Good typography, interfering designers, or just dumbing down?

blank's picture

As a student, something I encounter often is the notion that whenever possible long sections of text should be broken up with lots of invented section breaks. The justification for this is usually something along the lines of “people don’t like to read” or ”nobody wants to look at all that text.” As someone who has always enjoyed thick books with no pictures, I find these notions irritating and even offensive; I feel that the continuous success of mammoth books from popular authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling make it pretty clear that people really don’t need someone else chopping reading into smaller chunks.

Is there really a good typographic reason for breaking text up more often than authors and editors might want? Or is this just a tendency of design professors and writers to throw in extra flourishes (and live vicariously through student work)? Or is it all just part of the trend of dumbing down some areas of popular culture?

cerulean's picture

Well, different media have different purposes. If someone wants to read a book, they'll pick up a book they want to read, and they'll read it from beginning to end. Something like a magazine article or an advertisement is trying to hold the attention of a reader who may not be particularly interested in the subject matter and is eager to skip ahead to the next thing. The designer has to try to coax the reader into taking a closer look, or, failing that, to get the reader to absorb some of the intended message just by skimming it before turning the page.

charles ellertson's picture

Or is this just a tendency of design professors and writers to throw in extra flourishes

Probably. I remember a design professor on a panel at a national meeting who said it was the designer's responsibility to challenge and excite the reader.

I stood up in the Q&A session & said that if a designer wanted to "challenge" or "excite" a reader, he/she should write a book; those were the author's prerogatives. He replied "Of course. The designer should check with the author." Perhaps fine advice in school; almost never happens in the real world. Should something like that be needed, it will be the editor, in conversation with the author, who makes the decision.

dezcom's picture

Magazines often do the "break up big blocks" thing for differing reasons as Cerulean mentioned. Also, magazines are often read in spurts on subway commutes and doctor's offices. Having stopping points may be an advantage for such uses. The New Yorker is more likely to run long text because it is a readers magazine and the writing is usually quite a bit better than the lifestyle mags that promote "10 things your husband really wants (in bed)" or "101 best bars to pick up babes". Magazines also have plenty of ads and jumps so the reader gets visually jolted around and has to resettle himself with cues like subheads.
Books that are more a reference than a novel need subheads so that a person can find the section they are looking for easier. Things like "Linkage adjustments on the 1967 Plymouth Fury" may help the scanning gearhead find what he needs.

ChrisL

pattyfab's picture

As Cerulean said, it's all about the context. No, you don't want to break up novel unless you are Jonathan Safran Foer or Dave Eggers. The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker get along just fine with a bare minimum of breaks and/or flourishes. That wouldn't work so well with Lucky or Us Magazines. The main thing is to recognize who your readership is going to be and what is going to best work for them. There are no hard and fast rules.

When you get out into the real world, it is pretty rare for a designer or art director to overrule an editor when it comes to matters of text. You have to have a very good reason for doing it beyond "it will look cool". The last thing an editor or author wants to think is that "people don't like to read".

I get pissed when I think the designer is being hostile to the text, as in a lot of Phaidon art books where the text is treated as a design element and frequently not so easy on the eyes. But from what I understand that is a rare instance of the art director getting to call the shots (as an editor there has told me).

HaleyFiege's picture

I have a related question. I lay out a lot for web and frequently there will be very small columns of text in which there a lot of word breaks. Account people alllllways make me move the words down the next line and a lot of the time it looks horrible.
Is is really that bad to have a few word breaks? I'm talking in body copy, not headlines. Especially in French when the words on average twice as long?

dezcom's picture

I should have added above that in 45 years as a designer, I have never had an editor or client ask me to put subsections into their text. If they want it, they write it that way themselves.

ChrisL

dezcom's picture

Haley,
On the web, do you really have control over wordbreaks? I would think this would be tough unless every reader had the same setup.

ChrisL

pattyfab's picture

Haley - you don't really have complete control over how the viewer will see your text, if it's html text. As I understand it that is. I tried breaking the text on my site to suit my typography needs and when viewed in different browsers, on different systems, it reragged terribly. This is one reason I'm not wild about web design - I'm too used to being a control freak for that.

Nick Shinn's picture

Is there really a good typographic reason for breaking text up more often than authors and editors might want?

