I’ve been to dozens of conference poster sessions, but I struggle to think of a single thing I’ve learned from them. I don’t think I’m alone, considering the antipathy toward academic posters I’ve noticed among colleagues and librarians.
- Sarah Leavitt, author and illustrator of Tangles, her memoir about her mother, who died of Alzheimer’s disease;
- Nick Bantock, perhaps best known for his Griffin and Sabine books, the first of which came out in 1991 and the most recent of which—the seventh in the series—was released this year; and
- Johnnie Christmas, author and illustrator of Firebug, who recently collaborated with Margaret Atwood on the graphic novel Angel Catbird.
Who are we writing for when our audience is the general public? “The general public is an amorphous concept,” said plain language champion Cheryl Stephens in her talk at Communication Convergence. “I wrote 20 years ago that there was no such reading audience as the ‘general public,’” she wrote in a handout. “I said that any organization would have gathered data about their customers, clients, patients, or participants through their marketing or client-service research. They would share this information with their communication consultant.”
“But I’ve come to see that this does not happen or does not solve the problem,” she continued. “Too many of my clients were not collecting the sort of information needed for better communication.”
What Stephens proposes is an approach to understanding who might be in your general reading public so that you can take steps to make communication more universally effective. First, we must try to overcome the curse of knowledge—“when better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.” We also have to acknowledge that people from different cultures think and see things differently. Most importantly, we need to consider some of the hidden reasons our communication may not get through as intended.
Cognitive biases arise from information-processing shortcuts, the mind’s limited information-processing capacity, emotional and moral motivations, and social influence, among other sources. They’re good for evolution because the shortcuts let us process information in less time, but they can lead our thinking astray and cause inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretations, and irrationality. A person’s construction of social reality—not objective input—determines behaviour. When you put together your communications, ask yourself, “How are people going to misunderstand?”
Stress and anxiety
Stress interferes with our capacity to focus, process information, and think clearly. Stress can arise from any number of sources—harassment or abuse, physical or mental health problems, personal or work problems, poverty, fear, and even exposure to excessive noise, just to name a few. Post-traumatic stress disorder and grief also interfere with comprehension. Stress can be transient and situation specific, or it can be chronic.
Aphasia, autism, dementia, head injury, neurological diseases, and hearing impairment can all affect language comprehension. And Canada, being a country of immigrants, has a large proportion of people learning English as a second language. Images can be a huge help: people process images instantaneously, and with a different part of the brain.
These illnesses can be mild, hidden, undiagnosed, or unrecognized. “If it’s hidden from you, it may be hidden from the person who has it.” Stephens said she could tell us first-hand that diabetes interferes with thinking. Mood disorders like depression can also affect how well a person thinks. Patients who have chronic complex diseases have six or more diagnoses and are typically on several medications at a time. Whether from the diseases or as side effects of the drugs, disabling fatigue and difficulty thinking and remembering are characteristic of this group. Many of them are also in severe pain. They would not have the patience for material that takes too long to read.
Ontario defines “disability” as follows:
(a) any degree of physical disability, infirmity, malformation or disfigurement that is caused by bodily injury, birth defect or illness and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, includes diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, a brain injury, any degree of paralysis, amputation, lack of physical co-ordination, blindness or visual impediment, deafness or hearing impediment, muteness or speech impediment, or physical reliance on a guide dog or other animal or on a wheelchair or other remedial appliance or device,
(b) a condition of mental impairment or a developmental disability,
(c) a learning disability, or a dysfunction in one or more of the processes involved in understanding or using symbols or spoken language,
(d) a mental disorder, or
(e) an injury or disability for which benefits were claimed or received under the insurance plan established under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, 1997; (“handicap”)
(From the Ontarians with Disabilities Act, 2001)
Disabilities may be
- visible or invisible
- congenital or acquired
- mental or psychiatric
- intellectual or developmental
For example, said Stephens, one out of twelve people have some degree of colourblindness, and often the only clue that something is a link, for example, is the colour.
Forty-two percent of working-age adults have low literacy skills (level 1 or 2 as defined by the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey). They have limited vocabulary and lack the skill to parse sentences and so can’t draw intended meaning from text. Some readers may have emotional or psychological problems that interfere with comprehension or may lack knowledge of the content.
“The legal system discriminates against people,” said Stephens. She said that the Supreme Court of Canada recognizes differences that are disabling because of external barriers or stigma imposed by societal norms, procedures, and institutions. In other words, discrimination is socially constructed, and it can lead to functional limitations, real or perceived.
“Everybody appreciates material that’s simple, clear, and well designed,” she said. As communicators, we should acknowledge that people with reading difficulties aren’t a separate target group—they are all of us, at some point in our lives. By considering these invisible impediments to comprehension, we can better empathize with our readers and be sensitive to their needs.
Stephens has written a paper that explores these concepts in much more detail. Contact her to get a copy.
