ReadWriteBuilders is a series of interviews with developers, designers and other architects of the programmable future.
Evan Sharp was still an architecture student at Columbia University when he and two friends got the idea to start Pinterest as a side project back in 2009.
Everyone knows how that story ended. Today, Pinterest is one of the largest social networks online, dwarfed only by Facebook and Twitter. Pinterest is now available in 22 languages and is home to more than 20 billion user-generated "pins"—the service's version of posts, which are basically just images or videos users add to Pinterest with a link back to its source.
In many ways, the creation of Pinterest foreshadowed trends that would encompass the Web years later. Its iconic image-heavy grid and predominantly mobile audience (75 percent of its total audience), became the characteristics that are now synonymous with the Visual Web, a collection of next generation apps that prioritize pictures over text.
Now, Pinterest is doubling down on visual discovery. Through "rich pins," a way of associating useful textual details with categories of images, Pinterest is aiming to become as vertically expansive as it is wide. Through the Interests Project, the service is trying to figure out your obsessions before you realize them yourself.
I chatted with Sharp about Pinterest innovations past and present and his role in bringing them to life.
In The Beginning Was The Grid
ReadWrite: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about how you first came up with the Pinterest grid.
Evan Sharp: The Pinterest grid. Man, that was a long time ago, it feels like.
Well I think the grid is really interesting and I think it could actually, hopefully, fundamentally change the way people discover things online in the future, but back in the beginning the grid was very much about collections. It wasn’t about a grid. It was about how we could build a product that allows you to browse, what people are collecting and putting together, in a way that made it really easy for everybody to roll, right?
But I think what’s interesting is that throughout history, people have always had collections of things they love, and a lot of the places, a lot of the stores that we go to, a lot of the museums, a lot of the public spaces in the world are actually organized around collections. They’re organized around museum collections, or what items a store carries, and those spaces are all about browsing, they’re about going through the rack of clothing and picking out the one you like.
And I actually think what’s different about the grid online is that it enables you to do the same thing. To go through all of the objects on Pinterest and pick out the few that resonate with you.
See also: The Triumph Of The Visual Web
That was really what caused us to create that grid. At the time, there were a lot of real time text-based services. Twitter was getting going when we started Pinterest. Friendfeed was a hot startup. Even Google, right—it’s a list of text. I think a list of text is really great. It’s about certainty. It’s about, “This is the first result, this is the second result, this is the third result.”
Whereas the Pinterest grid is much more about possibilities. It’s about, “Which of these things do you like? Pick out the things that you like. Discover the things you didn’t know about before but can now kind of find. Or you can browse.”
We work really hard to make the site feel simple, but behind that interface are tens of billions of objects all linked together by real people who have very similar interests and aspirations. What the grid enables is for you to get into that set of objects via the ones that are relevant to you.
RW: You say “we” a lot, but you’re really the guiding force behind the decision to make it a grid, right?
ES: Yeah, I don’t know what that means. Just to be really honest with you, I did design it, I coded the grid back in the day, but I have a really hard time separating any design from the idea of the product and the data that powers the product.
And that’s why I try and emphasize that it’s not just about browsing, it’s about discovery. It’s about the collection that powers the grid and what makes the combination really useful. Pinterest really is a visual discovery tool. And you need both to browse—the collections as well as the interface. But to answer your question, I did do the work. [Laughs]
RW: How has your background in architecture influenced your choice for the grid design?
ES: That’s a really good question. It’s a really hard one to answer, you know? The things you know can be so subtle and influence you in so many ways.
I think one thing that architecture really gave me was a little bit of perspective, maybe, on the history of design and product on a very large scale. It kind of gives me a little bit of humility—I hope—in that the things that I’m building, the things that the company builds, any given thing we ship, probably will only be around for a year or two years before we make it better.
But that’s also really freeing. In architecture, every little mistake you make in the building ends up staying there for a hundred, two hundred years. I’m exaggerating, but on the Internet, you have a lot of freedom. The fact that nothing you build will be around for more than a few years is both really weird and changes the way you think about things, but also really freeing in that you’re allowed to move much faster and make mistakes without worrying much about it.
