We can’t control the speed at which a reader scrolls through content, but we can control the pace.
Let’s try an experiment. Try scrolling through these lines…
Simples. Now scroll through these lines…
Now, I can’t say for sure that you scrolled through the ‘thick’ version slower… but I bet it felt slower. That’s an emotional reaction, and demonstrates the power that simple compositional choices can have: our layouts can do so much more than simply ‘fit the content’ onto the screen, or ‘make it look good’. When we embrace vertical pacing within our designs, we can use composition to connect with our readers on a much deeper, emotional level.
The great thing about vertical pacing is that it’s relatively unaffected by screen size. If our primary concern when designing a composition is the vertical pacing of the content, then it shouldn’t matter whether it’s being expressed on a narrow mobile device or a 30” monitor. While the exact composition can (and usually should) adapt to the canvas on which it’s being viewed, the vertical pacing—the emotional heartbeat of the composition— can still be maintained.
Film editors understand the power of pacing all too well: a common exercise in film schools is to have students watch a scene and ‘clap’ every time they spot a cut. A romantic scene might result in a soft, steady clap, whereas watching a Hitchcock thriller may start slow and get gradually faster as the tension mounts. A fight scene from Michael Bay’s Transformers films will make the classroom sound like a cheap fireworks display.
Watching a film is a passive experience, but scrolling through a website requires active participation from a reader. Whether they’re using a mouse or touching the content directly on their phone, they’re literally stroking their way through our content. That’s a far more intimate connection with our audience than film will ever have, and when we create compositions that dance to the rhythm the reader is setting, we can use that bond to leave a lasting emotional impression.
Every composition has a vertical pace, but if it’s not designed intentionally then it’s unlikely to be causing the reader to feel what we’d hope. What kind of emotional journeys do we want to take readers on when they scroll through our content? Do we want them to feel excited? Relaxed? Somber? While we can certainly affect these things through traditional design tools like colour and typography, I believe we could do it on a much deeper level through vertical pacing, if we try.
Next: Patterns & Transitions