At the Vancouver ceremony for the 2014 Alcuin Awards, one of this year’s judges, Robin Mitchell Cranfield, moderated a lively panel discussion about the unique considerations in children’s picture book publishing. On the panel were:
- Cynthia Nugent, children’s book author, MA student in children’s literature, and illustrator of the acclaimed Mr. Got to Go series—the most recent of which, Mr. Got to Go, Where Are You? is shortlisted for the City of Vancouver Book Award;
- Julie Flett, award-winning author and illustrator who draws on her Cree-Métis background when producing such titles as Owls See Clearly at Night (Lii Yiiboo Nayaapiwak lii Swer): A Michif Alphabet (L’alphabet di Michif);
- Julie Morstad, winner of the Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award and Governor General’s Award–nominated illustrator of Julia, Child, among many other books; and
- Sara Gillingham, author and illustrator of How to Grow a Friend, among other titles, and art director and designer, previously at Chronicle Books and now at her own studio.
Nugent began with a bit of background about children’s picture books—a timeless form that’s actually not all that old, emerging in the Victorian era as toy books meant as novelties to entertain children. According to Barbara Bader, a scholar in the field of children’s literature, “A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social, cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a child.” Nugent explained that whereas a storybook can be completely understood without images, a picture book’s narrative results from the interaction of words and pictures. Reading a picture book is not a linear process; children will flip the pages backward and forward as they try to make sense of the story.
A picture book’s words and images interact in three ways, said Nugent:
- enhancement, where they complement one another and are not redundant—the words and pictures fill in different details;
- alternation, where words and pictures take turns telling the story—seen most often when the author is also the illustrator; and
- contradiction, where the words and pictures do not agree—a tension that creates humour or irony.
Nugent aspires to this contradictory symbiosis of words and images, because “teaching humour is an essential life skill.” Contradiction can reveal an unreliable or naive narrator and thus playfully empowers readers with knowledge that the narrator doesn’t have.
Children may be the readers of picture books, said Mitchell Cranfield, but who are the buyers? And how do they affect the way picture books are marketed? Gillingham replied that the interesting thing about a children’s book as a product is that there are gatekeepers: parents, teachers, and librarians choose which books to put into kids’ hands. The book must appeal to both the children and the people giving the book to the children.
The cover is the primary marketing tool, said Gillingham. “It can be a bit icky to think of the book as a product or to think about its cover as packaging, but we do want books to get into the hands of readers.” Children’s book authors and illustrators can expect their publisher’s marketing department to become involved in cover design because it is a sales tool. But unless the book can be tied to a holiday—say Mother’s Day or Father’s Day—the publisher typically won’t have the budget to do much marketing, and authors and illustrators are often expected to market their own books.
“How do we reach and represent the full community of children?” Mitchell Cranfield asked Flett. “Are there communities being underserved?”
“There are so many communities being underserved,” said Flett, including people who are LGBTQIA, people of colour, people with disabilities, and people from ethnic or cultural minorities. Published demographic data are hard to come by in Canada, but the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison releases statistics about children’s literature in the U.S., and it last reported that, in a sample of 5,000 books:
- 180 were written or illustrated by African Americans,
- 38 were by aboriginal authors or illustrators,
- 112 were by authors or illustrators of Asia-Pacific ancestry, and
- 66 were by Latinos.
For more representative diversity, said Flett, “we need more books written by the community member, not on behalf of that community member. We need these books in schools, homes, and communities.” Picture books that feature diversity are often what Flett considers “tourist books,” which may focus on holidays, for instance. There is much less about everyday life. Flett would like to see books that are now shelved in the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit section of the bookstore also in other sections, because “ultimately they are, like the majority of books, about humanity. And if we do not include diverse books, we’re implicitly exclusive.” She recalled an interaction she had with a young reader—a foster child—who was excited to discover that the main character of The Moccasins was also a foster child. Flett made the case for diverse books in all genres so that children with all sorts of backgrounds and experiences have characters they can relate to.
Mitchell Cranfield asked Morstad what children’s books mean to her. As a parent who loves art and design, Morstad replied, she’s interested in books that appeal to both children and adults—“books that tackle big subjects and that don’t underestimate children’s understanding of big subjects” like the emotions that come with death or sex or depression, for example. She enjoys books that are “deceptively simple but have philosophical or more complex components.”
“Kids have questions, and some are hard to answer,” Morstad said. “A book can be a great place for those conversations to happen.”
Mitchell Cranfield talked about her own work adapting a book for a TV show and remarked that when you’re reading with a child, “content gets presented to children in a filtered way.” Children can let you know when it’s too much for them. With a TV show, she had to be more careful about making sure the content would be “safe” to a broad group of viewers.
