Talking pages

This month marks the start of the Year of Reading, teacher-turned-journalist Susan Marling asks what role designers can play in encouraging greater levels of literacy.

I once taught a milkman called Roy to read. He told me how he’d managed his round by memorising names and addresses and having a set of small cartoons which represented each house (a big dog here, a monkey puzzle tree there, a broken gate on the end) so that the pints and yoghurts were correctly delivered. When they moved him to another part of town he had to confess his virtual illiteracy to his bosses who first marvelled at the graphic code he’d devised and then sent him to night school to learn those skills which, somehow, he’d missed as a boy.

It’s easy to assume that of the billion people on the planet who cannot read or write, most are in developing countries. But, in Britain, between 15 and 20 per cent of adults have very low levels of literacy; that is in the order of six to eight million people.

Surprisingly, those struggling to read are not just from the poorer, more disadvantaged sections of society – last year’s major survey conducted by the Basic Skills Agency showed that in affluent areas like Richmond and Farnham in Surrey 10 per cent of people could not pass simple reading tests such as finding a plumber in the Yellow Pages or recognising the words “Fragile – handle with care” on the side of a box.

The implications of this for the economic health of the country in general and the future of the paper industry in particular cannot be underestimated. The Government’s response has been to megaphone the education message loud and clear and to spend serious money on a series of initiatives including a National Literacy Strategy to ensure that 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reach the expected standard for their age by the year 2002.

There’s a major book grant for schools, the setting up of summer literacy schools and the establishment of the National Year of Reading, which is launched this month with unprecedented media and business support.

In the next few months expect to see reading promoted on programmes such as the Big Breakfast, Esther and Ready Steady Cook. Brookside will make illiteracy a major story line and we’ll see the year’s logo Read Me on everything from posted letters to Walkers Crisps.

For companies in the communication business, literacy is an issue of self-preservation, if not of survival.

Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks has a reputation as a designer who likes words. The group specialises in corporate communications where, he says “the writing is often confused and the whole so badly written it’s a kind of misinformation”.

In a world where it’s getting harder to encourage people to read, Johnson’s solution has been to take inspiration from children’s books which are “truthful, clear, pared down”. “We use long and short pages, flat outs, pop-ups and reveals. The work has to be fun and it has to intrigue if you’re going to get people to read it,” he says.

Last year, Johnson Banks’ annual report for PolyGram was studded with holes – a tribute to a favourite kids book called Don’t Put Your Fingers in the Jelly, Nelly. ©

By the same token the consultancy’s work on posters promoting the English language for the British Council (I like the one which illustrates the use of small, smaller, smallest with a figure sporting an ever tinier fig leaf) are light years ahead of the drab teaching materials most of us can call to mind from school and college days.

Eileen Barlex, education officer for the Design Council, thinks that the holistic approach offered by designers is a valuable tool in the war on illiteracy. All that innovative paper work used for annual reports might be just the formula that would, for example, make prisons slightly less grimly word-poor places.

“Designers know that there is so much more to making a good read than the technicalities of white space ratio and care about overprinting. They know how books get handled, the importance of size (remember the success of the lovely little 60p Penguins?), the factors that make us want to keep pieces of printed material because they are a pleasure,” says Barlex.

For some companies the current focus on literacy is, quite simply, a spur to the production of more and better materials aimed at the hesitant reader. Pete Freeman of Berkshire-based Studio 21 has been involved in design for the Basic Skills Agency for over a decade. He says that the discipline imposed by the need for legibility and clarity, the rules about use of colour (as well as a recognition that products will often be photocopied) has not been problematic, though a recent poster was returned for redesign because it featured too many typefaces (fashionable, but unacceptable in this context).

But Freeman stresses that readability is not to do with print type and size. “It’s often about paying careful attention to the use of words and images together,” he says. As examples, he cites the packaging used by pharmaceutical companies where instructions need to be instantly understood. “In a small space the consumer has to learn exactly how to use Braun Blond hair colour, for example, and there can be no two ways about it,” says Freeman.

Fifteen years ago instructions on packets were more wordy than now. We are changing the way we read. You only have to look at an early Seventies copy of The Sun, when the front page was covered with tightly-packed text interspersed with just a few small images. Looking at today’s front page, it’s clear that there’s been a shift from the verbal to the visual.

Designers have reacted to this change in different ways. An extreme response is represented by Denny’s, the American restaurant chain, which has replaced its written menus with a laminated sheet showing pictures of meals with no text at all. Diners point to what they want. Sales have increased noticeably since this change.

The traditional rules of design are being questioned in this new era of reading. Creative Media Concepts is an agency employed by newspapers to develop strategies to promote the reading of its products. Senior project director George Kelly points to the many recent newspaper redesigns aimed at attracting the reader. “But the truth is that when research is conducted among young people about how, ideally, an attractive paper would look, what they describe isn’t a newspaper at all, it’s a magazine,” he says.

Even design guru Mario R Garcia says in his new book Newspaper Evolutions that graphic design canons obediently followed by newspaper designers are old hat. Rules about headlines, reversed-out type, mixing colour and black and white photos, using italics, never interrupting the flow of text, lead stories keeping to the right, are all rules waiting to be broken as we assess how the new world of reading matter will look.

To plot our way through that new world there is now a unanimous call for good practical research, especially into the relationship between visual and written language. There is, of course, some academic work on the subject – notably Reading Images, the first book to attempt a systematic and comprehensive grammar of visual design. It is the work of Gunther Kress, professor of English and Education at the University of London, and Theo van Leeuwen, head of Communication Theory at the London College of Printing, but it’s unlikely to make favourite bedtime reading even for professionals in the field.

However, academic study, like catwalk fashion, does hit the streets eventually. So it’s interesting that Colin Grigg – head of school and community programmes at The Tate Gallery – is starting a three-year project called Visual Paths to Literacy in January. The project is predicated on the assumption that, while children seem very visually literate (an eight-year-old can make sophisticated visual judgements about clothes, a ten-year-old can interpret a wordless dramatic situation in East Enders, a 13-year-old will know from a record’s typographics what to expect in terms of music), this doesn’t translate to general literacy.

He admits that there are problems to be overcome. “It’s a problem of the new media – which are hot and fast, while text and painting are contemplative. Sometimes a translation just won’t work,” Grigg says.

We must wish him luck in trying to use art and images to develop vocabulary and as a spur to the literacy of the written word. He’ll be doing us all a favour if he succeeds.

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