Reading travels through a published thing, its texts and images, its bells and whistles, sometimes running, sometimes dawdling. Packing and unpacking language and custom, feel and look, sense and puzzledom; meaning is drawn, filtered or refined, through a mind-mesh; pulped and palatable, personal, prosaic.
“Some people think there are two kinds of books. The book the author writes and the one the reader owns. For me the owner is of interest too.” [i]
Digital pulses and print packages transport meaning on different routes through different topographies of publishing. Sense originating from a structured data store is more linear than a line of text, pulsing out to single screens, with switched-on variations emerging as feedback (re)sources ordering the predetermined. We do not own digital in the way we own print, and its design denies a ‘sense’ of ownership.
Differently designed communications serve different ends even when laying claim to common origins; they take readers into territories, landscapes and gridded streets on maps provided or hinted at. Signposts and sentinels point to panoramas and particularities; encounters with companions and other wanderers on the journey depend on common language. Design of print develops within language and region; digital design is exiled, rootless.
Each print pathway balances the gains and losses; demands incorporation of text and technicalities in each reading; bridges the untranslatable for writer/reader and reader/writer. Digital design is un-ironic, forward facing, seeking audience and approval, soliciting action, encouraging participation to improve the algorithm. But designers are not determined by rules; they are not ciphers in algorism.
“It wasn’t until I started bringing analog tools back into my process that making things became fun again and my work started to improve.” [ii]
Publication design spins in the orbits of a mental astrolabe, predicting, but not determining, the order of partings and passings-through. Navigating from each moving fixed point, design requires an anchor and a lodestar. It needs to know where it is, and this is where the fun starts for print and digital design.
The printed product is a physicality of design coming from a time and place of richness and complexity. Digital yearns for the richness and complexity of transience, but is not shy to claim clarity and compliance while thrashing in inchoate ultra-referential soup.
“We used to send out ghostly signals of our existence, and now we make fireworks of our lives.” [iii]
The language of the printed publication shows in its words, and in its visual grammar and vocabulary. Feel, smell, sound and how these affect the private, social and formal public spaces of publishing make up the broader language of print. Publishing is based, like language, in both time and space, where the past is not a listed history or the repeated hammering of a back button. Design language must resist the gratification impulse.
“In this way, literary language (ambiguous, open, complex, infinitely capable of enrichment) can be supplanted by that of advertising (short, categorical, imperious, final) so that eventually answers are offered instead of questions, and instant and superficial gratification takes the place of difficulty and depth.” [iv]
Shaped and sized to fit on paper and printing presses, onto shelves and into palms, print rests on lecterns and under oath-repeating hands, variously possessed and endowed, treasured or maltreated. Physical form has pasts that underpin the exactitude and expectation of rectangles and squares containing specific texts and chosen images: portraits and landscapes, trimmed and delimited, bound with curved edges, punched with piercings, given extendable limbs that fold in and out to accommodate the large. The screen is flatter than a stage-set, with windows that never give a stable vista, backcloths flapping, whispering in the wings, no suspension of disbelief.
“It goes without saying that readers are more likely to read content that is specifically written for the Web.” [v]
The physical substance of the object is pulp and polish, colour and clarity, surface and seeing, reflection and ragged edges. Paper beaten down, pressed, dried and rolled: moulds, finishes and folds make leaves and sheets and rampant bulk. Fat and thin paper, with tidy trim or ragged rips, even uncut sections needing paper knives.
Design would make much screen-time palatable using technology that spends time and money replicating paper tints and reflectivity; but it’s vegetative rather than vegetable, greasy touchscreen rather than clean fingers that fondle the paper. Printing points to humanity, but modern printing, can be too perfect for its own good: the perfection digital yearns for.
“But the very smooth paper and the mechanically very perfect presses required for printing which shall show no ‘impression’ can only be produced in a world which cares for such things, and such a world is of its nature inhuman. The industrial world of to-day is such, and has the printing it desires and deserves.” [vi]
The package may be put together with threads and composites, enclosed in papers and boards, covered with dowdy or decorative cloths and hides. From the first bound book, it’s been a matter of taste and acceptability, display and practicality, culture and class. Digital is more imprisoned than bound in its inquisitorial devices. For print, different tastes and budgets are accounted for.
“Cloth, limp, gilt top, 2s. net per volume. Imitation leather, limp, gilt top, 2s. 6d. net per volume. Leather, limp, gilt top, with book-marker, 3s. net per volume. Half vellum, cloth sides, gilt top, 3s. 6d. net per volume. [vii]
An idea of pages is imposed to make sharp delineations and divisions, encourage comfortable flow and flexible extent. Positioning the folios will guide us differently into genres and conventions of numbering. The spaces at the edges of each page can contain nothing, a little guidance, illustration, navigation highlight or curlicue.
Other pages, from web and distant file, live or downloaded, come in a different order, relating closely to the <<previous<< and to the >>next>>. They may be part of “1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Next”, but have no linearity to set us straight. A deadly drift threatens drought or drowning in deserts and oceanic vastnesses
“If you cannot design without the computer, you cannot design with it. ”[viii]
Fonts, letterforms and alphabets suggest the context, origins, degrees of gravity or playfulness. Typography surrounds on streets and straplines, in daily rags and holy writ, on commemorations and forgeries. It indicates a mood determined by design, not a user choice to pick a serif or display, not a readability support or a cute or kitschy personal preference.
On page and screen type goes left to right, right to left, up to down, but not yet down to up. An opportunity exists to start at an endpoint and work backwards to the word at the beginning, the design possibilities of a synaptic revolution.
“The work is the starting point, and the ending point, of its content.”[ix]
[i] Eco, U. & Carrière, J-C. This is not the end of the book. Vintage: London. 2012. p111.
[ii] Kleon, A. Steal Like and Artist. New York: Workman. 2012. p57
[iii] Ugresic, D. Karaoke Culture. Rochester: Open Letter. 2011. p313
[iv] Manguel, A. The City of Words. London: House of Anansi. 2007. p127
[v] McGovern, G & Norton, R. Content Critical. Harlow: Penguin. 2002. p174
[vi] Gill, E. An Essay on Typography. London: Penguin. 2011 (orig 1931) p67
[vii] Advertisement for George Eliot’s Life and Works in Fourteen Volumes in Travers, G. The Way of Escape. Edinburgh and London.: William Blackwood & Sons. 1904
[viii] Horn, B. The Effective Editor’s Handbook. Leatherhead: Pira International. 1997. p81.
[ix] White, K. 101 Things to Learn in Art School. Cambridge and London: MIT Press. 2011. p63