Flett likes the idea of empowering children in books. In Dolphin SOS (winner of the 2015 Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize), for example, the youth are themselves involved with the rescue in the story. Flett also mentioned Simon Ortiz’s The People Shall Continue, recently featured on the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog. Ortiz’s storytelling presents the history of Indigenous peoples, including treaties and reservations, in a matter-of-fact way, never once using the word “plight.” The book reflected how people simply tell each other stories: “These are the stories; these are the songs.”
Mitchell Cranfield asked Gillingham how changes in production have changed book illustration, design, and content. “What does the future of children’s book design look like?”
Gillingham said that digital art in children’s books “used to look a lot more digital.”
“I appreciate illustrators who continue to use their hands but use digital tools to make the process of making a book easier,” she said. “I love when there’s still evidence of the hand.”
Gillingham recalled when, not that long ago, illustrators had to send, nervously, their original artwork via courier, when there was always a possibility of loss or damage. “I love that we don’t have to worry about those things now,” she said.
As for the future of children’s book design, “I see it getting less compartmentalized,” she said. Traditionally, authors and illustrators were kept separate, but “I see that breaking down. Authors and illustrators are finding each other.”
“I see illustrators becoming more design savvy,” she added, speculating that the change might be tool driven, as more illustrators work in the digital realm. They’re more conscientious about page composition and the interaction between type and illustrations.
Nugent agreed that the process is much more collaborative. She said that she felt editorial pressure to create a sleepy-time ending to one of her books, When Cats Go Wrong. “With cuts to libraries and schools,” she said, book publishers have refocused their marketing toward parents, and in North America, “a picture book is used to separate parent from child at the end of the day”—a function that books in other countries don’t have to have.
Nugent had to rework the last spread of her book, which had depicted an active scene, to create a more calm ending. She admits to resenting the request at first but came to realize that inspiration was bottomless: she could find it regardless of the constraints she faced. “People don’t like to think about marketing considerations, but we have to respect that people are putting money into producing the book.” she said. She ended by encouraging everyone to check out the IBBY Silent Books Exhibit featuring wordless picture books from around the world on at the Italian Cultural Centre until October 22.
According to Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards, a proficient editor should know how to “ensure that all tables, photos, multimedia, and other visual elements are clear and effectively convey the intended meaning” (Standard C5). But clear and effective how, and by what standard? Veteran editor Adrienne Montgomerie and plain language champion Cheryl Stephens took us through their thoughts on the topic.
Visual are only going to get more important, because research shows that we learn faster and retain more when we see an image, compared with text. Visuals can explain and convey concepts and relationships that would take a long time to explain—for example, cutaway diagrams can effectively convey internal structure. “Text was a fad,” said Montgomerie, only half-joking. “It had a good life, but now we have the means to communicate in other ways.” Visuals are processed in a different part of the brain than text, which is only one of eight ways people communicate and learn. In plain language communications, said Stephens, we should aim to use visuals more than text, although neither should stand alone.
When using visuals, figure out the motivation behind them and the intended audience and message, because different media and styles—photographs, line illustrations, graphs, etc.—have different purposes. Visuals should not be afterthoughts: work closely with designers from the outset and throughout the developmental editing, copy editing, and proofreading stages to ensure that together, the text and visuals communicate clearly. Make sure, too, that the typography is appropriate and readable.
Graphics should emphasize and complement your main point. They draw attention, so to readers will interpret what they illustrate as important. For informational documents, such as textbooks, don’t use a visual for decoration just because you have it. Graphics should help you understand text or be understood on its own.
Be conscious of the psychological effect of colour, which signifies that something is important. More generally, be aware of the symbolism or connotations of not only colours (for example, red meaning stop and green meaning go) but also icons, which should be unambiguous in their meaning. Icons can be misleading if they run counter to culturally accepted meanings. Use familiar approaches if you can, and if you can’t, justify your choices.
Titles and captions should make a claim that your visual proves, so make sure the image accurately reflects the data. Keep the target audience’s level of knowledge in mind when including and captioning an image. A captioned image should ideally stand on its own. Montgomerie has posted a checklist of what to look for when editing captions, She and Stephens suggest using an active verb in the caption.
Finally, Montgomerie repeated what is one of my own mantras: always proof in the final medium.
Montgomerie and Stephens recommend consulting Editing by Design by Jan White for more information about the effects of different ways to combine images and text. If you’re interested in learning more about charts, read my summary of Laurel Hyatt’s presentation (“The chart clinic”) at the 2013 Editors’ Association of Canada conference. For more in-depth information about data visualization, a good place to start is Alberto Cairo’s book, The Functional Art, which I reviewed a few years ago.
UPDATE (June 17, 2015): Adrienne Montgomerie has posted her own summary and comprehensive checklists for the substance, style, and quality of visual elements.
UserTesting.com hosted a free seminar featuring usability consultant Craig Morrison of Usability Hour. Morrison began as a web designer, focusing on visual design, but he soon discovered that aesthetics alone aren’t enough to ensure a good user experience. Freelancers often get into the habit of satisfying only their clients’ demands and, once they finish one project, they move on to the next, which means that they don’t get a chance to refine user experience. But positive user experiences translate into user recommendations and business growth, so it’s a good idea to help clients see the importance of placing user needs ahead of their own.