And Then The Grid Was Everywhere
RW: What was your reaction to the Pinterest grid becoming an Internet-wide trend?
ES: Oh, man! I think it’s really great. I’d really like to see more services that enable more types of behavior. I think there was a lot of crap from a lot of stories about cloning or copycatting, and I don’t really think of it that way.
I think what’s special about Pinterest is not just the grid, it’s not just the content, it’s not the design—that’s part of it, it’s a big part of it, but it’s also what powers that. And of course, most importantly are the people that created the collections and that are using Pinterest to inspire other people.
I also think that online discovery, which is kind of what I think Pinterest is good at, is in its very, very early days online. It’s kind of like where search was before Google came along and totally changed everything.
Google’s really great for answering specific questions, for giving you a list of one-two-three-four, but there really hasn’t been a service before that lets you kind of lets you explore and save all types of content, curated by other people, and browse through the grid to find the ones that speak to you.
RW: If Pinterest is based around collections, which are a gender-neutral concept, what was your reaction to Pinterest skewing so female?
ES: I think it’s really cool. I don’t think that Pinterest is for women specifically, I don’t think that we’re trying to build a service just for women.
Actually, I think Pinterest should be for everyone. I think it can be for everyone. A lot of what we’re working on this year is relevance, making Pinterest more relevant to more people with more interests, and making it easier for those people to understand why Pinterest is great for them. That’s a really big online project this year at the company.
I think what’s important about Pinterest, and the reason we have the grid on the phone as well as on the desktop is because Pinterest allows you to answer a lot of questions you might not be able to answer otherwise.
So if you wanted to search Google for “Where should I go on vacation?” or “How should I decorate my living room?” or “What should I cook for dinner?” you can do that, but they’re not going to give you a grid of results to browse through. On Pinterest, we can do that.
We can help you answer lots of questions that no other service can answer right now. For us, the grid is just the way, literally the gateway, for you to get into the results to that query and find the answer, whether you’re on a phone or a tablet or desktop.
Discovering Your Interests On Pinterest
RW: What's the Interests Project?
The Interests Project is one of those first steps, I think, to mapping all the different types of interests in the world and through that, helping people discover things they didn’t even know they were looking for. So with Interests, and we’re in the very early days now, the goal is to show you the areas that you seem the most interested in and how they evolve with you as your tastes and interests evolve on the service.
I think that this is really positive. For example, you may know that you love gardening, and you pin a lot of plants for your garden. But what’s really cool on Pinterest is that the more you pin gardening stuff, the more we can help you discover that what you actually love vertical gardening, or annual flowers, not perennial flowers. And I think that self discovery is a really interesting and beautiful byproduct of the Pinterest product.
Before you really know what you love, you go through a series of things that interest you. I know one friend ended up taking a summer trip somewhere he didn’t even know he wanted to go or was interested in until he discovered it on Pinterest. The Interests Project is a way for us to help make the whole service feel more personalized to what you love, in a way that no other service can.
RW: Along the same lines, let’s talk about rich pins.
ES: Rich pins are really exciting to me, but I’m pretty excitable.
You know what we’re really doing with rich pins? We’re trying to build the world’s largest inventory of things. Because we’re not constrained by the need to have a physical warehouse, because what we’re about is exploration and discovery, we can literally catalog and connect everyone in the world to every object that interests them at a very high level. Rich pins is the first step to us doing that, to us saying, “This isn’t just an image, this is a product you can actually buy at Anthropologie.”
For us, rich pins is basically a building block that enables us to connect people to what interests them and to other people who share their interest, and the more information we can help people find about a product, the more useful the service becomes.
The Evolution Of A Designer
RW: How has your role at Pinterest changed since you helped to found it?
