The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Content AND Presentation

– October 26th, 2007 –

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be heading off to the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin to talk about the role of typography in the Web 2.0. I don’t mind telling you I’ve had a hell of a job researching this one. I feel the topic is standing alone in a track dedicated to a variety of topics related to user experience and implementation. I started off thinking that I couldn’t do this. Designers who are looking to work with social networking applications or rich media applications, are rightly concerned with social connectivity, a ‘web a data’, and other such blue-sky thinking.

This is a brave new world and surely it’s no place for a stuffy old practice such as typography. 

Not just fonts

Most people, not just designers, think of the practice of typographic design as choosing and manipulating typefaces. For sure, that is part of typography, but it doesn’t begin and end there. Ellen Lupton says in her book ’Thinking with Type‘, ‘Typography is how language looks’.

Where does typography fit in

Rich Rutter and I gave a presentation on typography at SXSW earlier this year. As part of the closing comments, we discussed how typography should be everybody’s concern. From editors and web producers, to designers and developers, good typography should be everyones concern. Maybe that’s a little idealistic and my guess is that most of the blame for typographic design not begin considered is down to process.

In Jesse James Garrett’s great book ’Elements of User Experience‘, Jesse outlines the five planes of user experience: Strategy, Scope, Structure, Skeleton and Surface. If you haven’t already read this book, you should go and get a copy right now, settle down with a good cuppa and work your way through it. It is a book that has changed how people work. And that is good thing. Mostly.

I may be wrong in how I’ve interpreted this, and by no means do I wish to discredit Jesse’s work, but I feel that the methodology that is described, along with the technical movement of separating content from presentation, is having a detrimental effect on typographic design and art direction. I’ll tell you why.

Typography is the look and shape of language

Good typographic design tells a story. It works at a micro level such as typesetting, and typeface selection etc. But it also works at a macro level. Macro level typography is about layout, rhythm and whitespace. But it’s also about content and the story the designer is trying to tell through the type. This point brings me back to Jesse’s five planes.

The top-most plane is Visual Design. In the book, Jesse discusses typography as font selection (in relation to branding mostly). Sure, elements of typographic design belong in this plane. However, I feel typography spans these planes. In fact, typography goes all the way down the second plane; Scope. Pigeon-holing typography in the surface plane is implying that typography is a visual practice. It’s not, completely. Typographic design is information design. As Emil Ruder once said:

Typography has one plain duty before it and that is to convey information in writing.

Information has to be shaped to create entry points and exit points. It has to be broken up, moved up and down a hierarchical scale in order to be perceived in the correct way. It’s a designers job to really get to grips with the content and this is where designing with type for the web gets really difficult.

Art Direction doesn’t happen on the web

Jeffrey Zeldman and Khoi Vinh are amongst a group of designers who have bemoaned the absence of art direction on the web. Khoi sums up my feelings exactly:

At this stage in the development of Web design, we have become, I think, engrossed thoroughly by the practical difficulty (and the legitimate challenges) of achieving aesthetically rewarding user interfaces. As a result, our focus has become trained almost exclusively on designing platforms, on investing our innovation efforts within the infrastructure of our design solutions — in navigation conventions, mnemonic devices, user inputs, system feedback, etc. And we’ve given up, at least for now, on the opportunity to innovate within the presentation, the shaping of visual constructions specific to a given piece of content.

It’s the last four words that interest me. As we’ve moved towards a model of separating content from presentation (both technical and in process), the designer has lost the relationship that they should have with the content. Designers working in the ‘Surface’ plane make the content legible and on-brand, but we aren’t telling stories with it. How can we when we don’t know what that content is?

Dogma

I’ve worked with some agencies over the past year who see the separation of design to a surface layer as a given. It’s sad, but the amount of times I’ve been asked to design a ‘theme’ is on the increase. On one hand, that is a triumph for things like Web Standards, but on the other, design, and typography is being left as the icing on the cake. And that brings me back to web 2.0.

Typography has an important place in the web at the moment. Social interaction, and how to design for it, it a hot design topic in Berlin (and my guess is it will be in SXSW). But don’t forget that the medium of social interaction is language, and the way language is shaped and looks is typographic design. Web 2.0 is all about typographic design.

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