Pinterest design spreading like a virus, because it works

There are good reasons why more sites every day look like Pinterest. Some are intentionally built to mimic the site. Others ended up with the same design for different reasons... they say.

Rafe Needleman
Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
3 min read
The grid that inspired a thousand sites. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

"It's the Pinterest of..."

Just stop right there. It's not a unique pitch. Quite the contrary. We are hearing about, and seeing, more Pinterestification of the Internet every day. Why?

I asked a few entrepreneurs why they're adopting the grid look on the Web sites. The most informative: J.R. Johnson, the CEO of Trippy, the Pinterest of travel advice.

Originally, Johnson says, Trippy was a narrow, linear utility. It funneled users through the single experience of getting advice if they knew where they were going. The new, Pinteresty Trippy "moves us up the funnel to an inspirational browsing experience," Johnson says.

Inspired by Pinterest? (screenshots)

See all photos

He makes no apologies about looking to Pinterest as inspiration, which, come to think of it, is what the design of Pinterest is all about. "Pinterest stood out as being an inspiration-discovery mechanism. It has a focus on images, browsing, and serendipity."

And after the design change? "It's working pretty well. It's a great way for people to consume content if they don't know what they're doing." He says that in the early stages of planning a trip, many users don't even know where they'll be going, so it's a good match.

Johnson sees the Pinterest design language as a major shift on the Web, as we move from search to discovery. "We were so heavy on search for so long, and everything looked like Google. But we don't always know what we want to search for. This is a great new way to consume content."

Not all startup guys like being called out as copycats, though. Eric Tong, CEO of the family social site Hunuku says, "I am proud to say that we came up with our family quilt design independent of Pinterest." But there's no mistaking the design similarity, origin of the idea notwithstanding. He does say that, "we sometimes reference Hunuku as the Pinterest for familes."

But Tong says Hunuku was inspired by family quilts and that "we wanted to get Hunuku out of the way of users' assets." The grid design seems to do that.

A new person-to-person commerce site, HipSwap, also uses a grid layout (though without varying the vertical size of items) for things to buy. CEO Rob Kramer writes, "HipSwap is NOT one of [the Pinterest copycats]. But we'll take the question as a compliment."

He adds, "Coincidentally, we now share an early stage investor with Pinterest."

Here's one more: Pixable, a photo sharing site. Despite the Web site's strong visual similarity to Pinterest, it's based on a very different concept, CEO Inaki Berenguer wrote to me. "Pinterest is for photos of products/topics you find on the Internet and you want to bookmark. Pixable is for photos of friends and family (i.e., personal moments). Therefore, completely different." (Berenguer also reminds me that Pixable is primarily built for mobile users, and that the mobile app has a unique design.)

I asked a design expert, Gregor Berkowitz, about the accelerating Pinterestification of new sites. He said the new approach is to "Copy, copy, copy--to learn from the successful. It's always easier to copy than come up with something better. This generation has grown up with the remix and mashup and seems to share the Chinese view of copying as a complement, not intellectual piracy."

Want to build your own?
On the Web, the Pinterest look is available almost off-the-shelf for developers. Photo site Pixable uses the Wookmark jQuery plug-in. Trippy's Johnson told me that Masonry is also a good option. You can even get the Swell theme and knock off the Pinterest look on a Tumblr microblog.

The code for Pinterest itself? Custom, as co-founder Evan Sharp explains on Quora.