By design

It may be that today, paper, stepping down from the principal role as medium and freed from practical duties, can once again be allowed the charming behavior of its intrinsic nature: as material.

Hara, Designing Design, page 199

A sloppily set text invites being read like a first draft—with a red pen in hand. A text set too tight or cramped does not merit the little bit of space it demands. A text set with narrow columns (as a newspaper) says it should be read with haste. An interrupted text tells you it isn’t worthy of sustained attention. A text surrounded by ads is reduced to a delivery method—the wrapping paper steals the spotlight from the gift. On the other hand, a text set with ample whitespace is confident. A text printed on smooth paper is deserving. A text set with a comfortable line length and appropriate leading demands to be read, not skimmed. A text wrapped in cloth deserves to be held, not discarded.

By design, a text makes a statement as to how it should be read—or if it should be read at all. We’ve all heard—and may have said ourselves—that much text on the web isn’t read, that users will look at the headings and the navigation and (maybe) the pictures, but they’ll skip right over that block of text in the middle of the page. And we’re right—they probably will—because the text has been designed to be skipped over. Throw a bunch of text into a block with no attention to line length or leading, or the volume and voice with which the text should speak, and it will repulse even the most dedicated of readers. It’s the equivalent of asking a small child to walk into a room of crowded adults, head straight into a corner, and meekly whisper into the wall. Do not be surprised when no one notices her.

The web cannot replace the printed text any more than the car can replace the bicycle. Rather, they each have their place, and with the ascendancy of reading on the web, the virtues of reading on paper have come into relief. Of course, badly designed text was not invented along with the internet. It has a long, storied history, running neatly in parallel with the history of print itself. A printed book can be maligned by design on paper just as easily as it can be abused on the screen; the difference is the screen serves other purposes and can survive without reading. The printed book cannot.

If no one reads on the web, it is for lack of design, not lack of readers. If reading on paper persists, it will be for an attention to design—for a commitment to design that is as carefully crafted as the text itself. A beautiful text deserves no less.

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