Designing for visual browsing: The real point of Pinterest

March 20, 2013

Like most of the world, I came across Pinterest early last year, when there was a lot of hype-y discussion on marketing blogs about Pinterest becoming the next big thing. All kinds of unlikely organisations popped up with their take on using Pinterest to promote your (decidedly non-visual) main business. At the same time, I read a lot of grumpy dismissal of Pinterest by technical-minded blokes. It is for girls (therefore it can be of no interest to manly men). Even now, Econsultancy are offering a £250 report on Pinterest best practice.

Being a dutiful digital citizen, I felt it was my duty to try Pinterest out, for free. So I started to collect little craft tutorials on there. It was okay. I was a little bit embarrassed about the world finding all those teddy bear sleeping bag patterns, but someone’s got to take the lead here. Those things aren’t going to sew themselves.

My first thought was that  it wasn’t exactly going to change the world, although it was a good way of marking stuff to find later. I make glass and silver jewellery as a hobby, so I started to create a few more inspiration boards, on glass art and graphic pattern.


Then one evening, I was in search of some social media zoning-out. I caught up on Twitter, and after a few moments of looking down the page, I got a headache. Too much chatter, too many random links. So I thought I’d pop back to Pinterest and look for some maps. (Maps are quite a thing on Pinterest.)

It was …relaxing and a little bit habit-forming. Unlike Twitter, I didn’t feel like I was poking my head into an information water-cannon. Unlike Facebook, I wasn’t oppressed by my friends’ successful social lives. It was all rather calm and slightly pretty. And, as I searched around for the absolutely perfect cartography-based artefact, I felt that first tug of the truly habit-forming online toy. I have gone to the brightly coloured, hand-knitted side.

Some observations about Pinterest:

1. Somewhat female. (Is that a problem?)

2. Personal without being warts and all.

The Pinterest core mood is a bit aspirational, a little bit Zen, occasionally fist-pumping.  The nearest it gets to ‘warts and all’ are the Wise Quotes/Sisters are Doing It For Themselves things, which can get a bit wearing but is easy to avoid. So it’s emotionally light.

3. It’s all about the collection

I look after my favourite boards zealously, taking out the unwise choices and looking for better ones.  When I’m thinking about something to make in glass, I study my Colour & Pattern collection, and I start to see visual themes and consistencies that I didn’t notice before.

Pinterest Colur & Pattern board

4. It’s competing with a collage board, Evernote and your sketchbook

It’s not really a social network, it’s a tool. I’m now actively choosing Pinterest when I do certain things. It’s a nice way of recording sources for projects. I can go back and review, search, add and annotate. (And I can keep secret boards for projects that can’t yet be shared).

I have used Pinterest to create a board about science communication usage, and it works really well. I’ve seen it used beautifully for historical projects, presenting photographs and sources on the page. There are collaborative boards too, where a couple of friends or a whole panel of people contribute their finds.

5.  A little bit social but not very

Pinterest recommends people you know but in truth that’s not very helpful. Personally I am seeking the eye, not the conversation. And so far the interface is way less needy than Twitter, Facebook or Linked In. It does not yet solicit me in email to plead that new pins are waiting for me (but never say never).

Pinterest science board

6. Very useful for search & discovery.

While Pinterest encourages users to add new content from outside sources, I find it great the other way round. If I want to find some new interior design blogs, I’ll search for a look I like, and then trace it back to the source material. I’ve also used it to track down teaching resources – teachers and homeschooling parents use it to curate classroom tools, for examples.

7. Not the answer to everything – but probably a guide to the future

We are absolutely drowning in verbal information. Visual is different: it gives us a delicious right-brained break from all that scanning and parsing. My own work isn’t madly Pinterest-friendly, but I do now think about it every time I write a post.

Basically, I am betting that the future involves more Photoshop.

How about you? Love it or hate it? I’d love to see any interesting uses of it, too. ( I had never realised that Map Fever was such a shared thing).

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue Ann Gleason March 21, 2013 at 6:10 pm


I, too, love Pinterst for the visual display, not for the conversation and certainly NOT to grow my business. I love the “have a look at this board for the ‘someday’ kitchen I’m creating” feel of Pinterest. I also love the spaciousness. And the colors. I’m a little dismayed that I can no longer write notes on the pins I post on my “secret” boards. I was enjoying that feature! I, like, you, use it to collect and organize items I want to remember. No more recipe drawer. Thank you, Alison, for a deliciously thoughtful post.


Alison March 27, 2013 at 2:29 pm

Thank you Sue Ann. Yes, the spaciousness is terrific, isn’t it. I always worry about these services and whether they’ll stay up – but now it is a wonderful brain break.


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