The Birth of the User
Essay adapted from Ellen Lupton’s new book Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, and Students (Princeton Architectural Press, 2004).
In the 1980s and early 90s, many experimental graphic designers embraced the idea of the readerly text. Inspired by theoretical ideas such as Roland Barthes’s “death of the author,” they used layers of text and interlocking grids to create works of design that engaged the reader in the making of meaning. In place of the classical model of typography as a crystal goblet for content, this alternative view assumes that content itself changes with each act of representation. Typography becomes a mode of interpretation, and the designer and reader (and the designer-as-reader) competed with the traditional author for control of the text.
Another model surfaced at the end of the 1990s, borrowed not from literary criticism but from human-computer interaction (HCI) studies and the fields of interface and usability design. The dominant subject of our age has become neither reader nor writer but user, a figure conceived as a bundle of needs and impairments—cognitive, physical, emotional. Like a patient or child, the user is a figure to be protected and cared for but also scrutinized and controlled, submitted to research and testing.
How texts are used becomes more important than what they mean. Someone clicked here to get over there. Someone who bought this also bought that. The interactive environment not only provides users with a degree of control and self-direction but also, more quietly and insidiously, it gathers data about its audiences.
Text is a game to be played, as the user responds to signals from the system. We may play the text, but it is also playing us.
Graphic designers can use theories of user interaction to revisit some of our basic assumptions about visual communication. Why, for example, are readers on the Web less patient than readers of print? It is a common assumption that digital displays are inherently more difficult to read than ink on paper. Yet HCI studies conducted in the late 1980s proved that crisp black text on a white background can be read just as efficiently from a screen as from a printed page.
The impatience of the digital reader arises from culture, not from the
essential character of display technologies. Users of Web sites have
different expectations than users of print. They expect to feel
“productive,” not contemplative. They expect to be in search mode, not
processing mode. Users also expect to be disappointed, distracted, and
delayed by false leads. The cultural habits of the screen are driving
changes in design for print, while at the same time affirming print’s
role as a place where extended reading can still occur.
Another common assumption is that icons are a more universal mode of communication than text. Icons are central to the GUIs (graphical user interfaces) that routinely connect users with computers. Yet text can often provide a more specific and understandable cue than a picture. Icons don’t actually simplify the translation of content into multiple languages, because they require explanation in multiple languages. The endless icons of the digital desktop, often rendered with gratuitous detail and depth, function more to enforce brand identity than to support usability. In the twentieth century, modern designers hailed pictures as a “universal” language, yet in the age of code, text has become a more common denominator than images—searchable, translatable, and capable of being reformatted and restyled for alternative or future media.
Perhaps the most persistent impulse of twentieth-century art and design was to physically integrate form and content. The Dada and Futurist poets, for example, used typography to create texts whose content was inextricable from the concrete layout of specific letterforms on a page. In the twenty-first century, form and content are being pulled back apart. Style sheets, for example, compel designers to think globally and systematically instead of focusing on the fixed construction of a particular surface. This way of thinking allows content to be reformatted for different devices or users, and it also prepares for the afterlife of data as electronic storage media begin their own cycles of decay and obsolescence.
In the twentieth century, modern artists and critics asserted that each medium is specific. They defined film, for instance, as a constructive language distinct from theater, and they described painting as a physical medium that refers to its own processes. Today, however, the medium is not always the message. Design has become a “transmedia” enterprise, as authors and producers create worlds of characters, places, situations, and interactions that can appear across a variety of products. A game might live in different versions on a video screen, a desktop computer, a game console, and a cell phone, as well as on t-shirts, lunch boxes, and plastic toys.
The beauty and wonder of “white space” is another modernist myth that is under revision in the age of the user. Modern designers discovered that open space on a page can have as much physical presence as printed areas. White space is not always a mental kindness, however. Edward Tufte, a fierce advocate of visual density, argues for maximizing the amount of data conveyed on a single page or screen. In order to help readers make connections and comparisons as well as to find information quickly, a single surface packed with well-organized information is sometimes better than multiple pages with a lot of blank space. In typography as in urban life, density invites intimate exchange among people and ideas.
In our much-fabled era of information overload, a person can still process only one message at a time. This brute fact of cognition is the secret behind magic tricks: sleights of hand occur while the attention of the audience is drawn elsewhere. Given the fierce competition for their attention, users have a chance to shape the information economy by choosing what to look at. Designers can help them make satisfying choices.
Typography is an interface to the alphabet. User theory tends to favor normative solutions over innovative ones, pushing design into the background. Readers usually ignore the typographic interface, gliding comfortably along literacy’s habitual groove. Sometimes, however, the interface should be allowed to fail. By making itself evident, typography can illuminate the construction and identity of a page, screen, place, or product.
The writings of Roland Barthes continue to challenge and inspire graphic designers; see Image/Music/Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977). On screen readability, see John D. Gould et al., “Reading from CRT Displays Can Be as Fast as Reading from Paper,” Human Factors, 29, 5 (1987): 497–517. On the restless user, see Jakob Nielsen, Designing Web Usability (Indianapolis: New Riders, 2000). Jef Raskin discusses the failure of interface icons, the scarcity of human attention, and the myth of white space in The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 2000).
About the Author: Ellen Lupton is a writer, curator, and graphic designer. She is director of the MFA program in graphic design at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. She also is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City.