a similar hunch about content containers, though it’s difficult to point out exactly what it is about them that shapes this experience, or even to get a good grasp of what the experience really is.

I wrote about this a while back, though in that post I focused on the pointlessness of sticking containers within the existing container of the browser. The extra boxes seemed redundant to me for the most part, and still do. We already have the “page” of the browser, sitting inside yet another frame of the computer screen, so the extra visual container that is often used for content is usually pointless.1

So what it is that gives the content in a box a transient feel? Maybe it’s because we often see navigation elements on a site or an app sitting outside of the box in their own space, interface elements that will remain there for the foreseeable future. Maybe it’s because the container gives it a physical metaphor of the page, of something mobile that can be picked up and taken away from the blog. Maybe it’s the look of a “feed”, of a flow of items bound up in their own boxes for the sake of clarity, which will, as is the nature of the feed, all perish just as soon as new items come in to take their place.

Or, perhaps boxes are a sign of a template, of the design of the page coming before the content, so that the “frame” was created before the words were written, which are afterwards pushed into it from a database query. The blank page on the other hand looks like something made for the purpose of displaying just the content it holds, of content being already present before the design process began. It looks like someone wrote the content and marked it up, rather than that content being placed into the template dynamically.

Do you have the same feeling about content bound up inside a content frame, that it is somehow more temporary and perishable when compared to content without containers? Leave a comment.

  1. I’m talking in the context of a blog post. There are plenty of reasons to place other types of content in boxes (e.g. in the case of menus, alerts, notices, and so on), with the main advantage of the box being a clear indication of relationship between the items sitting in it (and by extension their lack of relationship to those outside of it). For blog posts and magazine articles the big blank canvas of the browser is enough.