Quentin Newark: Know write from wrong

I am ashamed to say I’ve said it myself during meetings with clients: “Yes, people don’t read any more”. This phrase is accepted wisdom. The argument goes thus: we live in a visual age, in Maurice Blanchot’s phrase, we are “tireless voyeurs of images”. Due to MTV, countless TV channels, video games and the Internet, reading is old hat, we don’t have time, and youngsters, they don’t know what reading is.

The effects of this way of thinking are seen in most contemporary graphic design. Modern designers and their clients use a lot of devices to break up nasty, boring grey text: whopping headlines; big introductions in child-size type; lots of “pull quotes”; subheads; highlighted words; making some words very big; second-rate pictures with meaningless captions; icons; abstract graphics (usually bits of the corporate logo). If all else fails, use the solution beloved of Web designers: a tint picture in the background.

We all know the real reason for this. A busy, graphically complicated layout is much faster and easier than the alternative: good writing with layout and pictures in support. My argument is not in pursuit of a specific style for readable design. Plenty of the most experimental typographers produce fabulous, easy-to-read magazine, book and Web designs. But within any stylistic approach, we so often see lots of graphic activity on the page which has nothing to do with helping people understand a news story or a narrative. And decoration is useless when you get past it to read the text; that is either clear or it’s not, refreshing or cliché ridden, wry or garbled.

But there are exceptions, mostly in areas that haven’t yielded to the latest typographic fashion. Most newspapers use typography that has evolved gently over the past 250 years. Novels still offer us plain grey text, no pull quotes, justified in long measures, in un-chic typefaces like Centaur, Blado and Plantin. School textbooks, specialist publications, scientific and academic publications, handbooks and manuals tend to convey their content to readers with minimum typographic trumpet-blowing. Is it any surprise that the least “designed” material is read most?

To say no one reads anymore is, of course, nonsense. A look at book sales is one indication. Paradoxically, the most popular retailer on the literacy- busting Internet is Amazon. Visitors have a choice of over a million books. The top 100 selling paperbacks in the UK last year sold well over 30 million books in total. As for illiterate youth, the latest Harry Potter hardback – all 638 pages – sold 978 993 copies. When did last you rush out to buy a 600-page book?

Designers who say “people don’t read” mean “I don’t read”. In my experience designers don’t read, they glance. We all read briefs, (some of) the “copy” that has to be flowed into layouts, the captions and a couple of articles a month in Design Week, the sports pages in the newspaper. It’s like Samuel Goldwyn said: “I read part of it all the way through”. We put Eye magazine aside, saying “Mmm… I’ll read that later” – only a few read actual books, one a year, two, three? And almost certainly light novels.

The roots of this are two-fold: it is partly design’s perception as being non-intellectual; and partly the non-literary way we develop visual skills. I strongly believe reading has to be learned, especially the stamina to read difficult texts, and designers are often allowed to forgo this effort early on. Compare the amount a designer reads on an art A-level or degree course with what a sociology or English student reads. Why should it differ? Why should designers know less, and not exercise the best way to know more?

If designers really do want to change the world, we ought to know more about it. The reading of the late Paul Rand serves as an example of self-expansion. He published a partial bibliography for his last book From Lascaux to Brooklyn. It covers some diverse, difficult reading: mysticism; manifestos; sociology; history; the literary criticism of IA Richards and Harold Bloom; the philosophy of Hegel and John Dewey; the art history of Erwin Panofsky and Michel Foucault. There’s little doubt his influence on generations of designers, and clients, is as much due to the thinking espoused in his books as to his design. His influence is greatly intensified by his writing, which could not have been written without his reading. If designers read more, the text in their layouts would be as important as the images. What designers consider to be vital would change.

Instead of “design as content”, we’d be much more interested in making the content worth reading.

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