Morrison outlined ten of the most common UX mistakes and how to fix them:
1. Focusing on impressive design instead of usable architecture
It’s tempting to want to make a site that will wow people with its visuals, but aesthetics alone don’t provide value. Morrison offered Craigslist as an example of how a plain-looking site can be popular because it has great functionality. He recommends that you consult a UX consultant first to plan a usable content structure, then focus on visual design.
2. Not removing unvalidated features
If your site has features that nobody is using, all it’s doing is cluttering up the site and making it harder for users to find what they really want from you.
3. Listening to user ideas
This is not to say that you shouldn’t listen to your users at all; listening to their problems is valuable, but often what users suggest as solutions wouldn’t work well. Morrison suggests that you start user testing and watch how people use the product. Seeing where they falter will highlight what you need to work on.
Polling your audience is also a good way to get feedback, particularly for new features, but phrase your questions carefully. You’re looking more for users’ motivations for using a particular feature, as opposed to their opinions about which option they’d prefer.
4. Forcing people to sign up without offering any value
Your landing page can’t be just a logo and a sign-up form. People aren’t willing to exchange their information for nothing. Instead, show why your product is valuable before they sign up. This also goes for credit card numbers: asking for that information during a free trial will turn people off before they’ve even tried your product.
5. Taking user feedback personally
If your dismiss negative feedback by saying “they just don’t get it” or “users are dumb,” you’re sabotaging your business. Complaints are opportunities to improve UX.
6. Poorly designed search function
Half of web users are search oriented and won’t browse. Morrison admits that this bit of advice may sound like a bit of a cop-out, but “follow proper guidelines for designing a usable search function.” There are best practices out there, and he’s written about some of them on his blog.
7. Not optimizing for mobile
“Mobile traffic on the web is 20% and rising,” said Morrison, and you’re driving that traffic away if your site isn’t optimized. People aren’t going to voluntarily spend the time to zoom and navigate through a website meant for larger screens. Invest time and money into a simple mobile site. Morrison says that whatever solution you choose is up to you, but he’s found CSS media queries to be a simple way to ensure your content displays how you want it to, and he prefers it over responsive design.
8. Not offering users help
Despite your best efforts to designing a user-friendly site, inevitably some people will get lost or confused and then won’t come back, out of frustration. Morrison suggests buttressing good content architecture with a searchable wiki and an FAQ page. How-to videos are great, as is live support, if you can offer it.
9. No emotional connection between brand and users
People who feel emotionally connected to your brand will have a better experience. If your users aren’t familiar and comfortable with your brand, they’ll be quick to dislike you for even the smallest flaws. Focus on building your brand early, and get buy-in from all of your employees. For example, if part of what you offer is excellent customer service, ensure that all of your employees live up to that expectation.
10. Not including user onboarding
A user’s first impression is key, and if they get frustrated with using your product, they’ll quit and never come back. You’ve sunk a lot of effort into attracting a new user but you’ll lose it all by not being able to activate them into a long-term user. User onboarding is a way of teaching users how to use your product while demonstrating its value.
At the same time, Morrison recognizes that not everybody loves onboarding. Always offer users the ability to skip it if they’re confident in using your product. At the same time, make sure they can go back whenever they want to do the onboarding if they need to brush up.
According to Morrison, real business growth through UX comes from
- getting traffic to the landing page
- converting that traffic
- activating new users to become long-lasting users
Morrison will be offering an online course through his website to teach people how to meet those goals using great UX. He’s also written an ebook, 5-minute UX Quick Fixes, available free on his site. The webinar I attended will be posted in a couple of weeks at UserTesting.com.
I liked that although Morrison’s advice is obviously more geared toward websites or apps, a lot of it applies to other kinds of documents as well. I saw the following parallel mistakes for plain language documents (numbering corresponds to list above):
1. Focusing on aesthetics over functionality. Aesthetic design is important, but usability is paramount: do your choices regarding type, graphics, headings, and white space make the document easier to read and understand?
2. Including too much “nice to know” information. In most plain language documents, you should give readers what they need to know.
3. Listening to users? This point of Morrison’s gave me pause, but his advice of paying attention to the users’ problems rather than their suggested solutions makes sense. For instance, users that consistently fill in a part of a form wrong may not pinpoint poor layout as the reason, but a plain language expert might.
5. Taking user feedback personally. This problem probably applies to the client more than the plain language writer or editor, but the editor may have to go to bat for a user and convince a reluctant client that you have to make certain changes.
6. Poorly designed search function. A good search function is a must-have for websites and apps. The print analogue is an excellent table of contents, descriptive and logical headings and subheadings, and a thorough index.
