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March 09, 2006

Another Graphic Detournement

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've written before about the way graphic designers have appropriated parenthesis marks and brackets for themselves. Short version: Graphic designers have taken a typographical symbol (the parenthesis/bracket mark), and have turned it into a purely visual device. Once upon a time, the parenthesis and the bracket served the interests of those making use of words -- people for whom a page is primarily about making verbal sense, or about providing word-based entertainment. These days, parentheses and brackets often serve the interests and purposes of those who like visual jazziness -- people for whom the main thing about a page is that it should look snazzy. Design Observer's Michael Bierut explained the history of this development in a comment on my posting.

You've seen a lot of play-with-brackets in recent years. Designers all over the place have been using parentheses and brackets not to indicate pauses or asides, but to provide visual kapow. Here's a typical example, from Fitness magazine. Click on the images in this posting for larger versions:

Whatever it is those brackets are doing, it has nothing to do with serving a written-grammar/written-meaning kind of purpose.

Whether or not you like the look, this appropriation of one field's symbol by another field is a classic case of what the Situationists called detournement. It's a matter of one group (visual people) taking a device that another group (writers) evolved for one purpose, and putting it to use for their own ends.

The fad hasn't captured just the art directors of silly pop magazines, by the way. Here's part of a page from the sober (if glossy) publication Scientific American Mind:

What in the world are parentheses doing around that pullquote? And why do they surround the rubric on the Further Reading box? (Scientific American Mind -- after some early trouble finding its bearings -- has become a very good magazine: substantial yet accessible, sophisticated yet clear. A 2Blowhards intellectual hero, V.S. Ramachandran, sits on the magazine's advisory board, and much of the publication seems to reflect his approach and his characteristically thoughtful tone.)

In terms of designers making visual-impact use of brackets and pullquotes, we may in fact be entering a late phase. Things have gotten mighty baroque in recent months. Here, the art director of Fitness gets jiggy:

But Scientific American Mind isn't to be outdone:

Y'know: Why not flip brackets 90 degrees and stack them vertically? Why not use only one parenthesis mark? "Meaning" is so passe anyway.

All of which prompts a question: Which typographical symbol are designers going to claim for themselves next? I have a feeling that the most likely candidate is quotation marks. (I sometimes picture designers as being like a pack of hyenas separating a gazelle out from its herd ...) Already we're seeing a lot of this kind of thing:

OKOKOK, that's an ad. But part of what happens when digital tech sweeps through a media field is that the wall between editorial and advertising starts to crumble. What values are being peddled by ads? (Hint: attractiveness, grabbiness, impact, whoosh.) And what values are the editorial parts of magazines selling these days? (Hint: attractiveness, grabbiness, impact, whoosh.) That's quite a contrast to the old days, when the pretence was maintained that editorial was selling something (substance, content) that ads weren't. These days, ads and editorial do battle for the reader's attention using the same weapons.

Anyway, please look at the ad above again. Why are the quotation marks so large? Why are they colored? Why are they different sizes? Answer, as far as I can tell: These are all moves that create a visually poppier page. Here are a couple of questions that I don't have answers for: Why are the quote marks single-quotes? Single-quotes are usually used for quotes-within-quotes. And why is the close-quote inside the period? Unless there's good reason, quotations are usually closed outside the ending period. Are the ad's designers illiterate? Or did the people who created this ad just like the look?

In any case, for the last year or two editorial-content designers have also been using quotation marks for visual purposes. So far, they've been doing so modestly and respectfully. A quote from someone mentioned in the body of the text will be broken out; the designer will heighten the visual impact of this choice by designing great big quote marks and plopping them at either end of the quoted passage. Here's an attractive example from Newsweek:


Notice how the open-quote mark (the first one) is much larger than the close-quote mark. Notice how the open-quote mark visually overlaps some of the actual quotation's words. This kind of messing-around gives this region on the page some dynamism. It suggests something else too: the way elements on computer and video screens are often mooshed and mingled, and are moving about.

