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June 29, 2005

Typewriters and Confusing Designs

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A couple of recent postings at the standout graphicsyak site DesignObserver stand out even more than usual. Rick Poynor writes an ode to his typewriter (a lovely old Olympia). "What a mixture of emotions a machine can stir," Rick writes -- typewriter nostalgia! Will digital tools make similar claims on people's emotions? Rick and many commenters note that analog media tools have a weight, heft, and tactility you don't often run across these computerized days.

Sample passage:

You can’t just brush the keys of a manual typewriter. You really have to hit them. That character has to arc through the air on its metal stalk and thwack the ink on to the paper. Correcting errors is messy and boring. Redrafting is worse. Typing can be an unglamorous slog.

Rick's observations remind me of a book I've often wished someone would pull together: a study of the effects of writing tools on the kind of writing that writers produce.

One for-instance: Writing, re-writing, and publishing in the pre-digital years was such a laborious chore that writers gave more forethought to what they committed to paper than writers do today. A consequence of these arrangements was a tendency for writers to strike a pose that can impress us now as formal, solemn, and self-important. After all, when a given task is going to take a lot out of you, you're likely to make a big deal out of addressing it.

By contrast, digitech makes expressing yourself trivially easy. One consequence may be something I often notice: the tendency of many people -- writers included -- to vent and drivel. Good god, but a lot of people feel compelled to express their every passing feeling these days, don't they? (Think cellphones.) Once self-expression is easy, why not indulge? Many people seem to feel the need to do the self-expression-thang even when they've got zero to express.

In the digital era, people's behavior seems to have become more ejaculatory and less reflective than it once was. Before we crack up about the word "ejaculatory," let me note that the distinction between "reflective speech" and "ejaculatory speech" is of long-standing. It can also be a useful one.

Short version: Reflective speech equals "You've gone off to think about it, and you have returned with well-considered images, stories, and thoughts." Ejaculatory speech is its opposite. Ejaculatory speech is anything but thought-over; instead, it's direct expression. The meaning of the specific words that are said or written in ejaculatory speech counts for far less than the enactment of the behavior that the words are a small part of. "Life is both tragic and comic" is an example of reflective speech. "Whoa, dude! Un-fuckin'-real!!!!" -- accompanied by the usual facial expressions and hand gestures -- is an example of ejaculatory speech.

Side note: Much of the language in advertisements is ejaculatory speech. And -- whewboy -- do I ever see a lot of tantalizing connections to be made here. The advent of electronic publishing ... The collapse of traditional yardsticks ... Multiculturalism ... The caving-in of the distinction between editorial standards and advertising standards... The love of all things transparent and glittery ... Female assertiveness and male metrosexuality ... The dissolving of the line between product and packaging ... Our tendency to overstuff ourselves with media and food goodies ... But these are rants best postponed for another posting.

Perhaps the biggest impact digitech has had on writing, though, doesn't have to do with the writing itself. Instead it has to do with the place of writing in culture generally. Writing has been knocked off its pedestal as our central mediator. When incorporating images and linking to MP3s is as easy as it has become, you feel almost perverse when you limit yourself to nothing but words.

These days, words per se have lost their traditional spell-casting enchantment; now they're but one element in the general electronic-audiovisual media flux. In fact, they can be such a dull-seeming element that plowing through unrelieved text in a linear way seems to have become an oddball taste, an activity for specialists. Most people seem happier to flip around, to surf, and to click-and-go. We may occasionally pause to explore a textblock for information-gathering purposes. But -- click! -- and off we zoom again.

Don't miss Michael Bierut's sweet and modest recent posting either. Michael looks at a recent issue of I.D. magazine and wonders why it's such a cluttered mess. Further: Why are graphic designers so often driven to complicate what doesn't need complicating? What's become of clarity, readability, and simplicity? Why, goddammit, is so much energy spent avoiding the obvious? As usual at DO, a lively and informative commentsfest follows.

Sample passage:

As a graphic designer myself, I know how this happens ... Simple descriptive images: well, that's been done, right? So obvious! How about if we evoke the confusion, the ennui, the sensory overload of the judging process itself? A daring choice! Does it work? Not really ...

Talk about an issue that's in the air: Do we need and/or want to spend as much time and energy contending with "design" as we do these days? Doesn't much of that "design" just get in the way? Even I -- a fan, after all -- find myself thinking that many graphic designers are abusing their Quarky/Photoshoppy day in the sun. They too often impose domineering or intrusive concepts at the expense of comprehensibility, not to mention the material they're being paid to present.

All of which makes me wonder when the day will come when the confused and bedazzled masses rise up and give the brattier graphic designers a sound scolding. It's a hopeful sign that the classy and hyper-informed cast at DesignObserver is raising such questions.



UPDATE: Virginia Postrel thinks that Verizon may be peddling the World's Worst Logo.

posted by Michael at June 29, 2005


When you say people had to think about what they wanted to say more with manual typewriters...did people really "compose" at manual typewriters? I never did, except in a last-minute term paper panic. In those days, I "composed" on legal pad, with pen and paper, longhand. The bad part is that I can type much faster and more in line with my thinking than I can write longhand, which makes it tedious. Revisions were crossouts and arrows pointing to the margin. The final typed version may actually have been re-write #4, after several longhand revisions.

