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December 06, 2006

Annals of Illegibility 1

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One of the widely-noted effects of the digitization of the media is that writing has been knocked off its perch as the premier, culture-defining medium. After all, when everything has been turned into pixels, why not treat yourself to color, images, movement, and sounds too? In the electronic world, it seems that the natural mode of expression is multimedia. Confining yourself to mere writing can seem perverse.

Although I'm a happy reader and writer myself, this is a trend I applaud. Lordy, the way the word-thang used to be held above everyone. And, double Lordy, the way writers used to carry on! A PBS documentary about Gore Vidal that I recently watched was full of footage from the '50s and '60s. Were those writers ever puffed-up and pompous things. And why not? They were celebrated as giants not just by their own egos but by the culture generally. Why did anyone ever think that writers had a privileged kind of insight into life? And what's so special about writing anyway?

So I'm thrilled that writing has taken its place among the rest of the media, no more or less important than any other. At the same time ... Well, I'm not so keen on it when the other media make power grabs at the expense of reading, writing, and comprehensibility either.

Designers, for example. By comparison to what they once were, magazines today are certainly far more colorful and visually-interesting (or at least dazzling) things. That's thanks to a long-overdue shift in the status of designers. But isn't what's being said in a verbal sense all too often being overwhelmed by design ambitions?

A few examples from a recent issue of the American Airlines magazine:

Fun-looking pages! But ... In the first example: Are you even tempted to try to read the text that's been presented as a disk of horizontal lines? I look at that page and I feel for the writer, none of whose words will be consumed or enjoyed by anyone. In the second example: How about that for a great idea -- floating info-text over a herringbone pattern? Boingggggggggg go the eyeballs. "Huh?" goes the inquiring mind.

FWIW, I've hung around designers and watched them evaluate magazines. They consume them in exactly the way you might expect: leafing through pages one after another, evaluating how visually poppy and visually tied-together the package is. I don't think I've ever seen one pause to sink into the text, which they seem to consider it their professional duty to view as rivers of dull gray stuff badly in need of visual redemption. Do you have the impression that magazines today are more quickly-gone-through things than they once were? Perhaps that's because that's what designers think a magazine ought to be: something you flip through in the quest for eyeball-highs.

Designers today: Has their new-found power gone to their heads? Or are they talented innocents who simply don't know what it is to read?



posted by Michael at December 6, 2006


In some of the more design-intensive magazines, text has become simply another design element, not meant to be read (how could you read the text in the two examples you give), rather than content.

My wife and I buy a lot of supermarket tabloids, because they're fun to flip through while working out on a stationary bicycle, where a lot of attention isn't possible (I defy anyone to read Pale Fire while their left and right knees are lifting), but we've noticed lately the pictures to words ratio has increased to the point where in some magazines, such as InTouch, articles have been replaced by captions.

451 is upon us, without a single match being scratched.

Posted by: Ralph Robert Moore on December 6, 2006 6:11 PM

Yup, designers have their turf, and writers theirs.

When I was a Commercial Art major working up layouts, body copy was indicated by thick (or sometimes thin) penciled horizontal lines. What those lines represented didn't matter to us, though we did have to deal with headlines and maybe subheads with more thought. Body copy was simply a design element.

I recall the sainted (I loved the guy's work!) David Ogilvy making the case one in at least one of his books that white-text-on-dark-backgrounds has been proved to be difficult to read. That was 30-40 years ago, yet it's still being ignored in both ads and editorial.

Basically, I suspect most designers don't care much about words -- tain't their part of the business.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 6, 2006 6:28 PM

Would Michael Richards have suffered meltdown if he'd had writer backup on good putdowns to handle hecklers?

No, without the word everything and everyone arrives at sh*t, eventually.

Posted by: ricpic on December 6, 2006 6:59 PM

I think that TV-radio political news-commentary has been a disaster. It's like a primitive oral tradtion where anything that sounds good is true. Some shows don't even keep transcripts, but even though they do most viewers never see them, so a guy can deny today what he said a week ago.

Historically one of the great effects of writing was that it made it harder for people to change their story. we're losing that.

Posted by: John Emerson on December 6, 2006 7:14 PM

you haven't explicitly said it, but reading between the lines, you're saying that somehow words are "better" than images- that designers are obscuring what's REALLY imporant, namely the copy.

in fact, the objective of visual communication is just that: communicating an idea. as long as the communication is successful, does it really matter what element did the trick- copy, image, or for that matter the paper it's printed on? i don't think it does.

also, communication isn't a static notion. today's consumers of visual media may absorb image-based messages more readily, thanks to decades of exposure to TV, video games, and so forth. if so, wouldn't it be a grave tactical error to force copy-heavy messaging on them?

just my $.02

Posted by: finn mckenty on December 6, 2006 7:27 PM

Michael - Design is not content. Words, whether text or oral, have ruled throughout human history, and will probably continue to do so.

Here is an absolutely true story. At an accounting software company I worked for, the graphics people in the Marketing Department loved to brag about how sophisticated they were, how many awards they had won, how wonderful they were. They designed a product brochure for a new product line and held a meeting to showcase it. They pointed out how the colors were hip, how the design elements were dazzling, how potential customers would practically swoon over the sheer beauty of it. Later, the final version was sent to me to glance over before it was sent to the printer. I called the marketing manager and told him that it could not be sent to the printers. The marketing manager’s voice dripped with condescension as he informed me that I did not have authority to tell him what to do, and asked what I thought the problem was.

I told him that the company phone number did not appear anywhere within the brochure. No matter how dazzling it was, it was useless if customers could not call us to order the product.

Posted by: Alec on December 7, 2006 3:58 AM

The point, I think, is IQ and intellectual ambition.

Words are not a completely privileged mode of communication, but they are capable of output that requires a naturally gifted and well-trained mind to appreciate. We are in a state today where the typical information consumer feels no desire to improve his/herself as a recipient of communication, nor any sense of humility if his/her natural gifts are low. Yet these traits are just what's required in the next few generations if we're to avoid shutdown by information overload.

Posted by: J. Goard on December 7, 2006 4:20 AM

It's a circular thing, too. I think magazines are more flipped-through today because they are designed to be just flipped-through. I still believe "People" magazine was the turning-point-watershed---articles in huge typeface which take up maybe two pages. I remember that line in when the writer for "People" says he can sum up anyone's life in eight paragraphs. When I have to sit under the dryer for a deep conditioning treatment, or have a long wait a doctor's office, I hunger for a magazine that I could get caught up in, instead of one that will kill off all of eight minutes. I miss the "interesting article." And the news-mags are almost just as bad---I'm happy if I pick up a "Time" or "Newsweek" and can get lost in one their articles for longer than, say, 12 minutes. But at least there is still some interesting stuff in them, rather than just...nothin'.

Posted by: annette on December 7, 2006 9:34 AM

This is the same phenomena that has ruined architecture, and many other arts. The work serves the ego and status of the creator, not the ultimate user of the product. To serve the user is seen as debasing.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on December 7, 2006 12:11 PM

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