Thursday, October 19, 2006

A way of thinking about typography

I’m working through the design of a book in which the author combines prose and poetry. She requested that most of the poems be set with all lines centered. I advised her that this is rather an old-fashioned approach and that she might consider a more up-to-date design. We went back and forth a bit; then she tested three design options with a focus group. The answer came back loud and clear: The panel much preferred the author’s original choice of all lines centered.

In the course of reporting these results to me, she made this point about the book: “Another thing I am trying to accomplish is balancing right brain communication (poetry) with left brain communication (analysis, rules). The structure helps distinguish the form of communication.”

Here is how I responded to that. I think it might be of interest to others, as well:

You probably realize you are not the first person to consider the relationship between the way words are arranged on the page and the way the mind processes those words. A lot of consideration has gone into the topic at least since the early Medieval period—some of it science-based but mostly introspection-based, followed by market testing.

In recent decades, people have tried to construct a theoretical framework in which to consider such questions. One of the concepts that has emerged is that of “marking.” This refers to any device that creates a visual distinction between elements. For example, a paragraph indent marks the beginning of a new thought. A space between paragraphs does the same thing. Most practitioners have come to believe that double marking is both unnecessary and intrusive. So a well designed page will generally employ either an indent to mark a paragraph or a break to mark a paragraph, but not both. (The two marks can be mixed on the page and be used in slightly different contexts; I’m not saying a book can only employ one or the other; just that we don’t indent a paragraph following a break.)

, broadening this notion, has suggested that a criterion for good graphic communication is employing what he calls the “least perceptible difference,” for example between line weights in a diagram, to indicate semantic distinctions.

With that theoretical framework superimposed on the traditional craft of book design, it is easy to understand the right-brain choices typographers use to evoke a subliminal response in the reader without beating people over the head. Typography has always been a connotative art, in other words. And subtle choices are the hallmark of fine typography. The reader is not supposed to notice (by which I mean that the reader’s analytical left brain is not supposed to be aware of) the connotation that the designer is trying to evoke. The reader is simply supposed to be suffused with the desired feelings.

So, yes, the structure helps distinguish the form of communication, as you say; but the goal is to make this distinction below the level of the reader’s conscious thought and to do it as subtly as possible without losing the effect altogether.

For more on this, see an earlier post on this blog, The architect of the page.

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