Still: lively, tasteful, and functional, no? Quote marks used in this way, while visually oomphy, can also be said to be serving written-word-style comprehensibility. You look at the highlighted text, at the very visual quote marks around it, and you figure: Hey, someone's being quoted! Reasonable enough.

But something more nefarious is in the air. I can smell it. Here's evidence -- a part of a page from Seventeen magazine:

Look at that quotation mark. That's it: one quotation mark. Weird, no? It doesn't open or close a quotation. It's just there, a neato colored symbol dropped into the middle of a page.

My point isn't that the use is hard to puzzle out. My point is that this quotation mark has been almost entirely detached from its usual web of meaning and usage. It's now being used in a visual-impact-above-almost-all way. It sits on the page as "a graphic." This particular quotation mark isn't a writer's thing. Instead, it's a visual-person's thing; it exists entirely -- well, almost entirely -- to liven up the page it has been placed on.

Although this usage is in a teen magazine, I predict that we'll be seeing this move in adult-oriented material shortly. For one thing, more and more design innovations are cropping up first in adolescent and young-adult magazines. Visual kids are growing up on MP3s and skateboarding magazines; they're imitating those fashions and styles; and they're soon working for mainstream publications. For another, American society -- parents, schools, bosses -- seems to have abandoned the effort of making its kids grow up. (I wrote about this development here.) We don't require talented kids to mature any longer. Instead, we encourage them and we exploit them.

In case I sound too fuddy-duddyish: I'm all in favor of many computer-enabled publishing innovations. I may be primarily a word guy myself, but I'm delighted that words, graphics, and imagery mix and mingle in a more egalitarian way than they did in the old days when print was dominant. At the same time, I confess that I sometimes think that matters have swung too far in another direction. OK, it was a lousy thing that words were once as dominant as they were. But does that mean that a world where visual impact overwhelms linguistic sense is a better one?

I sometimes feel like the new technology isn't being used to help us achieve a looser and more humane balance, but instead to enable us all to regress to childhood. Sweetness, color, simple shapes, cooing sounds, movement ... A child prefers everything cheery, in motion, focused on him, and entertaining, always entertaining. Our new-media world ... Well, it sometimes strikes me as a giant nursery. It's well-stocked with twinkling, spinning, and distracting toys. We have never been so optically beguiled. But we're also being treated like easily-bored babies, and we seem to be getting comfortable with this situation. And who's the nurse who's in charge of the nursery anyway?

Another musing: I sometimes find myself suspecting that the most complete and satisfying artworks in the world of books in recent years haven't been volumes of seriously-intended poetry, history, or literature. Isn't it possible instead that the books that have delivered the most have been cookbooks, kids' books, travel books, and lifestyle books -- books from the categories that have been in the forefront of design developments. If you want a taste of contempo innovation, taste, and talent in book-making, it seems to me that you'd be better off leafing through an Alton Brown cookbook or a Dorling Kindersley travel book than reading Arundhati Roy or Dave Eggers.

How do you react to these developments? My cheery side thinks "Fizzy! Cute! Fun!" My gloomy side worries that it can't, it simply can't, be a good idea to heave all traditional values overboard. My envious side regrets that Macintoshes weren't around when I was growing up.



posted by Michael at March 9, 2006


What a totally interesting post. I just love you guys when you come up with stuff like this...stuff I never really think about as evidence of "trend" or "state of society." I think I too often look at stuff like this---magazines, buildings---from the perspective of the easily distracted baby!! I guess I kinda like whoosh and twinkle. Oh well, there it is.

However...I will play a little devil's advocate.

Who came up with two little curlycues as "quotation marks" and then embedded their usage in dictorial stone anyway? Do you know the number of mind numbing tests we all took making sure we knew whether to put the comma inside the quotes, or the period after? The time spent learning that single quotes are within the quotation and double quotes close out the quote? Really, what a bunch of controlling, tyrannical rules! I'll never forget the time spent learning how to do footnotes properly---when are italics used vs. quotes. Where does the month and year go? It's the stuff that makes people hate school. I would argue that the single quotes above the statement in "Seventeen" magazine make it clear it is a "quote." Maybe that is all that is necessary. Now, I know, without the original do you know it is the "exact words" of the speaker rather than simply the writer's summary? I know one needs to be careful about understanding the difference between a direct quote and simply one person's summary of what was said. But once that distinction has been made---as long as the marking is clear---does it really matter if it follows the grammar textbook? I always felt that the "rules" of footnotes were sort of the ultimate example of form following substance, rather than learning anything important. Maybe these designers---instead of being shallow---are trying to put the substance above the form? Just a thought.

