Two columns or 3?

Visual impact is key for creating optimum, effective digital content. Information design can be as important as the words on the page. It's all about making sure your content appears in a format that shows it off to its best advantage and allows it to breathe.

 Two columns or 3?

The majority of websites are based on a 2- or 3-column design. But which is better?

There’s no right answer. Each are better suited to different content types.

Advantages of a 2-column site

A 2-column site can look clean and minimal. It can help the user concentrate on what really needs to be on the page. The sidebar can be a little wider, making room for tools/widgets or clear navigation.

It can allow you more room for larger images or a larger font.

Many sales sites use 2 main columns and a left-hand navigation with a filtering process. They tend to use the largest part of the page to promote products, like a shop window. This may then be further divided into a grid, to allow 3 or 4 products shown side-by-side in the main part of the page. This allows a user to see a wide selection of products in one go. Great examples of this shop-front style would be John Lewis,  Marks & Spencer and Argos.

Sites with a top navigation and lots of content reverse this formula – and have a wide left-hand column for the main content, using the right-hand column to promote linked content. Good examples here would be the BBC and IMDB.

Disadvantages of 2-column site

Some 2-column sites with just text can make the page look slab-like and unreadable if content is not divided up with subheads and bullets. Long line lengths can be hard to read, and don’t encourage users to jump to the start of the next line.

With only 2 places to put things, pages can end up cluttered – as everything just gets thrown in. At the other end of the spectrum, 2 columns can also look sparse if there aren’t enough options on offer for users to jump-off somewhere else.

If you don’t have much copy, you can be left with a gaping space on the page.

Advantages of 3-column site

The 3-column site can work well for larger sites with lots of content. It allows you to have more flexibility about where content goes. You can have a left- hand navigation, which is less restrictive than a top navigation and gives you a structure in the right-hand column for tools and other places to visit. For example; ‘our top 10 stories’, ‘sign up for our newsletter’, etc. For commercial sites it allows space for adverts and on many sites it’s also wide enough for a video player.

Other 3-column sites have a wide main column, a second narrow column to promote very closely linked material or social media, and a medium-width column for tools.

With 3 columns, the widest column keeps the line length to the optimum 50-75 characters for easy reading and greater comprehension, depending on point size.

Generally the main body of the page will be the longest part, because the remaining information has been spread between 2 columns, which is a more pleasing experience for users.

You can use the grid for both promotion-sized pieces and long articles.

Disadvantages of 3-column site

Having a busy page with lots of options can provide distractions from your main content.

The page can appear cluttered, unless you are disciplined. It can be harder for users to scan the page or find content they’re interested in. Sometimes, users will just completely disregard the second and third column, concentrating only on the main part of the page – in the same way that they’ll automatically ignore banners, and class them as advertisement or as irrelevant content areas.

The verdict

Content-rich sites probably benefit from 3 columns as this allows for flexibility and cross-promotion. The largest column allows enough space for a readable article with a decent sized picture and the remaining columns either work for navigation or cross-promotion.

Sales sites probably benefit from 2 columns as this allows most space for products – several products sitting on a higher page with a decent-sized image field, and lots of information on a destination page. This focuses all the attention on the products.

Blogs and smaller content sites can work well in either format if you think carefully about the balance of content and cross-promotion.