When the team behind this summer’s cult TV hit Stranger Things were planning its reference-laden production, they turned to Pinterest. Like millions of others around the world, they found Pinterest’s boards, where users can ‘pin’ items of interest that they have discovered online, the perfect tool for collecting material on anything from lighting styles to typefaces.
Pinterest co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Evan Sharp cites this as an example of the kind of project he had always imagined Pinterest could be used for. Sharp created the site with Ben Silbermann and Paul Sciarra when he was an architecture student in New York. Now described as “the world’s catalog [sic] of ideas” Pinterest was conceived as a neater way of organising the many bookmarks and folders that Sharp used to save anything and everything of interest that he would encounter online. It was to be a digital reimagining of the pinboards that featured in every design or creative studio.
But since its launch in 2010, the site has become much more than that. In fact one somewhat overexcited analyst even recently described it as the ‘future of shopping’ thanks to its introduction of ‘buyable’ pins enabling users to purchase items featured on the site directly.
Certainly Pinterest has upped its commercial game of late with brands such as Topshop and Made.com citing very strong results from collaborations with the platform. Recent Millward Brown research found that 73% of active ‘Pinners’ had used the site to search for something to buy while only 27% of the same group used other sites to do this.
When we meet, Sharp has just spoken at the Stockholm Tech Fest conference. While previous sessions had pondered the future of ‘fintech’ and dealt mainly with access to funding or data, Sharp talked about Lego. Its beautifully simple system, he argued, was the inspiration behind the design of Pinterest and its gridded interface.
He’s a thoughtful, almost gentle speaker – very different to the evangelistic bombast of many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. While many from Big Tech converse in what sound like pre-rehearsed soundbites that stick rigidly to the corporate line, Sharp is happy to engage in discussion about the platform he has built and its effect on the world.
Pinterest has a team of around 40 designers, half of whom come from outside the US, including Swedish Creative Director Andreas Pihlström and Susan Kare, renowned for her design of the original Apple Mac icons.
In our August issue, John Maeda wrote about the different mindset that designers need to adopt when working in tech startups such as Pinterest – to become comfortable in a world where nothing is finished, everything is collaborative and the emphasis is on the minimal viable product rather than polished perfection. “In San Francisco, where I live, that way of iteratively working is much more common now,” Sharp says. “There’s been this explosion of designers in tech – I read somewhere there are way more designers in San Francisco than any other city in the world – and most of them work in a software-informed way where they own the product and their mindset is constant iteration.”
But, he says, “I also think there is a long history of that in design. If you look at Raymond Loewy – those diagrams he did about the evolution of the design of objects like cars are a perfect balance between perfection and optimisation. I use them all the time to teach that we can both iterate quickly and have great individual, holistic experiences. I hope that helps people move beyond that existential perfection-experimentation tension that I see in a lot of software cultures.”
Designers at Pinterest, he says, are given ownership over parts of a product and a lot of production support in order to free up their time for constant design evolution.
When I built Pinterest, I both designed and coded it. Fundamental to great design is a deep knowledge of production
Collaboration with the company’s engineers and an understanding of the product development process is key, he says. “When I built Pinterest, I both designed and coded it. Fundamental to great design is a deep knowledge of production. What’s beautiful about software is that the same person can do both because the production part is relatively simple. We try to capitalise on that opportunity by hiring designers who also code – in fact a lot of our best designers only code.”
When it comes to creating a new feature for Pinterest, Sharp says there are two main routes. “Two thirds of the work we do is driven by a specific business need. So this year we are really focused on international growth. In a lot of countries – like Brazil – it’s much slower to use the internet and smartphones can be a bit underpowered relative to the US and Europe. So our mandate was that we needed to rebuild our apps with speed in other countries in mind. That’s a very top-down, strategy-driven process.
“The other third of our projects tend to be very creative-driven,” he continues. “We have a formalised way of doing that called Makeathons where we all stay up all night. Some of the best ideas come out of that undirected play.”
Play, as Sharp’s Tech Fest talk illustrated, is something of a running theme in how Pinterest thinks about design. “I’ve been very inspired by toys and games, because our users are typically in a very playful mode when they are using Pinterest – discovering possibilities, exploring ideas. But also because those products – toys and games – often have much more complex problems to solve from a user perspective. Games, for example, have to have very specific ways of ‘scaffolding’ users through complex behaviours so I think there are a lot of lessons for us to learn from those people in terms of how we can make Pinterest more usable.”
Toys have also helped inform Pinterest’s design language. In a recent Medium post, Pihlström outlined how his love of Brio inspired the company’s design principles. “He was drawing precedent from toys that foster certain behaviours in children that are very similar to behaviours that Pinterest fosters in adults,” Sharp says. His favourite design principle for Pinterest is that it should be ‘childproof’: “It describes my favourite aspect of toys which is that they are designed to be safe, and inviting and friendly to everybody. The whole experience is made so it is universally accessible. Thinking about how we design toys is a very good precedent for thinking about how we design Pinterest, not that Pinterest is childish, we’re not going to use primary colours or anything, but it is childlike, you’re in a playful state of mind when you use it.”
One of the more unusual things about Pinterest is the high proportion of women among its 100 million monthly active users compared to most tech services. Pew Research found that 42% of US women online used it. Does that influence its design?