Posted by: annette on March 9, 2006 09:33 AM

Those of us in the English biz have noticed for a long time the double-quote vs. single-quote thing -- it's definitely in the process of changing, and has been for at least 15 years, maybe longer. Who knows where it came from, but people are now using single quotes for 1) quotes within quotes AND 2) to differentiate between quoting someone else (double) and the writer's own wording put in quotes (single). In another 15 years, I predict this will be codified in grammar books everywhere.

Annette, I sympathize greatly on the subject of usage and usage manuals -- in fact, what they do is give rules of *how language is being used today* and those change over time, inevitably. I've always told my students that language is power, and them that's got it will exercise power over them that doesn't, so it's up to them whether they want to participate in the Standard English game. That involves knowing the rules and knowing when to use them and when you don't have to. But if you don't know the rules, you don't have a choice and people will make judgements about you, based on your written language.

I agree -- very interesting post.

Posted by: missgrundy on March 9, 2006 12:00 PM

And what about quote usage in the utterly nonvisual medium of audiobooks, where sources are being quoted? Is the narrator obliged to say quote...endquote...or is it unquote? This becomes awkward in cases where quotes are broken up, and when there are quotes within quotes.

What about when the narrator comes across "sneer" quotes, spoken in the same fashion as, say, one who would draw his or her forearms up with palms facing out and fingers extended, and then bend the index and middle fingers of both hands twice in rapid succession to imply sarcasm. At this point it would suffice for the narrator not to refer to the "marks" at all, but simply change the pitch of the voice. Unless maybe it was, like, Valley Girl fiction or something, but then she would just say "quote", instead of "quote...endquote", because the latter would sound really gross.

Posted by: James.M on March 9, 2006 12:02 PM

Like Annette, I thoroughly LOVE this post! (And I know, some people just HATE capitalization to indicate emphasis.) I see that missgrundy might be from Canada or England -- ever since I spent a couple of years in Saskatoon I've been trying to unteach myself so I'll spell "judgment" the US way. I'm TOTALLY with James.M about all those little gestures and vocal changes in the spoken word that are meant to be conveyed by marks on paper.

There are at least two considerations when it comes to punctuation, spacing, paragraphing, and so on. One is intelligibility -- I don't see anything wrong with losing a bit of meaning in the interest of pizzazz but a person has to do it carefully. The other one is conformity. Lots of times the meaning is perfectly clear but the little marks are not used in the prescribed way. But then the nonconformity carries some meaning: Defiance? Ignorance? Muddy thinking?

Both considerations will change when applied to the audience. I'm old and near-sighted and can't always follow print that's too jazzed up, so it says, "This ain't for you anyways." But if it's very skillfully done, the surprise of it doesn't lose the meaning.

What ever happened to those tiny curly leaves and bits of ivy that used to float around among the print? And MUST we have all these little yellow faces when one's rhetoric could say the same thing?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 9, 2006 12:49 PM

In terms of designers making visual-impact use of brackets and pullquotes, we may in fact be entering a late phase.

Maybe this quotation mark business is yet another indicator (besides brackets) that we are in the Baroque or Rococo end-days of a design fad. In another few years designers will have figured out that they've done about all they can along these lines and will be trying out different things. (Keep in mind that I thought heavily-padded shoulders on women's garments and grayed-out paint colors wouldn't last long either. Nostradamus has little to fear from me in the prediction business.)

What follows is a warmed up and re-spiced version of an older comment. I find the juiced-up page design of magazines hard to take much of the time. I used Forbes as an example, but I see it in many other mags I look at. In some instances it's reaching the point where it's hard to casually distinguish between editorial and advertising content. This might lead to unhappy consequences ... for that "creative" art director.

