Observer: Pinning Down Pinterest

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Pinterest—despite early criticism—has found its place in design as a respected archive of visual finds. Find this Observer column and even more design lessons in the August issue of Print.

Pinning Down Pinterest

While social media sites have so swiftly been taken for granted in everyday life, Pinterest still strikes me as a remarkable phenomenon. The site’s purpose, to allow the rapid collection of pictures, couldn’t be more straightforward. It takes only seconds to grab your heart’s desire and trap it alongside previous finds on one of your boards.

Early reactions to Pinterest were sniffy. I’d heard the line about it being the preserve of women who love crafts. A close friend in design reacted with “Whatever next?” when I mentioned I’d signed up, as though Pinterest weren’t a venue where any self-respecting visual sophisticate would deign to be seen.


Illustration by Christian Dellavedova.

In reality, the site is so broad in its appeal that any generalization about its demographic profile or its members’ interests and tastes would be rash. By 2014, Pinterest was awash with designer-pinners—from Pentagram to lettering artist Jessica Hische to design educators Ellen Lupton and Kali Nikitas.

The scale of some of this pinning is breathtaking, even if we confine ourselves here to graphic designers as a subgroup of pinners. In my first week on the site, I decided to follow Wayne Ford, a British designer and creative director who has boards on design, photography and fashion.

At that point, Ford had around 53,000 pins spread across 193 boards; 86 days later, Ford had 64,800 pins across 319 boards. That’s 11,800 fresh pins in less than three months, or an average of 137 pins a day. Almost every time I checked, Ford had posted a slew of new pins. Did this hyperactive image-hunter ever take a rest?


Wayne Ford’s Pinterest page.

I asked Ford about his reasons for using Pinterest. What’s it all for? While he can’t recall when he officially joined the site, he thinks it was in early 2012, after a client’s marketing team mentioned it.

“My sole purpose for signing up was research for a design project,” he says. “At the time, I pinned a few pieces of graphic design that I liked, some photography, a little architecture, and that was pretty much it. I didn’t see myself using it after the project was completed. Subsequently, I took on a few design projects for fashion clients, and as I [conducted] research for these, I found myself—to my surprise—using Pinterest as a tool to bookmark possible reference material, styles and trends. And I’ve continued to use it as my pinboard. I don’t like physically pinning things to my studio wall, so I suppose Pinterest has become my virtual pinboard.”

Clearly, though, he would need a studio wall the size of several barns squashed together to accommodate 64,800 pictures. Pinterest facilitates and encourages a style of image-capture that far exceeds earlier practices and needs. Ford told me that he doesn’t devote huge swathes of time to Pinterest but collects purely as a reference for projects. It wasn’t his initial intent to pin large volumes of images.

I think any pinner would agree that the site has the potential to become a time-consuming obsession in which the instant reward of acquiring an image, and the satisfaction of watching your collection expand, become paramount. Here, rounding up digital pictures is no different in essence from any other kind of committed collecting. If the aim were solely to compile project references, then the first 100 samples in a given category would probably be sufficient for the task. So what are the next 100 for?

Most designers seem to use Pinterest for more general purposes of inspiration,gathering images of anything they admire. For instance, Chicago-based designer Denise Johnson—139 boards and 3,843 pins, last I looked—has a whole series of boards titled “inspire me,” followed by a designer’s name: Paul Rand, Milton Glaser, Neville Brody, Paula Scher, Saul Bass, Louise Fili, Jessica Hische and so on. (Throughout Pinterest, there are so many Paul Rand tribute boards I decided not to count.)

Jessica Hische's Pinterest

Jessica Hische’s Pinterest page.

As you would expect, Pinterest has a bottomless reservoir of boards devoted to subjects such as typography, logos, packaging, annual reports, letterheads, posters, book covers, album covers and illustration. As these open-ended titles imply, general boards of this kind can feature examples from any time or any place that happens to catch the pinner’s eye. Regular followers and passing visitors then copy what they want onto boards that might be similarly labeled, or quite different in intention. A book cover classified under that heading on one person’s board might be perfect for someone else’s lettering board. In this zone of mutually assured inspiration, in which any repin is a cheery thumbs-up, what you do with a pin that strikes your fancy is entirely up to you.

I have to admit that I don’t find this generalized approach particularly engaging.A board labeled “typography” is too vague to say much, no matter how juicy some of its individual items might be. Such boards look random because what they are, in effect, is a big heap of things with no strong connection other than that someone likes them a lot. Sometimes the refinement of a person’s curatorial eye is enough to give the collection coherence within the board. Just as often, a mishmash of images will inadvertently reveal that the pinner’s grasp of the material isn’t so great.

What I enjoy most on Pinterest is when someone pieces together a board on awell-defined theme so rich that it might even serve as the makings of a book on the topic. This could be about a publishing category or a particular publication. Under the name of Newmanology, Robert Newman, a former creative director of Reader’s Digest who has held several creative director roles, has created boards on “Sex & Drugs” book covers, Ramparts magazine and Evergreen Review covers.

Instead of this focus, the board could be more narrowly iconographic. An English pinner with Gothic tastes called Tracey has a wonderful board titled “Cry then,” with photos and paintings of weeping eyes. Lelle Laflamme in Rome has one devoted to images of hearts, one about moons, and another about ampersands. Boards this super-focused compel you to study seemingly familiar subjects in a whole new light.

Ellen Lupton's Pinterest.  Many designers use Pinterest to collect images for particular projects or as inspiration for a certain topic, such a
s lettering. Some pinners have also created boards dedicated to legendary designers, such as Paul Rand.

Ellen Lupton’s Pinterest page. Many designers use Pinterest to collect images for particular projects or as inspiration for a certain topic, such as lettering. Some pinners have also created boards dedicated to legendary designers, such as Paul Rand.

In the graphic field, Laflamme—215 boards and 97,534 pins (and counting)—is one of the most impressive pinners I’ve seen. I’d like to have asked her a question or two, but Laflamme is clearly a pseudonym. Whoever this connoisseur may be, Laflamme knows her graphic history and has broad international tastes: Russian Soviet graphic design (359 pins), Affiches françaises (648 pins—could she be French?), German graphic design (462 pins), and it goes on. In most cases, Laflamme even takes the trouble to caption pictures properly, providing the designer or artist’s name along with the date.

I understand why people pinning for personal inspiration don’t bother with this, but images endlessly repinned without basic information shape an online culture in which decontextualization—the stripping out of meaning—is accepted as a matter of course. These floating pins breed ignorance, in other words, and graphic designers, as professional communicators, ought to know better than that.

Pinterest is a great tool, with immense potential as a system for curating our pictures. It has made us the custodians of our own public image libraries. Now it’s time to stock the shelves a little more reflectively.

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