Now the final typed version (except here, in which I indulge in "ejaculatory speech"!) is revised on the screen in front of me. I kind of find hard to believe that the ability to type and revise quickly has HURT the quality of writing. But it has produced MORE writing, some of which has been revised and some of which is the equivalent of my first longhand draft, without the cleaning-up. My guess is things like college term papers and short stories are better now, because people can so easily go back and make one last revision, whereas twenty years ago people would blow it off because they couldn't bear to re-type it.

As far as design, I'm no expert. But I will say that as far as magazines go, design does seem to have usurped substance. I can't believe how fast I can even leaf through "Time" magazine now, or even a monster size mag like "Vanity Fair" and maybe only find one article worth stopping for. And sometimes I do wonder---with all the pop-up boxes and little graphics, do they make their own writing "seem" less important, and therefore so do I? You can hardly tell the difference between the inside design of "TIme" and "People"--the last time I looked at a "People"--now, and it seems like you should be able to tell the difference. And it cheapened "Time"--it didn't class up "People." "People" is an odd case---if you go back and look at its very first issues, the very first being Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan--it was very attractive and classy to the eye--interesting lettering. The cover photo of her is very high-class, none of that electric blue background stuff. It's gotten cheaper and less interesting through the years. Wonder who did its design back in '74-'75-'76?

Posted by: annette on June 29, 2005 1:37 PM


I've told you, man ... talking about me this way hurts my feelings!


Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 29, 2005 1:38 PM

Are you kidding? People are already nostalgic about old computers. There have always been people attached to old systems like the Amiga or the Commodore 64, or old OSs like BeOS or System 6.

For the most part, old computers just aren't very useful, although people do like to recycle their old cases and put new innards inside.

Thinkgeek sells old red 70s style LED watches. Various sources sell old-style IBM PC keyboards with spring-loaded keys and the load clack-clack sound, which many people swear by (good tactile and aural feedbak, I guess).

Places like still circulate the "digital media" of the eighties, Cult of the Dead Cow textfiles, ASCII art and the like, and you better believe there's a huge nostalgia quotiant.

Posted by: jhn on June 29, 2005 2:26 PM

When you have to spend entirely too much time to get a single clean copy out of a manual or electric typewriter, you don't want to have to redo it. I have been told, and have come to believe, that one of the great causes of writer's block is shifting from writing to editing too early. ("Is that really the best way to say what I want to say?" rather than, "Oh heck, I'll fix it later.")

When it is easier to revise, there is less temptation to require that the first draft be the last draft. For me at least, this has reduced writer's block.

ps. A technique that I've used at times is to turn off the screen, which reduces still further the incentive to immediately edit just-written text. This works better if you're a touch typist.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on June 29, 2005 3:47 PM

Some ejaculations of my own:

- Woody Allen still writes all his scripts on a yellow pad in longhand and then - pinch me I must be dreaming - he types them up himself. At least that's the way he tells it in this interview. Do a Ctrl-F for the word "process" and be amazed. (I only read that site for the interviews. No, really!)

- When I write these days I'm utterly non-linear. I think up random phrases and type them into Wordperfect, then use drag & drop to shuffle things around until it resembles an argument. Oddly, this is precisely the "pattern language" which ancient rhetoriticians taught their students - first come up with material, then put it in order. Invention, then arrangement. It's old, it's new.

- Design. Lately I've been browsing David Sibley’s two bird books and they really are the most beautiful things. With close to 7,000 color illustrations in the first volume they would have cost a fortune or been altogether impossible in the pre-computer days, but today it can be had for 35 bucks. And despite the graphic designer's temptation to busy things up, the layout in these is clean, functional, almost spare. Two cheers for progress!

Posted by: Brian on June 29, 2005 9:03 PM

In my field many a comment has been made about the low barriers to entry. Usually it's the overall cost to become an RPG publisher, but the ease of getting words down on paper should be included.

Today it is much easier to get your writing into publishable form, and this has lead to more writing that is no more than good enough. Where once people would take the time and effort to polish and revise until their writing was the best they could do, they now work at it until it only passes muster. If you now anybody who has a sizable collection of .pdf RPG publications ask if you can read a few. You will find clumsy writing, lifeless writing, writing that would get failing grades in junior high, all in publication because vanity publishing of the lowest grade is so damn cheap.

Now, we can't blame it all on modern tools and the current ease of becoming a publisher, to some extent we have to place the blame on an educational establishment that thinks of getting it right and doing your best as a bother. The impression I have gotten is that teachers only real desire these days is to hand the current herd of to the next teacher and prepare for the next pack. Teach 'em to be good sheep and fill their heads with irrelevant facts, then pass them on to another space filler.

So you get people who can't think for themselves, have no interest in what's going on around them, and have no interest in striving for excellence.

And we the customer accept this, because we too have accepted the idea that good enough is good enough.

And I'll end this here, because this could go on for pages more. Talk among yourselves.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on June 29, 2005 11:58 PM

Replying to Annette...I certainly remember composing as I typed on an old typewriter. You just thought ahead as to where you were going, knowing corrections would be messy and tedious. But this is nothing...the gasp-worthy factoid in this regard I recall came from Ben Franklin's autobiography, in which he mentioned that it was common for newspaper editors in his day to compose their editorials as they set type letter by letter.

Nowadays, with word processing, text is infinitely pliable. I wonder if that has improved the quality of writing overall because writers can revise to their hearts' content, whereas in the old days with corrections harder to make, there was more of a tendency to let things stand.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on July 1, 2005 3:47 AM

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