If I were The Advertiser I'd want my expensive ads to be showcased -- to shine. And just how is that supposed to happen when the appearance of editorial is all jazzed up? Well, it won't, can't happen.

What can I do about this likely waste of the corporate ad budget? Why I treat The Publisher to lunch and, between Martinis, casually mention that his zonked out little book will be in real danger when the next ad buying review comes up unless the design gets toned down a whole lot.

Okay I admit to being an advertising fundamentalist, so maybe in the real world advertisers just looove having their pitches overwhelmed by page design. But can't I still hope?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 9, 2006 01:32 PM

James.M: Try listening to some Tom Peters audiobooks sometime. He says "quote [phrase or word] unquote" every damn time. And since he uses irony quotes at least three times per sentence, well, it gets a little bit hectic.

Michael: I think I've mentioned the Sibley Guide To Birds here before. ("Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself. I am large; I contain many versions of the same thing.")

To me it's the prime example of modern bookmaking the way it can be and ought to be. It's got more full-color pictures - around six and a half thousand! - than would have been dreamt of in a mass market book of former times, yet the design is spare, clean, basic, and readable. Usefulness is the prime concern, yet its aesthetics wind up being top hole also. It would look perfectly at home on your Shaker candle stand, frex. And despite its not making a single concession to showbiz, even non-birders (like me) can't keep their hands off it.

Posted by: Brian on March 9, 2006 01:38 PM

Mary -- nope, I'm American born and bred. Clearly can't proofread worth a damn, however.

Good point about nonconformity carrying meaning -- that's exactly what I try to convey. But unless the point of your nonconformity is exactly clear, the reader gets to decide its significance, and if they decide "ignorance," you have a problem.

Posted by: missgrundy on March 9, 2006 03:13 PM

Two replies to Michael and one to Donald:

1) Whether a particular punctuation mark goes inside or outside of quotation marks is almost purely a stylebook matter, not a matter of grammar. The US predilection for periods inside has (as I understand it) more to do with the limitations of metal type than logic. I believe the dominant standard in Great Britain to be that the period goes outside unless contained in the quoted material.

2) If you wish to read the lines above and below an add or pull-quote as rotated brackets, I can hardly stop you, but they are subject to other interpretations, too. I read them as either curved rules or boxes with deleted sides. Not quite the standard from a few years ago, either, but not necessarily intended to remind the view of specific typography.

3) I read the merging of the styles of advertising and editorial content as a capitulation to, usurpation of the material of, the advertisers. When ads are markedly different from the text, it's easy for the eye to slide over them without ever seeing them. When the style of ads and editorial material is similar, you have to look more closely at both to discern which is which. Since the goal of advertisers is to get customers to actually look at their ads, this seems to their benefit. Since my goal is to ignore ads unless they are of particular interest, this is not to my benefit.

FWIW, I was a periodicals editor for 8-1/2 years, though am no longer.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on March 9, 2006 04:58 PM

I'm not sure the quotation marks in Michael's examples were "being used in a visual-impact-above-almost-all way", or if they really were just sitting on the page as "a graphic". It looked more as if they were used to indicate what look like quotations, in the sense that the content they introduced seemed to represent people's "speaking" or "thinking". So they're not purely graphic yet. But as they say, the "graphic" is on the wall in this matter, and I expect to see quotation marks no more connected to the content they mark up than are those square bracket thingies.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 9, 2006 06:24 PM

Single quotes have been used in pull quotes (and occasionally, preceding a drop cap) since at least the 1980s, during my short stint in magazine layout. The quotes-inside/quotes-outside issue in display type is obviated by the long-established custom of heavily kerning type in large sizes, especially around punctuation. Neither of these are bad things, it seems to me, but the blurring of editorial and ad content certainly is.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on March 9, 2006 07:16 PM

Annette -- Footnotes, feh, don't get me started. Why do they bother teaching us anything but how to read them? So much "education" seems to be about preparing us for a career in ... education. Actually, I like glitz and showbiz a lot too. An interesting thing is to look at glossy Brit mags. They've adopted a lot of the elements of digital-era style, but they're still meant to be read. It's often a nice combo.