“We don’t think specifically about women as the audience,” Sharp says. “In building for everybody you build a better service for all. We have also gone to great lengths, especially in the last year, to be more mindful and deliberate about who we hire and who is building our products. There is no better way than to have a team based on different experiences and points of view. I fundamentally believe in diversity as a business advantage. If you add someone who is demographically different into a uniform team you immediately see the different perspective they bring – as long as they feel safe in expressing that.”
I fundamentally believe in diversity as a business advantage.
One of the more intriguing projects Pinterest has in the works is the ability for a user to point their phone’s camera at an object and then have Pinterest search for and present similar objects using the visual search systems it is developing. “That’s based on a huge piece of machine learning – processing all of the billions of images we have, recognising patterns, and turning them into algorithms that recognise likely matches,” Sharp says.
Visual search, Sharp points out, has the potential to challenge “the linguistic bias in tech that none of us think about. All human data is stored linguistically – this is the start of not having to translate visual information into linguistic information [ie the tags we use to describe images]. It’s the start of something really exciting.”
How does he compare Pinterest to that other image-based social platform, Instagram?
“I love Instagram too, I’ve been using it since the beginning,” he says, “but Instagram and Pinterest serve different needs – it’s social versus personal. Instagram is a social network, it’s about sharing what you are doing with friends, to friends, it can also be about an idealised image of what I’m experiencing as a human. There is a beauty in that but also a downside – it can can create a gap between what people see as their life and their friends’ lives and I do think that there’s a problem in that. Pinterest is a personal tool, it’s not social. I can’t tell you how many famous people we meet who are obsessed with Pinterest but have secret accounts, who use it for themselves.”
Sharp also says that Pinterest has become a much-used research tool in the creative and entertainment industries – as evidenced by the Stranger Things example. Pinterest, Sharp says, lends itself well to the messy, failure-ridden creative process. “Pinterest is behind most of the visual media entertainment we see,” he says. Somewhere, there will be a secret Pinterest board on which the production team will be saving ideas and references.
Does Pinterest, then, have a role in the Influencer culture that is so powerful on Instagram? “It does, but in different ways,” he says. “We’ve always been built on a backbone of people with great curatorial judgement, great tastemakers. But, again, because Pinterest isn’t primarily about sharing, the role these people play is less clear.”
For brands, Pinterest has developed some powerful tools to aid shopping on the site. Buyable pins make it simple to convert interest to purchase while Palettes allow brands to curate products based on the dominant colours of boards users create. Based on that Palette, a brand like Topshop can make product suggestions to the user based on its own range.
This idea of Pinterest being one big shopping mall seems a little at odds with Sharp’s original vision – is he concerned that the platform is moving away from what he intended for it?
“No, the two are very much aligend for me,” he says. “The mission of the company is about how people discover and do what they love, shopping is a really good example of that doing. It was frustrating to be able to find something on Pinterest and not being able to buy it, so buyable pins is a really great user benefit for me.”
What about copyright? In the past, Pinterest had come under fire from photographers in particular who felt that their work was being used without permission or attribution.
“The idea behind Pinterest was to drive traffic to creators,” Sharp says. “Every pin is a short cut back to the creator [of a product or image]. That being said, we have built a robust set of tools for those who don’t want their work to be shared. We have a whole programme around taking down content, making it so people can’t pin from your website in the first place if you don’t want them to. [If we get a complaint] we do our best to be as responsive as possible, and do it very quickly.”
One problem with the posting of images on Pinterest is that the sites they link back to may not themselves provide accurate attribution or be the original source of that image. Sharp recognises the issue and says that “we go out of our way to represent attribution, but we are trying to understand more about how to synthesise all the ideas on Pinterest so that if the same idea comes from multiple websites, we can show where the idea originated. The more we can represent the originator of an idea, the better the experience is for users.”
Pinterest has seen a 50% growth in users the UK in the past year. Over 3 million items are ‘pinned’ in the UK every day with fashion, food, home décor and travel being the most popular categories. While all this referencing, curating and planning, accessing the world’s ideas, is a remarkable thing, does Sharp worry that it will contribute to a global monoculture? A world where there is one standard of ‘good taste’ for all?
“What’s really changed is that now way more people have access to much broader sources of inspiration,” he says. “The result of that might speak less about the tools we use and more about our nature as humans. I do think it’s remarkable how much of a monoculture there is and we could lose a lot in that, but at the same time Pinterest has allowed me to learn about my tastes in a much deeper way that is informed by precedent but is also idiosyncratic to my life. Good taste has always been rooted in a deep understanding of why. If your designs are trendy and you don’t know why, your work won’t stand the test of time. The danger is that people are exposed to more images but don’t understand why that work has stood the test of time.”
Coming back to Lego, Sharp says “one thing that fascinates me about it is that when it was released it took a couple of years for people to understand what it was for: we had a similar challenge with Pinterest.” Famously, Pinterest was slow to find an audience at first. One theory for this is that most tech early adopters are single males who typically work in the tech or IT world themselves. The things that Pinterest proved to be great for – renovating a home, planning events such as weddings or a holiday, choosing what to make for dinner that night, looking for a new outfit – are of relatively little concern to that group. It was only when Pinterest began to be picked up by Middle America, in particular by women looking to do just those things, that it really took off.
“Pinterest is about who you want to become,” Sharp says, returning to the Lego analogy. “It helps you build the life you want to lead, brick by brick.”