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« Luck and Economics | Main | Elsewhere »

October 01, 2003


Friedrich --

Forgive another Andy Rooney moment on the part of your blogging partner.

I love the way that computers have made it easy to combine visuals with text, don't you? This is how books (and other publications) started out and were probably always meant to be -- nonlinear, and as visual as they were "written." Many people don't realize that the nothing-but-text, read-it-straight-through book that's still seen by many overly-serious people as the only kind of "real book" was a bizarre and anomalous publishing development; it was (in large part) a historical accident attributable to the difficulties of getting industrial-era publishing technology to manage images and text well.

So it's lovely seeing books, magazines and websites making extensive and resourceful use of the visual side of things. When I visit a museum and look at old scrolls or early Bibles or Korans, I'm often struck by how much they resemble contempo publications -- they're "looking" as well as "reading" experiences.

Still, the Quark-and-Photoshop revolution has delivered some -- OK, many --evils to us too. Foremost among them, as far as Iím concerned, is the vogue for whatís known as "reversed-out" type -- white (or light) type set over black (or dark) backgrounds. Have you noticed how common reversed-out text is these days? It's everywhere. Type on top of dark photos, type on top of color blocks and swirls.

The eyes boggle -- which can be exciting and/or cool. What's not cool, IMHO, is when the eye-boggle goes on too long. Who can read extended passages of reversed-out text? Iím good for a couple of sentences of it myself; then my eyes and concentration give out. (I feel sorry for writers whose stories have been set in reversed-out text. Hard to imagine anyone reading all the way through their hard work.) It ain't easy to pull the written meaning out from a display that's so intensely visual. In fact, back in the classic era, it used to be one of those do-or-die typographical/layout rules: never use reversed-out type for more than a paragraph. Hey, designers: what do you say we revive that rule? And then enforce it, too.

What are the Quark-and-Photoshop-era tropes and cliches that irk you the most?

Best, if often somewhat cross-eyed these graphics-happy days,


posted by Michael at October 1, 2003


In the magazine business, editors who actually care for readers refer to these quarks as PIX AND FONT pages. The art director is usually gunning for an award. Either that or he is too lazy or utterly incapable of reading and so doesn't mind passing that state along to the hapless purchasers of the magazine.

Posted by: Van der Leun on October 1, 2003 12:58 PM

Art directors seem to be going through a real swollen-head period, don't you find? And you have to wonder sometimes whether they know how to read. I ran into one at a party a while back who told me that he did his work under the assumption that no one was going to spend more than a total of 30 minutes with his magazine. I guess the presumption is that magazines are for flipping through.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 1, 2003 1:19 PM

Interestingly, white type on a dark background sometimes is helpful for kids with difficulty reading lines of text. I was thrilled when they started making spiral notebooks with black paper.

Posted by: Deb on October 1, 2003 1:33 PM

That's fascinating -- I had no idea that some minds/eyes are happier with white on black. I wonder why. Has anyone attempted an explanation? Is it a matter of basic wiring?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 1, 2003 4:19 PM

Michael--I loaned out the book I read it in so I cant give exact details. My understanding is that with some, not all, reading difficulties reversing the light/dark makes it easier for the visual part of the brain to send information to the part that processes the images into concepts.
Think about chalkboards in the classroom where much of the teaching took place--same concept.
If that makes any sense....

It has nothing to do with the eye tracking or the actual act of seeing. It's more a processing change that occurs for some reason. All I know is that it works pretty well for the cost of a notebook and a white gel pen. NOw if I could just find graph paper like that so we could use it for math too!!!!

Posted by: Deb on October 1, 2003 4:49 PM

A large part of white on black has to do with reading on the computer screen. The computer screen is a light. It's stressful to stare at at lightbulb for a while, and similarly hard on the eyes to stare at a computer screen. If you reduce the amount of light, by making most of the screen dark, then you reduce the stress on the eyes. At least, that's the reasoning I've heard.

Posted by: Courtney on October 1, 2003 10:50 PM

I find that white on dark blue (the samisdata blog, bluejo's livejournal) is surprisingly readable--much more so than white on black, and almost as good as black on white.

I can't remember where I saw it, but there's a site with light buff on cinnamon--not as good as white on dark blue, but fairly tolerable.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on October 2, 2003 8:59 AM

Interesting comparison: Today's hypertext to medieval manuscripts. The marginalia, the graphics, the "links" (references to other texts) -- it was all there by the thirteenth century, wasn't it? I guess Eco got it right; the postmodern and the medieval really are connected.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 2, 2003 9:13 AM

Excuse me -- in that last sentence, for "connected" substitute "similar." All apologies ...

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 2, 2003 9:14 AM

And don't get me started on sans-serif typefaces. Or, god knows, teeny-tiny point sizes. What are people thinking?

It's a new skill we all need to develop -- how to defend ourselves against graphic designers.

Tim -- Yeah, it's fun, isn't it? I guess I'd tweak Eco's point a bit -- it ain't just medieval, although it's certainly that too. The hypertexty, image-plus-text universe seems to be a standard one -- Asian and Islamic, for instance, as well as medieval. Half of me thinks this is a great new development (and envies people whose world this is going to be), and half of me feels attached to the Renaissance-to-modern model ... Not that my reactions matter.

BTW, Christopher Alexander's buildings (and buildings built playing by his Pattern Language processes) often wind up having a kind of medieval, nonmodern quality. And "Pattern Language" the book is a hypertexty thing. So maybe electronics and the web (and blogs!) are all helping take us into a post-postmodern landscape, and helping us get back to where we started from. In a way. Plus, unlike medieval people, we get to have all the neat new toys, good dentistry, warm showers, and antibiotics. I wonder how the Renaissance-thru-modern era is going to be viewed in a few hundred years.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 2, 2003 11:20 AM

"It's a new skill we all need to develop -- how to defend ourselves against graphic designers."

My first reaction to bad design is that it is done by people who are *not* designers. I think it's just another example of technology becoming more accessable.
Like when CD burning became affordable: more mediocre music.
Everyone who has Quark and Photoshop (or heaven forbid -- PowerPoint) wants to think they're a designer.
Not to sound like a blowhard ;) but even being a self-taught designer I knew there had to be basic 'rules of thumb' as in any field, and did the necessary homework.
In a nutshell: If everyone had a typewriter, would that make everyone writers?

Not to sound like a luddite -- I just see it as part of another technology curve.

Posted by: taojam on October 2, 2003 6:08 PM

I agree

Posted by: anne on January 26, 2004 1:05 PM

I agree

Posted by: dave on January 27, 2004 3:48 PM

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