The “Above the fold” term has successfully migrated to graphic design sphere from the publishing industry (just like many other wonderful things including typography etc.), to be precise this term was applied to the newspaper layout.
You all know that the big stories are placed in the upper part of the newspaper (which was called 'the fold' ), and therefore these big stories were seen instantly when you are about to take a newspaper into your hands. Usually if you are interested in reading the main article you have to unfold the newspaper. So, in general this term can be applied to anything that must be displayed prominently. In web design “fold” or “scroll” is an imaginary line which separates two areas - first is the one that's seen before the user will have to scroll and the other is under the scroll. According to the statistics “above the scroll” zone is one third from the whole page and this area is considered to be the most attractive for the visitors.
People Do Scroll
Since the early 90’s every designer knew that before creating web page he must decide for himsefl whether people actually scroll or not - that is the question. For a long, long period of the design theory’s development the myth has been created and its aim was to convince that scrolling is not what today's web users want to do and that they're too lazy to do that. So as the result a huge part of your website content remained to be unseen. To some extent It was true, for some time. But after a while some web enthusiasts started investigating this issue by providing various polls and gathering interesting statistics data.
One interesting research concerning AOL has showed that the most clickable link on their website was placed in the footer (!) and it was pointing to a popular gossips website. It sure looks like scrolling is not that bad, and users don't want to spare their fingertips and they mercilessly use the scrolling wheel to find interesting content. There are many other wonderful examples but the point is that the “non-scrolling” myth has influenced the web design theory development in a negative way reducing the importance of creating intuitive designs. Therefore typical placement of vitally important design elements in the top of the website layout has created a trend to think of any website layout from the “non-scrolling” point of view, without giving any chance to popularizing other approaches in creating designs.
Mobile Web is Killing “the fold”
The “fold” concept existence in the web design theory was greatly undermined with the increasing popularity of mobile devices (smartphones, tablets etc). And the reason was really simple – while few years ago the fold could be easily measured and physically predicted, today's simple question of “Where is the fold?” would frustrate you for sure because you cannot find it anymore. Yes, it is all about the screen resolution and I think that you’ll agree that 2010 was a year of the mobile web revolution because mobile devices have changed the web forever. Now we’ve entered the era of the mobile web where screen resolutions vary so greatly that you might get lost in their diversity. Moreover, you shouldn’t forget about wide screens of LCD TV’s and other related devices that can be easily used as monitors.
So since the aspect ratio and resolutions are so various, web designers must ponder on how to find the new ways for emhpasizing the areas where the most important content should be placed. Of course for some time the old school designers will follow the old rules. But on the other hand, according to the tons of published researches on various blogs and social media, the web community has finally admitted that there is a life “below the fold”. It's really nice to know that.
The New Dawn
We know that it is quite complicated to forget things which were so important for us all during such a long period of your professional activity, but if you don’t want to be the last of the Mohicans just don’t be afraid to acknowledge something new. Users love simplicity and the free space so why don’t you give them what they want? As for the advertising issue (advertisers want to place their ads above the fold, as high as possible) you can’t do anything about it for now, but never forget about wise contextual ads strategy - cheap banners in the footer sometimes get the most clicks. We would love to know your thoughts concerning this topic, it still remains really controversial. Maybe it is too early to proclaim the death of the “fold”?