Introduction to Graphic Design & Reading

Gunnar Swanson

This book began when I was asked to curate a show about graphic design for the Tweed Museum of Art at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). The specifics were left up to me. It’s an interesting problem—how do you avoid an amorphous theme like “Stuff Gunnar Swanson Happens to Like” but also avoid the sort of specificity that would defeat the purpose of introducing graphic design to a nondesigner audience? I hoped that people would leave with design issues in mind, but esoterica such as "The Origins of the Arbitrary Shape in 1987–1992 Cranbrook/CalArts Poster Design” wouldn’t have been of much interest to the bulk of northern Minnesota museum-goers

The several broadly thematic approaches I considered centered on graphic design’s relationship with other subjects. I rejected a look at how graphic design has been shaped by the twin forces of client needs and design technology when I admitted to myself that it was as much for my number-one choice for the potential title (“Capitalist Tools”) as for the potential of the exhibition. Another theme—looking at the relationships of graphic design and reading—won out

One of the most difficult parts of putting together a medium-profile exhibition is financing the catalog. A significant publication is in order, but such limited-run books are rarely supported by sales. Short-run color printing is expensive, despite advances in technologies such as direct-to-plate printing, and many grant-funders don’t like the idea of donating a lot of money to subsidize people’s book-buying. My way around the problem was to instead create a book that could stand on its own and be commercially viable. If such a book were to be available for the show’s opening, it would have to precede much of the shaping of the exhibition. A series of articles by various authors, I thought, could provide various points of view that I could incorporate into the show, enriching what I already hoped would be an eclectic look at graphic design

The exhibition disappeared from the Tweed’s calendar after I resigned my position as head of the graphic design program at UMD. The book already had a life of its own by that time, but freedom from functioning as a show catalog (and from a publication schedule based on the planned exhibition dates) allowed a very different and, I hope, richer book

Like the bad old joke—“It’s the same axe, but it’s had five new handles and a new head”—the name also went through revision. The original title was re:word, and “Graphic Design and Reading” was to be the subtitle. Although I agree that there are many good reasons for a straightforward, descriptive title, I must admit some fondness for my original exhibition and book title. The name re:word doesn’t do the explanatory work needed to sell an already somewhat esoteric book, but it speaks to the relationship of graphic design and reading, if by no other means but complexity and ambiguity

Is graphic design about words—focusing on the writer’s work—or rewording—a process of both restructuring and editing meaning? The answer, I believe, is neither and both. The sentiment in Beatrice Warde’s famous “crystal goblet” simile—the idea that type should contain but not detract from or obscure a writer’s ideas just as a wine glass should neither detract from nor obscure the wine—is in many ways a noble one. Whether it is also a naïve one (as I imply in “Clarety”) or an exclusionary one (as Katie Salen indicates in “Surrogate Multiplicities: In Search of the Visual Voice-Over”), transparent typography is hardly the reason that most clients engage graphic designers. It would seem that most of the world fails to share Warde’s disdain for the ornate chalice and preference for a metaphorical invisible bubble

In “Seen and Not Seen,” Kenneth FitzGerald quotes William Golden regarding clients’ desire to have the designer “help create an attitude.” Warde was, of course, talking largely about book typography, but I believe that most designers see their primary role as attitude creators for every medium, including the book (although the book’s “attitude” might be more subtle). Robert Bringhurst, generally identified with restrained book design, notes that, “In a world rife with unsolicited messages, typography must often draw attention to itself before it will be read.” He does clarify by stating that “in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention it has drawn,"1 but since I’m already guilty of playing the bull in the china shop regarding the reference to Warde’s simile in my essay, I won’t further mix my metaphors by attempting to identify the alchemy that allows that glass’ transformation.