If you disagree with the principles you are being taught, you could survey current practice and see what is normal in different genres. Standard practice may not be aesthetically or theoretically pleasing to those who stop to think about it, such as educators, but at the very least it is highly readable to its audience--it has evolved to be the way it is through a process of natural selection in large cultural systems. It wouldn't look like it does if it didn't work.

Is is really that bad to have a few word breaks?

Not if it's better than having lines of wildy varying length.

jasonc's picture

>>
I tried breaking the text on my site to suit my typography needs and when viewed in different browsers, on different systems, it reragged terribly.
<<

Yes, listen to Pattie, please. If you insert < BR > , you'll get horrid results on other browser, other screen sizes, other OSs, etc.
Nothing good can come of this!

Unless you're composing text in flash, or as graphics?

i cant delete my username's picture

I stood up in the Q&A session & said that if a designer wanted to “challenge” or “excite” a reader, he/she should write a book; those were the author’s prerogatives.

Has anyone read Chip Kidd's "the Cheese Monkeys?" I'm sure most know who he is, but in case not, he's pretty much designed every novel cover in the past 10 years. He wrote the book and designed the type layout as well. Talk about small blocks of text and white space. I think it made the book seem twice as long as it really was:

eeblet's picture

Chipman: I love that book, but don't remember the column being quite so narrow - is this from the larger or smaller hardback? Years ago, I read it in a version that was a nice big book, but I just got one out from the library that is almost 2 inches smaller in both dimensions. Am curious if you've seen both....

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eeblet.com

i cant delete my username's picture

The only one I've seen is this paperback. Not sure if the hardcover had this feature or not: There is also printing that does not appear here on the last 16th of the outside edge (bleeds off) . When you bend the outside edge one way it reads "good is dead" or "do you see?" if you bend it the other.

I think the smaller pages allowed for more places to stop, as well as for the reader to feel slightly more intelligent, that he could read a whole book so quickly. The white space was however almost the same real-estate as the text itself. I'd be interested to see the other version(s).

mondoB's picture

In editorial design for non-profit agencies, their annual reports and related promo pieces tend to be text-heavy. We cannot assume readers are willing to read the text, so designers use a variety of intermediate devices that either sell the piece or convey the main points without reading body copy--two-tier headlines (teaser big, info line smaller), pull quotes, section sub-heads, interesting captions. These devices supplement the main text by super-imposing a kind of outline that the reader grasps at a glance. The client wins when the reader gets the message so easily, or at least, when he gets the impression the agency is support-worthy, which is all the agency really needs. This is the justification for using such devices to sell text; in magazines it serves the same function. There's no reason to spurn this method, it's just a question of how intelligently you use the devices available.

Eluard's picture

Or is this just a tendency of design professors and writers to throw in extra flourishes (and live vicariously through student work)? Or is it all just part of the trend of dumbing down some areas of popular culture?

Another cliche of Design Professors is that it is the job of the designer to challenge preconceptions, or challenge something, at any rate.

I think this is mostly design professors wanting to make the designer a tool of their own frustrated political activism — whether it conduces with the author's intention or not. "Break up the text, insert more pictorial elements" is often a disguised way of saying that high literary culture is a thing of the past and good riddens to it. It goes along with unsubstantiated nonsense about 5 minute attention spans.

dezcom's picture

I can now imagine an internet site for design professors ranting about their students in the same way as we see here in the other direction :-)

ChrisL

kentlew's picture

Most comments here have been referring to the practice as creating breaking points. But another way of looking at this sort of thing is creating entry points. And, as has been stated repeatedly, it all depends upon the material, the audience, and the environment.

Certain types of material (magazines or annual reports, for instance) do benefit from multiple entry points. A reader scanning a magazine may not be attracted by the headline or the topic, but might get hooked in through a photo and caption, or a pull-quote, or a subhead, and before they know it they're actually reading the text. Mission accomplished.

Fiction and other sustained narrative genres do not necessarily need these sorts of hooks, and in fact can be disrupted by the practice.

My experience is that good authors, editors, copywriters, etc., understand their genre and the tools of their trade. As such, the text will reflect what's appropriate and the designer should look for cues from the text and the editor.

I have worked in environments where it is collaborative and I can make suggestions to the editor, knowing that we're both after the same thing. But that's different than a blanket statement that says design should always try to break up text and enliven the page; context is everything.

-- K.

mondoB's picture

A reader scanning a magazine...might get hooked in through a photo and caption, or a pull-quote, or a subhead, and before they know it they’re actually reading the text. Mission accomplished.

