mashable.com - 2 years ago

Pinterest: Behind the Design of an Addicting Visual Network

The Leaders in Design Series is supported by Volvo.

pinterest360.jpgEver find yourself in the rabbit hole of the internet, bookmarking and screengrabbing things you want to buy or images that inspire you? Well, judging from Pinterest's hockey-stick growth, you're not alone in your digital collecting and curating.

The invite-only social discovery platform launched in March 2010, the brainchild of Paul Sciarra, Evan Sharp and Ben Silbermann, with the mission to "connect everyone in the world through the 'things' they find interesting," opining that books, recipes and items can bridge the gap between strangers. In October, the site surpassed 421 million pageviews, which means that each of its 3 million users are spending quite a bit of time there, pinning and organizing images to help them plan their weddings, decorate their (oftentimes, dream) homes, create bucket lists and manage an inventory of favorite images - no small feat on the ever-growing web. Images are presented in a bulletin board format with links to the original URL of the item or the info of the user who first uploaded it, so you know where it came from if you want more detes.

While Pinterest has been around for 20 months, it's only recently hit the tech blogosphere after catching on with a more DIY, Etsy-frequenting crowd of moms and designers. It's simple, it's intuitive and it's user-friendly, which explains its organic, grassroots growth. By now, of course, tech has taken notice, and the site has since received $37 million in funding.

Pinterest's simplicity and browsability comes from the nimble fingers of designer Evan Sharp. Mashable spoke with Sharp about the site's design, its growth and how his background in architecture comes in handy.

Q&A with Evan Sharp, Pinterest Designer and Co-Founder

sharp98o.jpegTell me about the backstory of Pinterest - where did the idea come from?

Myself and two of my friends were all working on the site at the end of 2009, more as a fun project than as an aspirational startup - two of us were really big collectors as children. I was always collecting images on the web in folders on the desktop of my computer, but it wasn't a very good system for remembering where things came from or who made them. We wanted to create a place where you can go to upload or collect things on the web and simply organize it the way you want to [each with its associated metadata].

Why did you decide on the bulletin board-style aesthetic?

It's funny, when I was first designing the website, the grid that's the layout of the site - what you call a bulletin board - is the thing I spent by far the most time working on. We did about 50 iterations. We were trying to find a way of displaying these collections that felt very personal but also felt like a collection more than just a few images. I've always felt that the linear, chronological feed that you see on a lot of big social services is really great - and before the feed there was nothing, so it's certainly a great advance on the web - but it's not always ideal, especially for a visual product, and that's why we spent so much time working on that layout. And it's been great for us - the grid is the visual hallmark of our site.

pinterestbulletinboard.png

What sites inspire you, and where do you look for design inspiration?

I do look at a lot of apps and websites, but most of the precedence for what we re doing is actually in physical spaces of discovery. A lot of them are museums, libraries or retail spaces, like a grocery store. If you think about how things are presented and laid out, you start to realize that the entire space is organized to allow you to discover all the things the store is selling. And if you walk into a bookstore, you can be overwhelmed with thousands and thousands of books, but they're categorized, and all of them are actionable by you - you can walk over and take them off the shelf and open them. There's a lot more history to those ideas [than the web] - people have been working out [display designs] for hundreds of years.

Pinterest is big with the ladies and is popular for wedding planning, fashion and interior decor - what did you think Pinterest would catch on for?

When I was designing Pinterest, I was in grad school for architecture, so I was using it for architecture-related drawings and buildings, and I always assumed it would catch on with the design and architecture world. It has, but it's caught on in so many other verticals, too. Home decorating is one of the big ones. I didn t think as much about target audience as I was thinking about creating something that was really cool and that could have enormous potential as a platform if we ever wanted to invest all of our time in it [which has happened].

A lot of tech startups these days break through on a tech site and then trickle down to a mainstream audience, but your growth has trickled up - why is that?