While I was still in Duluth, Stephen Doyle was in town to speak at UMD, and we had a long conversation that centered on transformations. I told him about a 1970s L.A. band that recorded the lyrics of the Gilligan’s Island theme song to the tune of “Stairway to Heaven” (much to the dismay of Robert Plant and his lawyers). I sang him my version of the Petticoat Junction theme to the tune of “The Banana Boat Song”; a.k.a., “Day-O.” (The man is a tolerant dinner companion.) He told me about hearing a punk-rock version of Barney’s “I Love You, You Love Me” song and let me in on the secret that any Emily Dickinson poem can be sung to the tune of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” If you’re old enough to remember those commercials, sing along:

Because I could not stop for Death
Death kindly stopped for me.
And in the carriage just ourselves
And all eternity.
It’s the Real Thing, Death is . . .

As Stephen pointed out to the students the next day, that’s what we as graphic designers do—we put stuff in a new context. With all due respect to Ms. Warde and her aspirations, we do that whether we want to or not. We recontextualize the words and images we use in our design and, thus, in some sense, reword them. We may have a large amount of control over the new context and the new meaning, but the design (and the designer) will no more disappear than the host of a dinner party will suspend the wine in the air for the unobscured appreciation of the guests.

James Souttar dismisses the thought of wine without bottle or glass in his “The Myth of Content and the Encyclopedestrianization of Communication” and sees the attempt as not merely naïve but as regressive. In “The Written Word: The Designer as Mediator,” William Drenttel quotes novelist Paul Auster on the individual nature of the reading experience. Kenneth FitzGerald’s “Seen and Not Seen“ notes how design can invite or discourage reading by certain groups of individuals, Michael Schmidt looks for a magazine for his demographic in “Two Days in Limbo,” and Katie Salen’s “Surrogate Multiplicities” considers groups’ attempts at gaining a typographic voice and typographic depictions of various groups. None of this is in direct contradiction to Souttar’s argument for a return to the communally understood narrative, but rejecting the notion of disembodied “content” leads many to question the believability of communal experience itself. Once you lobby for your demographic, the next logical step is to wonder whether anyone else really joins you in it.

None of the authors in this book resorts to the claim of complete individuality, where shared experience is seen as minimal and insignificant. This radically personal approach justifies2 any weakness in clarity or legibility of type by dismissing the possibility of communication. While not intellectually untenable, this line of reasoning leads inevitably to the question of why anyone would then bother with design or designers; perhaps the pragmatic nature of designers is the cause for this line of argument having largely gone out of style.

A parallel but more moderate argument doesn’t reject the possibility of communication but does emphasize that language, including visible language, is typically what semioticians call “unmotivated.” Just as words are arbitrary social convention3 —the word “book” has no inevitable connection with the object you are reading and is no more a perfect description than is “libro” or, for that matter, “aardvark”—letterforms are legible because of familiarity rather than inherent nature. Zuzana Licko of Emigre has said that:

typefaces are not intrinsically legible, rather, it is the reader’s familiarity with faces that accounts for their legibility. Studies have shown that readers read best what they read most. Legibility is also a dynamic process, as readers’ habits are everchanging. It seems curious that blackletter typestyles, which we find illegible today, were actually preferred over more humanistic designs during the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. Similarly, typestyles that we perceive as illegible today may well become tomorrow’s classic choices.4

While blackletter was the stuff of German newspapers within the past fifty years and was, by all accounts, easier to read for its audience than the unfamiliar roman typefaces, it would be hard to make a similar case for the Fraktur faces of the fifteenth century. It would even be hard to make a case that there was such a thing as immersive reading in the sense that Warde speaks of her encounters with The Three Musketeers in “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible.“ The implication that Gutenburg’s customers might have read their bibles like we would read a Sue Grafton novel runs counter to everything we know about their religious practices.

