Real estate should embrace ‘the visual Web’

Websites should be responsive, but not at the expense of design

Responsive design and the visual Web are two trends gaining traction on the Web. They are vastly different approaches, but both of these styles are having an effect on our desktop and mobile strategies.

The visual Web is characterized by big, beautiful imagery that features a contemporary layout. Platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram have been a catalyst for the movement. "Images and video are becoming an increasingly important part of what we consume online," says Richard MacManus, founder and editor in chief of ReadWriteWeb, writing about "The Rise of Beautiful Apps."

Although not always executed properly, photography has always been a staple of real estate marketing. The visual Web is a trend that the industry can leverage. Photography — or better yet, amazing photography — is a wonderful way to showcase communities, neighborhoods and homes.

Many websites emphasize stunning imagery while incorporating the sitemap around the visual experience. For example, take a look at the desktop version of the ERA website. The addition of big, bold imagery on the home page is quite a departure from the traditional anatomy of the real estate website, which typically looks something like this: 

1: Header – Containing a company logo and slogan.

2: Navigation – Containing links to a property search, blog, community information, market data and other content.

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3: Body/container – Historically the busiest section of a real estate website. This portion of the design is stuffed with items such as search, quick search, multimedia, signup forms, tweets, Adobe Flash animations, etc.

4: Footer – Containing a sitemap, social icons, contact information, etc.

Replacing the cluttered body and container of the home page with a cleaner layout that features elegant photography is a concept that the visual Web embraces.

Can the Web be visual and responsive?

As I wrote at the end of 2011, responsive Web design is a flexible solution for the real estate. Responsive Web design is a single, fluid design that functions on all devices and screen sizes. Although the medium isn’t applicable for every project, the popularity of responsive design continues to gain steam.

However, from a visual perspective, responsive design is quite different than designs that embrace the visual Web.

As Paul Robert Lloyd puts it in "The Web Aesthetic," "Today, when every device begs to be connected, it has become easier — almost necessary — to accept the adaptable nature of the Web. Responsive Web design is an emerging best practice, and our layouts are becoming more flexible. But once again, innovation is focused on technical implementations, while the visual aesthetic remains ignored. To put it another way, we’re embracing ‘responsive’ but neglecting the second part: design."

Responsive Web design has been incredibly minimalistic to date. It features a clean layout and focuses on readability as opposed to visual aesthetics.

One of the challenges with a responsive Web design is that images, no matter how beautiful, are a fixed size. Online advertisers have struggled with this as well. Advertising is the foundation and business model for many publications.

Advertisers and publishers may resist some of these changes, "but the changes are inevitable," Steven Bradley predicts in, "Where Does Advertising Fit In A Responsive World?" People "aren’t going to stop using different devices to preserve the current landscape of advertising."

The same can be said for the real estate industry. Consumers will be interacting with real estate content on a plethora of devices, screen sizes, browsers, etc. Responsive Web design is not going away anytime soon. In fact, I envision the medium maturing and evolving, potentially adopting attributes that have empowered the visual Web to be so relevant.

How does this affect the future of real estate Web design?

As publishers, we need to consider a holistic approach. An approach where our designs (desktop and mobile) are completely streamlined and maximize their mediums. I suspect the visual Web will have a major impact on the innovation of responsive Web design. A beautiful, fluid Web is the experience consumers are gravitating towards. As real estate professionals, we need to deliver it.

Tom Flanagan is the director of information technology at Residential Properties Ltd. in Providence, R.I. You can contact him at tflanagan@residentialproperties.com or @tflan on Twitter.

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