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August 20, 2006

Tabbed Browsing

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I am without a doubt the greatest design critic who has ever lived. Proof of my genius arrives on my doorstep daily.

Long ago -- in fact, several times -- I blogged about crazy visual uses of brackets and parentheses. These days: How about parentheses around an entire magazine-article title?

Long ago, I wondered what has become of Tables of Contents. Today's TOC's are more nonlinear and bewildering than ever. Click on the image and eyeball the order in which the page-numbers of the stories are listed:

Back in the dark ages I discussed what I've called a "scanner aesthetic." In other words, the plane of the page is understood to be a piece of glass, through which you sometimes look but on which things are also piled. These days: Is the scanner-glass thing common or what?

I even took early note of a very strange trend: women and their bodies being presented all chopped-off. These days, chopped-off female bodyparts are a standard part of our culture's visual decor:

Now that my prescience and infallibility as an observer of graphic-design trends has been established: What's next?

Er, OK, well, let me revise my self-evaluation. Like many other people, I like watching movies, TV, and ads, and I like leafing through magazines, books, newspapers, and websites. Occasionally I notice a little something that I haven't yet seen anyone else discuss. Um, that said ... And acknowledging that it's a whole lot easier to rip things out of magazines than to capture passages from movies or TV ...

OK, got one: Isn't it interesting how the nouveaux psychedelia and the man-merging-with-the-cybermachine riffs are themes that are happenin' at the exact same time?

Here's some contempo psychedelia. I don't know why, but I like to think of ads like these as having a case of the "blooming swirlies."

In these ads, man becomes his own portable USB drive:

If anyone wants to say "Computers are the new hallucinogens," it's OK by me.

But you probably want some trend that's newer ... That's really fresh ... And that we're only going to see more of ...

OK, here's a guess. You may have noticed on a lot of websites (and even in browsers themselves) something called "tabbed browsing." File-folder-like tabs at the top of a page that you can click on, and that will take you to another page. At its website, Apple has made a major design commitment to tabs:

Here's an example I just noticed this very instant, from the screen of my blogging software. This is what's before my eyes as I type:

Hilarious, no? The Movable Type tab -- and then coming down from above it, my Safari browser's tab. Online, it's a tab, tab, tab, tab world, let me tell you.

In yet another proof that print design now follows screen design, the latest vogue in commercial magazines and print ads seems to be for tabbed browsing. Which, if you think about it -- since you can't click on a tab that's on a paper page -- is ludicrous. I mean, printed on paper, tabs aren't really functional, are they? Which means that editors and designers are grooving on the cyber-gestalt, and on the pure visual look, of tabs.

Once you start noticing them, tabs are everywhere. How prevalent has it gotten? You might expect the tab-thang to be commonplace in computer magazines, and it certainly is. But would you expect to find tabs as the basis for the design of the cover of a computer magazine?

You might not be surprised to find tab-mania turn up in a sports magazine. After all, sports media go in for a lot of up-to-date zip, bam, and pow. And there the tabs indeed are:

But isn't it a little surprising to find tabs all over a quieter publication, such as a yoga magazine?

As you might expect, ad people have been virtuosic in ringing changes on the tab theme. Here, Kia opts for games with opacity:

Funny, isn't it, the way that the conventional meaning of a graphic-design element -- what we know it to represent -- can start to evaporate? What's left behind is just a cool, trendy shape. Here, the AARP (yep, I'm over 50) reverses-out a tab and sticks it at the bottom of the page:

Perhaps predictably, the most X-treme example of tab-mania that I've run across comes from the testosterone-addled part of the magazine racks. Mens Fitness seems to have based its entire design on tabs. How about this hunk-'o'-hunk-'o burnin' page design?

Or this bad-boy vertical slash-tab?

If you can't hear the cojones clanking, then you may not have the graphic-design-appreciation gene.

What to make of this mania for tabs? I mean, beyond "many graphic designers are sheep"?

My main question about tabs stems from one key fact: Although graphic design -- and ads and magazines -- are supposed to be fun and seductive, tabs derive originally from racks of documents stored in file cabinets. Dust ... Crumbling paper ... Bad light ... Tabs aren't intrinsically fun. A surfboard shape might suggest fun; an evening-gown-shape might suggest sexy elegance. But I've never known anyone to spend pleasure-time flipping through a file cabinet.

It's weird, sez I -- and maybe revealing of our work-junkie era -- that the current favorite trend in on-the-page graphic design comes from just about the dreariest office chore you can imagine.

Tabs: they're out there everywhere, lying in wait. All you have to do is open your eyes.

Rick Poynor, who really is a fabulous design critic, laments what's become of design criticism. (Check out the zany broken brackets around the word "Essay" at the top of his piece!)

I assume 2Blowhards visitors are all aware of Design Observer. Go there, and get it from the pros.



posted by Michael at August 20, 2006


Brilliant observations. But watch out for those mags. They will defninitely drain your brain.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on August 20, 2006 8:19 AM

You're right. And at the same time I decided to hide all the clutter in the sidebars of my booklog behind a simple tab, and am I ever so grateful for it.

Posted by: ijsbrand on August 20, 2006 6:25 PM


You and your posters on this blog make some very interesting assumptions, ie. people actually READ these days. Or, if people actually read, that they retain what they read. Nobody has… I’m sorry what were we talking about?

Posted by: Matt on August 21, 2006 1:43 PM

Michael - Great stuff on tab mania. Odd, though, that while on computers (and in file cabinets), tabs are a way of organizing too much information, as a magazine design object, they are just another way to mask an absence of content.

I am struck by the size of some of the text and tabs and other graphic objects in your examples, and how little meaningful content is displayed on the pages. Some of the magazines actually remind me more of children's books than anything that used to be aimed at adults.

Posted by: Alec on August 21, 2006 2:17 PM

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