Whether the rules of legibility that Rolf Rehe brings us in his succinctly titled “Legibility” are eternal or based on familiarity is perhaps arguable, but many of the studies he notes seem to be based on physiological rather than cultural considerations. I must admit to doubts about some studies. How does someone testing Times Roman versus Helvetica conclude that serifs are the factor being tested rather than evenness of weight, angle of stress, or x-height? Isolating factors in design is usually difficult and often impossible. A pharmacologist friend of mine slices brains and keeps the parts alive to examine the effects of drugs without the effects of those drugs on bodily functions; anyone who has read Cliff’s Notes can tell you that we have yet to find out how to slice a book and keep the parts alive

Factors such as line length and leading may be the subject of fashion and familiarity, but hardly infinitely so. Some of Rehe’s rules clearly apply to more than passing cultural agreement. Interestingly, Licko’s claim that familiarity breeds readability seems to be regarding the inherent legibility of a given typeface rather than of the typeface’s use, while many of the studies Rehe cites discuss the arrangement and sizing of type.

What gets lost in many discussions of “the rules” is that reading is hardly one activity. The assumption that what we know about reading a novel is applicable to reading a medicine label, a billboard, the type on a TV commercial, the financials section of a corporate annual report, and a comic book seems unwarranted.

These questions regarding different kinds of reading will continue to be very important as we move even more into alternatives to ink on paper. Jessica Helfand takes us through a few things we need to think about as type becomes “virtual” in “Electronic Typography: The New Visual Language.” In “Rethinking the Book,” David Small considers some particulars of use of books. In this excerpt from his MIT Media Lab Ph.D. thesis, he looks by implication at the promise of the electronic linking of all knowledge as he considers a possible digital version of Talmudic study, an exercise in limited hypertext. Now that graphic designers have the power to arrange type in four dimensions rather than two, can we improve upon the time-tested ways of doing things? And what will our new rules of legibility be?

Type designers—those who create new typefaces—make stuff for others to arrange rather than arranging existing elements as most graphic designers do. Although it may sometimes seem that typefaces are available in infinite variety, Hrant Papazian makes the case for a new sort5 in “Improving the Tool.” Graphic designers may be the greatest culprits in the obscuring of Warde’s goblet, but Papazian makes a case for type designers’ rethinking of the basic shapes of letters’ “skeletons.” His reconsideration of the conceptual structure of the alphabet represents something rare in design thinking—consideration of the “essence” without tending toward minimalism.

When I called and e-mailed my favorite design writers asking them to participate in what I was then calling re:word, I expected a bit more commentary on the designer’s role in the mechanics of reading and much more polemic rejecting traditional standards of readability. Strangely enough, the only clear rejection of legibility (other than Kenneth FitzGerald’s explanation of its usefulness) came from calligraphy, a field often assumed to be conservative to the point of being stodgy. Steven Skaggs’s “The New Calligraphic Renaissance” talks about writing that values its own formal and expressionistic traits but not necessarily legibility. Like graffiti “writers,” the calligraphers Skaggs introduces us to prefer the ornate chalice Warde rejects. They recognize wine drinking as an activity that often has little to do with an oenophile’s concentration on the qualities of the drink

There is a power of writing that goes beyond reading. One of the Norse Eddas is an ironic poem from the point of view of Odin, who, in wandering Earth, found himself sacrificed to himself. One of the few clear things in the murky story is that learning the runes6 was an experience with cosmic importance for this dying god. When one considers the power of eternal memory that writing represented to heretofore illiterate peoples and the changes in economic and governmental structures possible with the advent of a written record, it is not surprising that writing and reading take on mystic aspects. Paul Elliman’s ode to the letter e is a case in point. (It is disturbing, however, that his catalog of e’s glories fails to recognize its importance in the key of B flat, and thus the blues.) Ellen Lupton’s “Visual Syntax” ostensibly deals with attempts to see abstract graphic form as language. Absent denotative meaning in these “languages,” one could argue that the design exercises she shows are every bit as mystic as Odin’s poetic cries from the hanging tree.