Have I’ve missed other parallels? Let me know in the comments.
Cartoonist, book designer, and illustrator (though he prefers the term “decorator”) Seth took the stage on Thursday after the Alcuin Awards presentations to talk about his influences; cartooning as an expressive, symbolic language; and the design features he’s identified as uniquely Canadian that he’s incorporated into his own design aesthetic. Guided by questions from another titan of Canadian book design, Peter Cocking, Seth led us on an eye-opening tour of his artistic process.
“Let’s talk about where you came from,” said Cocking. “You have a very pronounced style. What were your influences?”
“I’m a book designer now—I do a limited amount of book design—but primarily I’m a cartoonist,” said Seth. Growing up in small towns in Ontario, before the Internet, he absorbed culture from the pop culture. “As a child, you don’t judge it with an adult aesthetic,” he said, “but there was some stuff—you were connected to it for a reason.”
Peanuts, for example, had a profound effect Seth. “It was not really written for children, but children responded to it.” Charlie Brown was an outsider character, which elicited a lot of empathy. Charles Schulz “set the standard for how I wanted to work as a cartoonist,” said Seth. “The cartooning was really his handwriting.”
Marvel Comics also captured Seth’s imagination. “Like every kid,” he said, “I loved the superhero comics of that era.” Like Schulz, artists like Jack Kirby drew in clear lines. “The figures were quite strange. The anatomy wasn’t quite right. That’s when I realized that cartoonists were working with a symbolic language. Cartooning is not about drawing. It’s about creating symbols that people instantly recognize. Drawings in a cartoon are more similar to typography.”
Later on Seth discovered the work of Robert Crumb, whose work proved to Seth that “you can do anything you wanted as a cartoonist.” Crumb’s work, he said, had a dirty vibe to it—“literally filthy. Yet there was something really enticing beyond its pornographic qualities. It could actually impart a genuine feeling of lust.” In contrast with many cartoonists who were just drawing to make a buck, Crumb was one of a handful of great practitioners who redefined the idea that cartooning “could be a personal medium.”
Particularly intriguing to Seth was that Crumb’s work “looked like it had come from some earlier era.” The quality of the cartoon looked like it was drawn in the 1920s, but the content came out of the hippie subculture. Seth realized that Crumb “was digging around in the past for inspiration.”
Seth’s other influences include the Hernandez Brothers, as well as Georges Remi’s The Adventures of Tintin, in which “the shapes were simple. He was not concerned with rendering. It was all iconically drawn,” reinforcing the idea that cartooning is symbolic.
“Cartooning is a graphic language,” said Seth. “People sometimes say it’s like a combination of film and literature, which to me has always been a poor idea of what a cartoon is. To me, it’s more a combination of graphic design and poetry. Comics are about condensing things—condensing time and space.”
“They can be as complex to read as poetry,” said Cocking.
“Sometimes people ask if they should be reading the words or the pictures first. To me that’s always been a peculiar question. I always read them at the same time.”
“Some people don’t understand the language of comics,” said Cocking. “They don’t know what a thought bubble means…”
“Yes,” said Seth. “In Japanese comics, characters will sometimes have a puff of smoke coming out of their nose, which means great sadness. That’s just as foreign to us as the sweat beads we have flying off our characters in North American comics. And we don’t really have words to describe these devices.”
The New Yorker’s cartoons made an impression on Seth as well, particularly Peter Arno’s bold, brushed lines. “As a cartoonist, you always have a temptation to tighten up,” he explained. A maximum of expression in a minimum of lines.
“We’ve talked about your influences,” said Cocking. “Now let’s move on to some of your own work.” Showing images from Seth’s book design on The Complete Peanuts, Cocking noted the “attention you bring to Schulz as an illustrator—really showing graphic quality.”
“People take for granted what he did,” said Seth, “but it was groundbreaking.” Schulz was one of the first post-war cartoonists to take a modern approach of using “very few lines. He kept things very simple.”
“Charlie Brown is not a drawing of a child,” said Seth. “It is Charlie Brown. This was Schulz’s hand—it was his handwriting.” Schulz was writing his own life into the strip,” Seth explained. “When he was having an affair, Snoopy was having an affair—and his wife didn’t pick up on it!”
When Seth first approach Schulz’s widow, Jean Schulz, with the idea of The Complete Peanuts, he already had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do. “Peanuts had never been very well packaged,” he said. “People were selling the image of Peanuts as a popular item. I wanted to take down the tone of the books. The strips really had a melancholy mood.” Initially Seth envisioned fifty volumes, each with Charlie Brown’s face on the front. In the end he compromised, including two years per volume and featuring a few of the other characters.
The end papers in all of the volumes were a compilation of the settings, devoid of characters. “I wanted to establish a feeling for the place—this netherland of suburbia,” he said. “It was never clear where they lived. But it was somewhere with four seasons.” Seth wanted to highlight the strip’s underlying nature: it wasn’t really funny; it was meant more to be moving. On the occasional spread Seth allowed himself to assemble settings and build scenes with elements from Schulz’s strips. “I was drawing with his hands.”