ES: Well, it’s always changing. At the very beginning, what I did was design, and then I did the front end coding. That’s not true at all today. Today what I do is manage what we call the creative team, and the creative team encompasses everything from the interface design team to our brand team, which is our writers and our brand designers, as well as a little bit of user research, which we think is a really important strategic skillset.
So my role now is a little bit higher level. I work really closely with Ben [Silbermann, Pinterest cofounder and CEO] and the product team and the engineering team and the design team to make sure we’re really razor-focused on the most important projects and building the best solutions to the problems we have.
But I’m still really close to design. It’s my background and my passion. It sounds stupid but, every pixel we put out there and every interface we draw, you know it’s not going to last, but what really makes me happy is making those pixels dance while they’re alive. So even as I spend my time managing people and attending meetings, I always make sure to spend a good part of my week with the designers and the engineers making our stuff great.
What’s great about software is if you make software five percent better, you make it five percent better for everyone. It’s not like physical products where premium cameras cost $10,000 and no one’s going to ever use them. With free software, the better you make it, the better it is for everyone in the world and that makes me really excited. So I always spend a lot of time on that.
RW: What do you see in the future of Pinterest?
ES: [Exhales] So much cool stuff.
I think one of the things that makes Pinterest really special and different, to me at least, is the endless amount of inspiration you can get. So we have a lot of different things that we’re trying to enable and one of them is that when you browse Pinterest, it feels like a catalog handpicked just for you—that never happens—that you can go on browsing forever.
And if you can make it an endless browsing experience, you help it reach the place where it’s inspiring for every aspect in your life, a place where you can go to find anything you need or anything you didn’t know you needed, a place where you can go to plan all the most important events in your life.
Like when you buy your first home or have your first kid, there’s so many things you don’t know that you need, you literally have no idea what you’re doing. And I think we’re building a tool that can actually help you answer those questions really quickly in a way that’s really personalized. “This is what a great house means to me, this is what raising kids means to me.”
And that’s the really exciting and meaningful vision for me, at least. Something that makes me exciting to come into work everyday.
From Interests To Inspiration (And Back)
RW: How do you personally use Pinterest?
ES: I think it’s changed a lot. When I first started Pinterest I was working in architecture, so I pinned a lot of architecture inspiration—building designs and renderings that inspired me as I created things. Actually I still use Pinterest that way, not for architecture as much, but I still use it for personal creative inspiration. It’s a really big source of that for me.
I also use it to find a lot of recipes. I use our Recipe Search for that. I love cooking and every time I look something I try and find it on Pinterest.
And the third way might be travel. My wife and I love to travel all the time, and we find a ton of stuff on Pinterest on places we want to go, either in California or around the world. And often all it takes is a single pin, like a crazy beautiful gorgeous shot of a waterfall or something, that gets me into that deep journey: “What is that? Where is that? How do we get there?”
RW: Sounds like a mix of creativity and utility. Do you think Pinterest use is going to morph from predominantly creativite use to utility for a majority of users?
ES: I think utility is a really good word. When I say the word “discovery,” I always worry that people don’t fully understand what I mean, but to me discovery is utility. The way people think search is a utility, when you search something and get links that are useful.
Literally the process of discovering these things in your life is something that people don’t think about doing today because there aren’t services that have done that. People don’t think about searching “living room inspiration” on Google. They literally don’t do that because the results don’t work, and they become accustomed to not searching that.
But on Pinterest that can be a really fruitful and valuable thing to search. And while search is not our entire product development, I think it’s a really good way to understand what I mean when I say “discovery.”
We can help you find inspiration, and help you discover things you didn’t even know you wanted, for all aspects of your life. And to me that’s a really useful, utility-focused thing, right? It’s a tool people use to plan their futures.
People use Twitter to find out what’s going on right now. Maybe they use Facebook to reminisce and understand the past.
Pinterest is very much a tool for helping you understand the future, and what possibilities there are for you to live a life that’s even more meaningful to you. Then with Pinterest you can discover things that make that real, you can take action on those things. And that’s a really exciting utility proposition.
Photos of Evan Sharp courtesy of Pinterest