Reading Design

My stomach dropped the first time I opened a copy of Warren Chappell’s A Short History of the Printed Word.

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The book was a facsimile reprint of the first 1970 edition, on cheap paper and not holding together very well, but each page was utterly alive with its elements: the body type—handset in Monotype Janson—was unapologetically large and forceful, the typesetting done by the time–honed and wondrously imprecise method of pressing ink into paper with raised metal, giving it an organic, breathing presence on the page.

Designed by the author, the book seemed almost visually perfect: the margins, the text block on the page, the placement of the illustrations, all were chosen with a most careful eye; one that craved both the lively and the serene, but with ultimate, consummate respect for the words on the page.

It’s interesting to consider that the book first appeared in 1970—not an entirely high point in the history of graphic design—when practitioners of the highest of so–called “high” design were still seemingly locked in an arms race of Swiss Modernist grids and attempting always to out–ugly each other.

Chappell was one of those designers, and he did some really bizarre and regrettable stuff, but when it came time to produce his small masterpiece on the history of the printed page, what shone out was the virtuosity that comes from a lifetime’s study by example of what works and what doesn’t.

It may be that, for Chappell, it was easier to perform like a virtuoso when designing his own words, at his own pace. Designers who work in the day-to-day grind of deadline and presentation rarely find opportunity to bring such a concentration of skills to one project. I’m going to suggest, however, that designers will benefit from following Chappell’s example, and approach their work now and again as being written rather than assembled.

* * *

Every designer can remember the uncertainty of early days: the scramble to learn new tools, to acquire the best machinery and gear, to have as many fonts and plug–ins as possible on board; to try it all and to be ready for anything.

Most every designer can also point to creative decisions sprung from what the gadgets can do: depending on when the career began, that might mean half–megabyte splash pages and Rollover–everything, or endless graduated fills and drop–shadows, or mezzotints and squeezed and stretched type. Or, to go further back, the gilt edges and cherubim–and–seraphim excesses of Victorian printing.

As with the haircuts and clothing of teenagers, there’s that tendency in the early days toward jealous defensiveness, as though projects, when under scrutiny, were an extension of the designer’s body: you criticize my work, you criticize me and all that I am.

There’s also an eagerness to define oneself in opposition to something else, to destroy what came previously, though such gestures rarely carry much lasting weight; for example it’s a real forehead–slapper to think that David Carson was once considered innovative.

Connected to this, surely, are the haughty declarations of the absolute divide between the lame and the cool.

I bite my lip when I hear a young designer say something like “Helvetica sucks;” while it’s true that Helvetica indeed does suck in many and varied contexts, those situations inevitably involve the work of one who’d make such an airless declaration.

All of these tendencies are familiar to designers—and to those who work with us—but that we even notice such behaviour is, I propose, a little wonky. Imagine a journeyman plumber or apprentice hang–gliding instructor indulged for such tantrums: if pipes burst, or a glider crashes to earth, there’s no account exec to take the client to lunch and chalk it up to creative freedom.

* * *

I spent a few semesters teaching typography at an institute of art and design. My classes began on the first day with a short quiz asking students—at that stage three years into a communications design degree—to draw some basic symbols such as an ampersand and an apostrophe, and to mark suggestions for typographic improvements to some fairly shabby copy I’d written.

Term after term I’d go over the tests and scratch my head wondering what they’d been up to the past three years. With due respect to my colleagues in the program—many
of whom taught in addition to running corporate design shops or ad agencies—the education had plainly focused away from what I consider the primary goal of communication design: to make vital, engaging work intended above all to be read. To use design to communicate.

To the students, text had been handled as a graphic element, to be shifted within grids, manipulated and filtered like a photo, to be squinted at and scrutinized upon critique but never apparently to be read.

“But editors take care of text, we just have to design it” was the response when I’d insist that designers learn about editorial style and usage, which always made me laugh.

I complain about the cult of designer ego because it takes away from the craft mentality that leads to better work. The cult of editorial ego is another matter altogether: surrounded as we are by stilted prose, overstatement and eye–glazing textual banality, text has no more implicit safety in the hands of editors.

That said, there are talents and hacks on both sides of the barbed wire and landmines that lie between editors and designers, none of whom benefit from ignorance of what the other side is doing. If you design with editors, study what they know, and have the same reference books at hand.

And above all, read what you are designing, and imagine reading it for the first time, like someone who just found it.

* * *

There are those who make a living as art directors or creative directors, in agencies and large organizations; I simply don’t have any respect for them. Back in the day when specialists covered production steps like colour separation, typesetting and paste–up, design by necessity was a cooperative enterprise, with a commercial artist (and a budget) steering the ship.

A graphic designer must now of course practice all those specialties and more, which means that making pages that sing and elucidate, that beguile and entice, is no simpler now than before, no matter how powerful the processors and software.

Even though image editing, information architecture, typography, and varied media are part of the designer’s toolkit, and it’s easy to see how many designers are led down a garden path of putative “specialization” (for example turning out gardening–supply store websites clogged with Flash), one thing remains constant: that designers need to be able to render ideas clearly.

It’s very nearly impossible to do that in an art–directed environment, of course, which is why most commercial design looks like wispy crap. Committees and org–chart hierarchies never add in the way of improvement, flinging subjective taste and private agendas in the way of clarity at every turn. People sometimes ask me how to improve the design work that comes out of large organizations, and I inevitably answer, “You can’t.”

* * *

How can you design for the web if you can’t code? How can you direct photography if you’ve never worked in a darkroom? How can you design text if you’re not a careful reader?

Surely there must be a list somewhere, of basic skills a designer who knows how to read must possess before donning the goatee and the ironically nerdy glasses? I looked and couldn’t find one, so I made my own.

An Entirely Incomplete List of Things a Non–Illiterate Designer Should Know Before Being a Designer:#section2

  • That text will inevitably be read before it is looked at
  • That words themselves make remarkably effective clip art
  • That the self–conscious layering of messages usually subtracts more value than it adds
  • That the practical value of white space towers over its value as a design element
  • That the deep symbolism of a design decision, referring perhaps to a treasured memory of the designer, is irrelevant to the person attempting to glean something from the work
  • That print designers who gauge their work on the screen, and web designers who gauge their work exclusively on their own machines, are arrogant in their disregard
  • That the physiobiology of reading is one that demands easy points of exit and entry
  • That simply paying attention to the design of type, or distinguishing it as “fine” or “invisible” or “classical” is like making a big deal about putting salt on a boiled egg
  • That letters are not pictures of things, but things
  • That words are not things, but pictures of things
  • That arbitrarily altering (or allowing software to alter) the shapes of letters, and the spacing between letters and words, is done at one’s own risk
  • That emphasis comes at a cost
  • That overstating the obvious can be effective, but not all the time
  • The precise point at which a quantity of information no longer requires assistance to be differentiated from another
  • The knowledge to back up design decisions clearly without falling into a fog of hidden meaning, or so–called “creativity”

About the Author

Dean Allen

Dean Allen created and abandoned Textism and Cardigan Industries so he could bring the world Textpattern. He lives in the South of France.

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