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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
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.
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
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
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).
Can we afford to continue offering design curricula that move from the simple to the complex, when contemporary design problems are all about relationships? Can we afford to continue emphasizing individual achievement for a practice based increasingly on collaboration?
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