Exactly, Kent, thank you. These "step-down" devices are needed in a crowded, distracted environment like a magazine, or when a one-purpose publication (like an annual report) crosses a busy desk and needs to win that reader's attention.

There are tasteful ways to use such devices in books too; I've done it successfully. Don't spurn the method, just make intelligent use of it.

Nick Shinn's picture

good authors, editors, copywriters, etc., understand their genre and the tools of their trade.

David Ogilvie addresses the issue of layout in "Ogilvy on Advertising". I always recall his tactic, that if it really is impossible to connect, by means of coherent grammar, the points that need to be made in a passage of text, then write it in list form, preferably numbered.

blank's picture

I can now imagine an internet site for design professors ranting about their students…

That’s what classrooms are for. There’s nothing like a frustrated design professor who can’t understand why his or her students aren’t interested in typography that defies logic and reason.

dezcom's picture

James,
We all have had a teacher or two who has not been inspiring or even downright worthless. Teachers can say the same about some of their students. I hope in your time as a student that there have been enough good teachers to push you along and get you to become self-inspired and excited about your chosen field. Teaching is a tough arena with an awesome responsibility. Being a student also brings with it great responsibility. I don't know much about Corcoran but I hope all-in-all that you have gained something valuable in your time there. I would be curious to know what in particular frustrates you about your professors. It has been years since I taught but I still think I could learn something from today's design school issues.

ChrisL

i cant delete my username's picture

I don't think that the professors are telling you that you have free reign to go all crazy on the text, but the way we get our information now is in concise little fragments from the internet or magazines (when I say we, i think the younger one is, the more true this statement is). Society (at least the USA) has been bred to have ADD to somehow process more different forms of information in smaller bits. I'm not normally a condoner of Noam Chomsky, but he has some good arguments about "concision," and not only how it's dumbing us down, but actually making us less informed. I guess that's a little more of a political issue and less typographic though. Sorry for the tangent.

blank's picture

Chris, overall my professors are both excellent and inspiring. But I do feel like some design teachers see design school as a place where students should be doing crazy things that they could never get away with in commercial work, and some students are really interested in learning how to do things that would make for great commercial work. It creates some nasty tension at times.

eeblet's picture

Sorry to hijack the thread back to Cheese Monkeys...

I think the smaller pages allowed for more places to stop, as well as for the reader to feel slightly more intelligent, that he could read a whole book so quickly. The white space was however almost the same real-estate as the text itself. I’d be interested to see the other version(s).

Chipman, I think the design is very much in service of the text here. I re-read the Cheese Monkeys last night, and find that the stilted, alienated narrator's vignettes make the short sections the only logical choice. As far as having lots of white-space, I find that it just makes the book much easier to read - none of my usual reading headaches. :)

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eeblet.com

Thomas Levine's picture

What I'm about to say has mostly been said already, but I'd like explain the reasoning more thoroughly.

How to Read a Book recommends essentially that books be read in multiple progressively longer and in-depth rounds. First, you read things like the introduction, conclusion and table of contents to get an idea of the structure. Second, you skim the book by reading only the important sentences. You do this to get a more detailed idea of structure, to get something of the book and to determine whether to read it in more depth. Third, if it's worth reading in more depth, you read it front to back, and forthly, you may go into extreme detail through things like outlining.

Paragraph breaks identify the important sentences; the first and last sentences ofa paragraph are generally more important than the middle sentences. Lack of necessary breaks and presence of unnecessary breaks both make skimming the book more difficult.

Only a complete idiot would break paragraphs completely arbitrarily, so I hope there's some justification (hehe) for the breaks. If you find that some of the breaks are more important than others, it would certainly help to have a hierarchy of breaks.

Novels are sort of an exception because they are difficult to skim like that. Or maybe I just feel like that because I don't really like reading them. How to Read a Book still recommends steps equivalent to the steps for general reading, but I don't think it expects people to skim the book in the same way.

eeblet's picture

I read several dozen books a month, and would never dream of reading a book that way (unless it's a reference book or manual).... To each her own. :)

Form should follow function - we agree on that. If the text and context calls for lots of white space and breaks, great. If not, great. I don't think there's much of a debate!

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eeblet.com

pattyfab's picture

How to Read a Book recommends essentially that books be read in multiple progressively longer and in-depth rounds.