Seth’s book design was heavily influenced by the work of Thoreau MacDonald, son of the Group of Seven’s J.E.H. MacDonald. Thoreau MacDonald was Canada’s premier book designer before the 1960s: he was a pen-and-ink artist who had a “cartoonist’s sensibility,” said Seth. He incorporated hand lettering seamlessly into his designs and illustrations. “There was a great earnestness to the work,” said Seth. “His work felt Canadian to me. Why does it feel Canadian to me?”
This question prompted Seth to gather Canadiana: old pamphlets, books, other ephemera that exemplified “Canadian vernacular design.” He was driven by the need to explore cartooning as a personal medium. “A lot of my peers were Americans,” he explained. “We were part of a little movement. I was one of the only Canadians in that group. Is there anything different in what I’m doing? What is an essence of Canadian imagery? Maybe I was insulted by Americans who thought, ‘Well, you’re just American.’ I started to inevitably feel some sense of national identity.”
From his collection, Seth distilled three features he identified in the Canadian postwar aesthetic: imagery from that period always had
- an idea of landscape,
- some official reference to the government, sometimes heraldic symbols of Britain or France, and
“There was something about them that was small,” he said. American images of the same era were always more impressive, almost always more proud. “I always thought there must have been some Ministry of Enforced Drabness,” said Seth.
These themes made it into Seth’s own work, such as in his graphic novel, George Sprott. “Every page could be read on its own, so it was easy to add pages in between. I could edit a work that already existed and really pay attention to pacing.” The front cover, with the title, George Sprott, 1894–1975, “is a tombstone,” Seth explained. “I like sadness, I must say. Life is sad. There’s an underlying tone of melancholy that goes through people’s lives.”
Cocking noted a musical quality to Seth’s work and asked him whether he thought in musical terms. “Yes,” he answered. “Pacing is so important. You’re always thinking about how you’re controlling time. Rhythm is super important.”
“Cartooning is a tiny little medium with a few symbols—a toy medium, a miniature world. There are endless possibilities for what you can do with that,” said Seth. “It’s remarkable the amount of variation that’s barely been touched. The medium is being completely redefined by the people working in it.”
Interspersed among the cartoons in the George Sprott collection are photos of cardboard buildings Seth crafted in his basement. “I made a world called Dominion—a Northern Ontario town that I invented where all my stories take place.”
Another of Seth’s projects was designing and decorating a new edition of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, which, as Cocking said, “celebrates and mocks the drabness” of the quintessential Canadian town. “It’s a mean book,” acknowledged Seth.
“What was important to me, as is always, was to get a sense of place.” The dust jacket is Seth’s depiction of the town during the day, the book’s title central and bold. The cover, in contrast, is the town at night, and features no type at all. “It’s going to end up at a second-hand bookstore, and nobody will know what the book is,” he said. “There’s an old cartooning rule: show, don’t tell. So when people draw literally what’s written on the page, I always think that’s a wasted opportunity.”
Seth took his mastery of covert symbolism to another level with The Collected Doug Wright. Wright was “Canada’s master cartoonist,” said Seth. His work was “very, very Canadian.” He created a pantomime strip—with no dialogue—and he worked from the late 1940s to the 1980s, when he had a major stroke and died a couple of years later. As Seth was thinking of how to assemble the collection of Wright’s work, he recalled that Wright’s father, away fighting in World War I, had written the boy a heartfelt letter of fatherly advice and pride shortly before he was killed in battle. Seth landed on the idea of having the Wright collection subliminally take the reader on a walking tour of the Vimy Memorial in France. He studied photos and plans and storyboarded the tour before echoing each of his sketches in the designs of the spreads in The Collected Doug Wright.
Seth’s archival sensibilities came naturally to him: “Cartooning is a collector’s world,” he said. He developed an affinity toward collecting, and “the more you do it, the more it becomes archival, historical. You’re not just an artist; you’re also a historian.”
I recently noticed my tendency to skip right over the block quotes in a book I was reading and figured there are probably others who do the same. My brain likely took the diminutive type as a cue that the quote wasn’t as important as the main text—but was this effect what the author intended?
Nonfiction authors use long quotes for one of two main reasons*:
- They have made (and would like to highlight) their own point but are using another authoritative source to buttress the argument.
- They want to draw special attention to the other source.
*(Be wary of the more disingenuous reason some authors use block quotes: to boost the word count of their manuscript.)
The problem is that, particularly in the second case, the traditional typographic treatments of block quotes may not do justice to the author’s intent.