Beatrice Warde makes the claim that advertising falls into the realm of her required invisibility, but Steve Heller gives us a case to the contrary. His tale of Lucian Berhard and the German one-word poster is clearly not about immersion in the sense that Papazian and Warde discuss. It did start to bring about a quite different immersion, however, one chronicled indirectly in Johanna Drucker’s “Signs of Life/Spaces of Art: From Standard Brands to Integrated Circuits.” Using signage depicted within art as a gauge, Drucker brings us through a consideration of the changing commercial (and private) landscape. Drucker raises some of the same questions about reading that we find in Colette Gaiter’s annotated photos of her youth. The interaction of word and image is perhaps one of the most interesting topics of graphic design, and our claims that we “read” a photograph or other image raise many more questions than they answer.

Just as photography brought a ubiquity of images to our lives and thus changed the notion of how communication works, will electronic technologies change the definition of “reading”? There has been considerable talk about the end of the book and/or the rise of the e-book. The hardware part of e-book systems now available are, not surprisingly, a lot like books (if books had small LCD screens, that is). Maybe they’ll become even more booklike. Much has been written about “electronic pape”—thin white material that can locally blacken with electronic impulses, acting like paper with ever-changeable ink. David Small’s work reinforces my conviction that, no matter what the fate of book simulacra, we will soon face new reading situations and new ways to read.

One of the cliché examples of design development is the“horseless carriage.” Early automobiles were designed by people who had no reference for what a car could or should be, so inventors placed engines in something much like the horse-drawn wagons the autos were meant to replace. Only later did cars take on a form of their own, a specifically automotive one. The Talmud project may be the Model T of books.7

An e-book and Small’s Talmudic mechanism differ not just in form, but in nature. The LCD-screened books are meant to be essentially passive. A dictionary linking words in the text to their definitions may add functionality, but we’re still talking about paperless books. The Talmud project may not have an electric starter, fuel injection, and automatic transmission, but it’s a step away from a wagon with an engine bolted on. The project was not just a tool for display, but one for broad interactivity.

Books are richly interactive. We sense our place by the thickness of pages passed and pages yet to come. We navigate with our hands and eyes, with continuous feedback on several levels. At first glance, an e-book or an article on a Web site seems like nothing more than an impoverished book, but Small gives us a glance at possibilities of future form. But what would the electric starter for hyperlinked reference material be? Perhaps Hrant Papazian gave us a hint in his discussion of the mechanics of reading. Certain eye fixations can indicate a disruption of understanding. If fairly inexpensive cameras can track our eye movements to decide where to focus a photograph, why can’t “books” determine our trouble with a particular word and provide the definition automatically or note our problem with a phrase and deliver us an explanatory link.

Who knows what innovations of communication would come of an automatically expanding book? Steven Johnson, editor-in-chief of the Web’s Feed8 magazine, makes a case in his book Interface Culture that Web-based writing has just begun to deal with hyperlinks as more than footnotes and the Web as more than a transportable magazine. His example of a breakthrough was Suck magazine’s use of self-referential hyperlinks where a link for “sell-out” brings the reader back to the same page of the Suck article. Suck made ironic comment on its own sold-out status by foiling the expectation that a link takes the reader someplace else. What at first seemed like a technical error became a new literary trope. If we are just starting to find the uses of the Web’s engine-bolted-to-a-wagon mechanisms, who knows what we might do with an advanced automobile (and what will one look like)?

©2000 Gunnar Swanson. All rights reserved.

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1 Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style (Vancouver, B.C.: Hartley and Marks, 1992), 17. return to text

2 Pun not intended. return to text

3 Not arbitrary in the sense that any word can be replaced with another in a random fashion and still be understood, but in the sense that social agreement rather than natural connections between sound or shape and the definitions in a lexicon give words meaning. return to text

4 Zuzana Licko, Emigre 15 (1990), 12. return to text

5 Pun intended. return to text

6 Although runes have been used as a fortune-telling device, they were actually a Viking writing system based on a range of influences, including the Greek alphabet. return to text

7 Thanks, as always, to Lou Danziger for insights and good conversation. return to text

8 (now, unfortunately, deceased.) return to text

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