This sounds nuts to me.

Gus Winterbottom's picture

>How to Read a Book recommends essentially that books be read in multiple progressively longer and in-depth rounds.

Obviously not to be confused with Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read.

charles ellertson's picture

Jeez. I'll admit is was back in the dark ages of the 1960s, but when I read books in college, I read them once, and slowly. No music or radio in the background. Yes, there was TV then, but a student couldn't have a private set. No problem, couldn't afford one anyway.

Seemed to work.

Thomas Levine's picture

Part of the reason for reading the books that way is to determine whether to continue.

The first two rounds are quite fast, and you aren't supposed to get to the last round very often.

I don't follow How to Read a Book's recommendations so strictly; normally I read the introduction, summary, conclusion and table of contents and only skim the parts I don't feel like reading more thoroughly. Part of this is because I rarely read in long sittings; I normally read in breaks between other things.

Also, note that I hardly ever read fiction.

typosapien's picture

You are right. Long sections of text are best set in one line and there is absolutely no need for anybody to sprinkle it with any of those sweeteners like chapters, paragraphs, or sentences! Now, if you will excuse me, I have to get back to unfurling my Harry Potter scroll.

eeblet's picture

typosapien - heh!

I never abandon books, I just always finish them regardless of their quality (not a great habit), but I recently had to abandon an old paperback cheap edition of a classic novel (uh, can't remember which one) because the leading and margins were so stingy. A scroll might have been more reader-friendly.

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eeblet.com

charles ellertson's picture

You are right. Long sections of text are best set in one line and there is absolutely no need for anybody to sprinkle it with any of those sweeteners like chapters, paragraphs, or sentences! Now, if you will excuse me, I have to get back to unfurling my Harry Potter scroll.

I think if you reread this thread, it might occur to you that the topic is not whether a book should have chapters, section breaks, etc., but whether these are the prerogative of the author & editor, or the designer.

I imagine if you stated mucking around with Rawlings organization of the text, you'd wind up being thrown to the trolls.

typosapien's picture

This is the topic as I have read it: my teacher sucks and I am looking for someone to agree with me.

Teacher-bashing is lame, but doing it online is just plain pathetic.

If you want a straight answer for this post, here it is: trust what you know, try different things, and keep at it until you think it looks and feels right for what you are designing. If you do not know if it looks or feels “right” ask the art director—or in your case the professor. They might have the experience and the know-how to help solve the problem.

Now lay that out in inDesign, stuff it in your pipe, and smoke it.

pattyfab's picture

This is the topic as I have read it: my teacher sucks and I am looking for someone to agree with me.

I read it the way Charles did, and I do think that a teacher who is trying to empower his students to override editors and authors is sending a bunch of kids out into the world that nobody will hire or want to keep on staff long.

I have an innate distrust of anyone who tries to lay down hard and fast design rules irrespective of context.

Miss Tiffany's picture

True Story. I have a friend who was a teacher. This friend assigned a magazine project to her students. Within the guidelines my friend asked that they include the bar code. A few of the students went over this teacher's head to the department head and complained that the bar code would ruin their design. Who won this battle? The students. The teacher was told to not worry about the bar code. :^/ So basically the students were out a good challenge that would've helped them grow.

pattyfab's picture

Tiffany, that is exactly why as an Art Director I took graduate students' portfolios with a huge grain of salt.

That said, I think that whoever invented the barcode should be placed in a cell and forced to listen to the dial-up modem sound for the rest of his life.

i cant delete my username's picture

I like Emigre's solution to the barcode on their later issues, placing it directly in the middle of the cover (i've seen several other publications do this as well). It drew attention to what violator of form it is by making it part of the composition. I guess i'm getting a bit off-topic, but I think it speaks the same for making lemonade when the copywriter/author hands you lemons.

Thomas Phinney's picture

Tiffany: Wow, what an incredibly dumb department head. Based on other stories I've heard, I'm suspecting that maybe I know who the friend is, too....

Thomas: Well, that advice for "how to read a book" might make sense for certain types of nonfiction books, but certainly not for novels, and probably not for biographies or histories either.

Cheers,

T

Joe Pemberton's picture

Pattyfab, you've been Twitter'd. http://twitter.com/Typophile

pattyfab's picture

Ha! That's funny! Does that mean I'm famous?

I so don't understand the point of Twitter tho.

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