Typographic styling of block quotes
According to Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, “Block quotations can be distinguished from the main text in many ways. For instance: by a change of face (usually from roman to italic), by a change in size (as from 11 pt down to 10 pt or 9 pt), or by indention.” He continues, “Combinations of these methods are often used, but one device is enough.” Bringhurst also advises using a white line or half-line at either end of the block to distinguish it from the main text.
A change from roman to italic can be problematic; as Access Ability: A Practical Handbook on Accessible Graphic Design advises, italics should be used sparingly and only to enhance communication. Long passages in italics can be hard to read, and since block quotes are usually set as blocks because they are too long to be run in, they are almost by definition ill suited to italics. There are typefaces with very readable italic fonts (Minion comes to mind), but in general italics are harder to read than their roman counterparts.
A change (usually a drop) in size can also be problematic: for readers, text in smaller type—think footnotes or back matter—means that the text is less important and can typically be ignored.
Worse are some websites that use greyed out boxes for block quotes. Rather than highlight the text, the screen is a cue to me that what’s in the box is of secondary importance.
Indention of block quotes has an interesting history: During the Baroque and Romantic periods, long quotations featured quotation marks at the beginning of every line (a practice I’m sure readability advocates are glad we’ve done away with). “When these distractions were finally omitted,” wrote Bringhurst, “the space they had occupied was frequently retained.”
Editorial considerations for block quotes
Editors may be able to give some input to the designer about how to style block quotes, but in many cases those kinds of decisions are beyond an editor’s control (particularly for freelancers). How do we minimize the risk that a quote an author wanted to showcase doesn’t get demoted to afterthought status? Here are some questions to consider:
1. What is the author’s purpose for using the quote?
In a lot of texts, particularly academic ones, quotes do play only a supportive role. In those cases, smaller type may be warranted, as a way of keeping attention on the main text.
However, it gets tricky when you work with texts where the author’s motivation for using quotes varies throughout. In those cases, lobby the designer for a neutral approach to styling a block quote, or reconsider using block quotes altogether.
2. Do we really need a block quote?
Is it important for the author to use the entire quote? Or can you refine it to its essence and use a run-in quote, which—if it means the reader will actually read it—may have more of an impact? Take out as much of the filler as you can. Even a shorter block quote would be better; long blocks of text, particularly in small type, are unwelcoming to readers.
3. Can we draw attention to the block quote through emphasis?
When authors add emphasis, either through italics or boldface, to an existing quote (along with a note that they’ve added emphasis), I admit I stop and pay attention. But don’t overuse this device. If it shows up more than once in a manuscript, it may be a good indication that only the emphasized portion of the quote should be used, run in to the main text.
4. Can we consider alternatives to the traditional block quote?
In a book I recently proofread, long quotes were simply set as regular paragraphs with quotation marks. The quotes never spanned more than a paragraph, and there were few of them, so this approach worked well for this particular text.
If the traditional block quote would not serve the text well, consider other options.
5. Can we communicate intent to the designer?
If possible, let the designer know the purpose of the quotes. It would be impractical—not to mention inconsistent, and crazy making for the designer—to set a different style for quotes you want to highlight and those you want to downplay, but communicating the general tenor of the quotes to the designer may yield a design that better suits the author’s text.
Design options for block quotes
1. Indent only
A neutral approach for block quotes is to eschew decreasing the type size or italicizing and simply set it off with indents, with a line space before and after. The indents provide a visual cue that the text is a quote, but the type size suggests to the reader that it’s at least of equal importance to the main text. Keeping roman type retains readability.
2. Consider a complementary but contrasting typeface
If the main body is in serif type, for example, maybe block quotes can be sans serif, of equal size.
3. If the author wants to highlight the quotes, consider making them bigger
Block quotes in larger type than the main text are almost unheard of, but if emphasis is the author’s intent, this option may be worth considering.
When designing block quotes, don’t be afraid to experiment, but use judgment, of course. Deviating too much from standard expectations can make the styling look like a mistake, and overusing any device can lessen its impact and yield an ugly design.
The main takeaway is the importance of communication: talk to the editor or author, and try to ascertain the purpose of the quotes before deciding how to style them.
(The irony isn’t lost on me that my WordPress theme’s default is indented italics for block quotes. Only time will tell if I’ll tweak the CSS or if laziness will prevail.)
Veteran plain language advocates Neil James and Ginny Redish shared some eye-opening statistics about web and mobile use at the PLAIN 2013 conference that may prompt some organizations to reprioritize how they deliver their content. In 2013, for example, there were 6.8 billion mobile phones in use—almost one for every person on the planet. Half of the users were using their mobiles to go online. In 2014, mobiles are expected to overtake PCs for Internet use. Surprisingly, however, 44% of Fortune 100 companies have no mobile site at all, and only 14% of consumers were happy their mobile experience. Mobile users are 67% more likely to purchase from a mobile-friendly site, and 79% will go elsewhere if the site is poor.
People don’t go to a website just to use the web, explained Redish. Every use of a website is to achieve a goal. When writing for the web, always consider
- purpose: why is the content being created?