We didn t build this company to build a really hot tech startup … It came out of what we wanted to build more than the idea to build."

Part of it is that we didn t spend a lot of time trying to get tech coverage. We didn t build this company to build a really hot tech startup; what we wanted to do was build a product - and also a company - that we wanted to work on for the next five or ten years. And a lot of that is hiring the right people and building a really great team, but another part of it is building a product that people actually use and that enhances their lives. It's part of our philosophy - we want to build something that everybody finds useful.

How does your background in architecture help you when it comes to web design? What lessons carry over?

Architecture is really difficult, and it takes a long time to master the third dimension. Going through an extremely rigorous and work-intensive graduate program in architecture formed a process in me, the process of taking theoretical concepts and then executing and working those ideas out in design. A lot of [the process] is about technique and spending the time designing, but there's such a rich history of architecture and a great body of theory and knowledge, and an enjoyable part of [moving to web design] was learning to take abstract ideas and concepts and then solve them tangibly. The history of the process of architecture is really amazing in and of itself, and it's been really helpful to me as a designer.

You previously worked at Facebook - what lessons you bring to Pinterest?

I've always seen the product design team at Facebook as "owning" the idea of product design in a very real way, even though there's not a lot of visibility to what they re doing every day. It was really helpful for me to go through the rigorous gantlet they have - it's a great example of how a really big company can value design in a way that doesn't interfere with what all the teams are doing. Learning how the company operated was really valuable for me, and I think it's been really important for Pinterest's success as a design product.

pinterest.png

What things do you pin on your own boards?

I've been doing it for so long now that it's changed a bit, but I've always pinned the design and architecture stuff that I find inspirational. A lot of the rest of the things I do came out of what I found interesting on the site. In the early days, I was pinning stuff from other places besides Pinterest, but now a lot of my things are repins - the Star Wars board, the travel board. There was a lot of Star Wars on the site - it's interesting to see what patterns come out when millions of people are pinning things.

Judging from the userbase and the pageviews and anecdotal evidence, there is an obsession with Pinterest - why do you think that is?

I think it's twofold - at a basic level, it's just a great place to go to see things that are interesting to you. Every time you go, you should see 50 to 100 things that hopefully are relevant or interesting to you. But the flipside of that - and something I didn t expect when we built the product - is that there are are tons of people using the pictures to find things that impact their everyday life. People doing crafts projects, planning birthday parties, designing a home on the cheap. There are all sorts of life tips that come out of Pinterest. So now, not only are you finding stuff that's interesting, but you re also getting off Pinterest to do the things you re finding on the site. What that means is that, at the end of the day, Pinterest can really complement your life instead of being a timesuck.

In "Pin Etiquette," it says that Pinterest is not a place for self-promotion. How, then, can Pinterest best be used by brands as a marketing tool?

A lot of brands are using Pinterest to share more about their brand; a good example of that is Whole Foods. They re not just sharing the produce available at Whole Foods, they re sharing [images of] a healthy lifestyle. West Elm isn't just sharing the furniture they sell, they're sharing interior design tips. And the Today Show isn't just pinning that day's guests [to promote the episode]. For most consumer brands, the idea behind your brand makes sense on Pinterest.

pinterestsrealwall.png

Lastly, what's the company culture like at Pinterest?

One of the most exciting things for me now that we have a product that people love, is building a team at a company that people want to work at. What's cool at Pinterest is that we have people who love the product, but the common thread on our team is that all of them have real interests and passions outside of Pinterest. Building a team of people who are generally interested in the world is great because that's what the product is about, but it also means we re creating a place where it's really exciting to work. We re designing a company as much as we re designing a product.

Series supported by Volvo

volvologo200.png 

The Leaders in Design Series is supported by Volvo. Experience the newest Volvo for yourself. Step inside the 325hp 2011 Volvo S60 T6 R-Design at volvocars.us.

More About: features, Leaders in Design Series, mashable, pinterest

For more Dev & Design coverage:

Top News