Missgrundy -- And wait until the text-messaging generation starts having fun with magazines! Lordy, the havoc they'll wreak. Maybe some of it will even be fun.

Donald -- I'd never thought about how the advertisers must feel, now that the editorial pages compete so much with the ad pages. Maybe they're pleased -- their own values have conquered all. But maybe they're annoyed. How to stand out?

James M. -- Another audiobook fan! I wonder if they ever will standardize how to deal with quotations and footnotes and such in audiobooks. Imagine trying to turn the usual academic monstrosity into an audiobook. Forget about footnotes -- even the body text will be unreadable.

Doug -- Brackets as broken boxes, that seems right on the money. In the case of the examples from Fitness mag, I think they're pretty clearly intended as brackets -- the whole magazine is full of brackets, so when they're laid on their side they still come across as brackets. But I think you're certainly right -- in many cases, brackets and parentheses are being used in place of traditional boxes and rules. I still find it weird, but there it is.

PatrickH -- Pretty soon everything on a printed page is going to expect to be taken primarily (or at least initially) as a visual! How do you respond to such magazines? I'm such a reader-type (I read before I look, or at least I did for many years) that I almost have to consciously shift out of my usual "reading" mind and into another one in order to appreciate and enjoy the new-style publications.

IP -- It's fun to get caught up in layout questions, isn't it? Fun watching the designers and the writers quarrel too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 10, 2006 04:12 AM

Believe me when I say that this comment is not a moral comment of gay versus straight.

The graphic design business in New York City, much like the theater, is dominated by gay men. I work in the multimedia end of the design business, and sometimes I feel as though I am the last straight man in the city.

I attended a party recently hosted by two gay men, one of whom dressed in drag. I thought again that reality means something different to gay men as opposed to straight men.

For many, if not most, gay men, reality seems to be a sort of invented and plastic concept. If you dress up like a woman, you are one. For most straight men, reality is something concrete and unchangeable. If you dress up like a woman, you're just a man (a very foolish man) pretending to be a woman.

So much of the advertising gimmicks you've described represent this gay outlook. As that gay outlook becomes more and more dominant, functionality gets thrown out the window.

Do I think that there are moral dangers to this approach? Well, yes, but others have stated this far better than I can. See this, via the New Criterion:

I see very dark days ahead of us. Play acting is fun. A very serious, religious world (Islam) has no use for the world of play acting, and many of the men within that world are ready to die to insist that concrete reality prevail. How many play acting children can the West afford before it renders itself defenseless?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on March 10, 2006 01:00 PM

Thomas, I think this statement of yours':

For many, if not most, gay men, reality seems to be a sort of invented and plastic concept.

could apply to artists in general. That's kind of the whole point behind art.

I don't mean to get anectdotal, but all the gay men I know, my cousin included, are about as grounded as any people I've ever met. None are artists or work in overtly artistic fields. Your vision of a gay assault on reality as "something concrete and unchangeable" is hilarious and paranoid, as is your binary characterization of gay=fuzzy/straight=concrete.

Posted by: the patriarchy on March 10, 2006 05:05 PM

Have you been following what's been happening to the semantic function of quotes in ads? They've been becoming "more and more" about emphasis. Check this out, for example, or just open your yellow pages to a random page.

Posted by: J. Goard on March 12, 2006 03:59 PM

Perhaps you're taking this too seriously.

After all, most magazines (particularly the ones in which these innovations mostly appear) are not meant to be read. That is, you are not to curl up with one as you would War and Peace and spend all Sunday morning going through it thoughtfully and methodically. You are intended to spend four or five minutes scimming through it at your hair salon. "Let's trend in ties...Bono appeared at a charity ball...rappers at the Oscars...well, it's time to be shampooed." The point is, this "literature" is all an advertisement, as ephemeral and intellectually demanding as a grocery circular (thought vastly more expensive). As to people who actually subscribe to these "mags," well, they must have far more disposable income than I.

For grammar and thought, I visit books and the web, including 2Blowhards.

Posted by: nextren on March 17, 2006 02:34 PM

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