- personas: who are the users?
- conversations: what do users have to do to complete their task?
Always write to a persona, said Redish, and walk those personas through their conversations. Remember to repeat this exercise on mobile, too.
Consider the following areas when creating content:
- Physical context
- Page structure
Words, noted the presenters, are only one element out of seven.
Some basic guidelines
Build everything for user needs
Again, think of who your users are and what they are trying to accomplish. Consider their characteristics when they use your site. Are they anxious? Relaxed? Aggressive? Reluctant? Keep those characteristics in mind when creating your content.
Consider the physical context
Mobiles are a different physical environment compared with a tablet or PC. The screens are smaller, and type and links on a typical website are too small to read comfortably. Maybe soon we’ll have sites with responsive design that change how content is wrapped depending on the device being used to read it, but for now, creating a dedicated mobile version of a site may be the best way to ensure that all users have an optimal experience on your site regardless of the device they use.
Select the best channels
Smartphones, equipped with cameras, geolocators, accelerometers, and so on, are capable of a lot. We need to be creative and consider whether any of these functions could help us deliver content.
Simplify the navigation
Minimize the number of actions—clicks and swipes—that a user needs to do before they get to what they want. “People will tolerate scrolling if they’re confident they’ll get to what they want,” said James.
Prioritize the content on every page
Put the information users want at the top, and be aware that, for a given line length, a heading with more words will have smaller type, which can affect its perceived hierarchy.
Design for the small screen
Pay attention in particular to information in tables. Do users have to scroll to read the whole table? Do they need to see the whole table at once to get the information they need?
Cut every word you can
The amount of information you can put on a website might be seemingly infinite, but for mobile sites, it’s best to be as succinct as possible. Pare the content down to only what users would need.
We may be good at the how of plain language, but the why can be more elusive. To fill in that missing chunk of the puzzle, information design expert Karen Schriver has scoured the empirical research on writing and design published between 1980 and 2010. She gave the PLAIN 2013 audience an eye-opening overview of her extensive, cross-disciplinary review, debunking some long-held myths in some instances and reaffirming our practices in others.
Audiences, readers, and users
In the 1980s, we classified readers and users as experts versus novices, a distinction that continues to haunt the plain language community because some people assume that we “dumb down” content for lower-level readers. Later on we added a category of intermediate readers, but Schriver notes that we have to refine our audience models.
What we thought
A good reader is always a good reader.
What the research shows
Reading ability depends on a huge number of variables, including task, context, and motivation. Someone’s tech savvy, physical ability, and even assumptions, feelings, and beliefs can influence how well they read.
What we thought
Processing nominalizations (versus their equivalent verbs or adjectives) takes extra time.
What the research shows
It’s true, in general, that most nominalizations do “chew up working memory,” as Schriver described, because readers have to backtrack and reanalyze them. However, readers have little trouble when nominalizations appear in the subject position of a sentence and refer to an idea in the previous sentence.
What we thought
Conditionals (if, then; unless, then; when, then) break up text and help readers understand.
What the research shows
A sentence with several conditionals are hard for people to process, particularly if they appear at the start. Leave them till the end or, better yet, use a table.
What we thought
Lists help readers understand and remember, and we should use as many lists as possible.
What the research shows
Lists can be unhelpful if they’re not semantically grouped. If an entire document consists of lists, we can lose important hierarchical cues that tell us what content to prioritize.
What we thought
A dense text is hard to understand.
What the research shows
It’s true! But there’s a nuance: we’re used to thinking about verbal density, which turns readers off after they begin reading. Text that is dense visually can make people disengage before reading even begins.
Serif versus sans-serif
What we thought
For print materials, serif type is better than sans-serif. Sans-serif is better for on-screen reading.
What the research shows
When resolution is excellent, as it is on most screens and devices nowadays, serif and sans-serif are equally legible and easy to read. Factors that are more important to readability include line length, contrast, and leading.
Layout and design
What we thought
Layouts that people prefer are better.
What the research shows
We prefer what we’re used to, not necessarily what makes us perform better. This point highlights why user testing is so important.
Impressions and opinions
It takes sustained reading to get an impression of the content.
What the research shows
It takes only 50 millseconds for a reader to form an opinion, and that first impression tends to persist.
What we thought
Content is content, regardless of medium.
What the research shows
Reader engagement is mediated by the technologies used to display the content.
Teamwork in writing and design
What we thought
Writing and design are largely solitary pursuits.
What the research shows
Today, both are highly collaborative. We now have an emphasis on editing and revision rather than on creation.
Evidence-based plain language helps us understand the reasons behind our principles and practices, allowing us to go beyond intuition in improving our work and developing expertise. We can also offer up this body of research to support our arguments for plain language and convince clients that our work is important and effective. What Schriver would like to see (and what the plain language community clearly needs) is a repository for this invaluable research.