Circus on Your Computer

November 23rd, 2009 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Lo and woe! Technologies insidiously let us be boorishly unaware.

WWI era circus posterInternet radio has joined blogs (I’m doubly guilt here) in shameless self-expression. The phenomenon surely goes back to movable type or perhaps beyond. Digital photography falls in the class, but is nowhere near as guilty as the introduction of desktop publishing (DTP) several decades ago. Make personal expression easier and we humans just can’t resist.

For good and ill, we have all seen and perhaps perpetrated this for as long as families left a communal space. This includes holiday and travel letters.

While she never yielded to the tourist version, my mother did produce annual Christmas letters. In fairness to her, we did move every couple of years and had friends and relatives about like so many prairie dogs in this hole or that. Back in the days of stencils and mimeographs, she’d create annual updates with little pictures of the three of us and some basic events of the year.

Being a mildly repressed WASPy sort, she never succumbed to either the bragging or whining varieties that are so easy to ridicule. Yet, given the limits of typewriters and copying technologies in the ’50 and ’60s, even the long and self-indulgent versions were not hard to look at.

My father did not raise my sister and me, instead remarrying and plying his paternal craft on two other sons. What he did share were ghastly travelogues of trips he and wife took. They were lifers, a.k.a. Army officers, which goes a long way to explaining the incredibly detailed, yet significance-free letters.

I recall one that I must have somewhere about a long Egyptian trip. It begins along the lines of “0820 Leave SEATAC” and continues in military lingo about the most trivial of non-events. They would travel almost exclusively to stay with families of other officers they had known over the years. The actual commentary invariably was like a Monty Python sketch.  Cairo in particular and Egyptians in general were dirty, dangerous and untrustworthy. Other than a good time in New Zealand, those letters didn’t indicate any fun had by anyone.

Typical of the WWII generation, they never made the switch to DTP when it popped out suddenly in the 1980s along with PCs.  Many, far too many, others did jump into it with 10 fingers though.

That hasn’t stopped. Now everyone is an editor, writer, art director and publisher. Cheap or free software along with the computers, digital cameras and color printers enables all our related fantasies.

We in journalism school in the 1960s got warnings from professors about the snares of technology. Ours was when the newspaper and magazines industries switched from hot metal to offset. The old lead in a frame metal system had lots of limits. Sure, you could vary type sizes and styles, within boundaries. With offset came a cornucopia of fonts and the ability to lay out a page with strips of paper with the type and images. It virtually guaranteed tacky personal expression. We suddenly were all art directors.

In j-school, the resulting pages of many contrasting fonts and sizes alone were cause for disdain. It was what the profs called circus layout, for its similarity to old traveling-show posters.

Offset and later DTP paid no attention to guidelines based on experience as well as what would come to be known a usability studies.  A few for example include:

  • Too many varied headline styles are distracting to the reader.
  • Tombstoned heads (in adjacent columns) confuse readers.
  • A mugshot in profile should direct the reader’s eye by looking into the text.
  • Put the article you want to be sure the reader sees in the upper right of a newspaper page and on the right page of a magazine spread

From the moment we first put 5 ¼ DTP software into our primitive PCs, we went mad with our options. Ivy-vine headlines? Sure. Heart dots on the i’s? Why not. If two headline fonts were adequate, surely a different one for each block of text would be better!

An amazing aspect of all this is that most of us are oblivious to why such docs are so damned hard to look at, much less read. A real answer is that we aren’t trained to see what’s right or wrong for our eyes/brains.

chocolatesThe wee irony here is that nearly all of us do see the same flaws elsewhere. For example, we just watched the sappy but well done Away We Go on DVD.  The male lead can be socially clumsy, even inept. A visual cue to this is showing him wearing various combinations of plaid clothing. That’s a fabric version of bad DTP that girls eventually tease their brothers and boyfriend out of wearing.

There likely is no similar cure for Facebook pages jammed with eye-shocking crap anymore than people stopping flinging every option at personal (or church) newsletters, blogs and web pages. Like a Wittman’s sampler of chocolates, you might start with the legend on the box and pick your one or two favorites. Suddenly you are stuffing everything into your mouth.

It’s too easy.


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