In a past post, I wrote about how English Language Arts class is a technology class. This post will cover how English Language Arts class is a design class.
One day, I was scrolling through Twitter thinking I was doing everything that the app did not want me to do. I’m a millennial, so I should know all the tricks. I’ve grown up with them. And like any good interneter, I am a pro at ignoring advertisements with experienced mind-deletion skills much like how our brains handle eyeglasses, eventually excising the frames away from your vision so that you forget that you are wearing them. Also, I use solid ad blockers.
So I was deep into “The Internet Scroll” state-of-mind: body totally inert except for eyes and thumb, flitting over words and images, looking and looking, blotting out everything but the screen, even my hovering thumb. No end-goal. Frozen in front of a portal to something that even though my human thumb was involved would give me far less than the small amount of money paid to advertisers for my social media session.
I remember when we used to “surf the web.” I’m not sure if that is the right analogy anymore. Surfing is a state flow: body in tandem with a board and a wave, focused on finishing out the ride, exhilarated.
Perhaps the analogy worked so well at one point because, though we can control many parts of the navigation, most of the navigation is left to other forces. On the web, we seek things and find things. Will we catch that huge find we’ve been waiting for?
Where the analogy gets weird is when we think about the ends of surfing. You go out with your board, paddle a bit, wait, and then you ride. Repeat. What is the return to the beach in the analogy of surfing the web?
The internet is now very stoutly infinite and growing past such a weighty term. When we surf the internet, the wave never ends. Perhaps we look up from our phones, and that’s our return to the beach, but it’s not long before we go right back out.
Our bodies don’t turn to jelly from the constant paddling and balancing–soldiering through eye strain is something we are quite adept at. And there is no sun beating down on us, mostly because it’s hard to read a screen in sunlight.
But we have always scrolled, even if just to prove real the facade of joy hanging over surfing the internet.
So I was in this anti-flow state, eyes looking for whatever I was all about that day, and then somehow, I fell for it. I clicked on a link, not even checking or noticing that the link was nested in a tweet, that it was “Promoted.”
Really, I should have known by the title, something like “Great Scenes That Wouldn’t Have Been Great Without Improvisation.” Yet, the link was clicked.
On the other side of the link, I contended with advertisements shrouding the screen with gaudy colors and hard-to-find “close” buttons. I still followed through with the skimming. That was its power.
One of my favorite TV shows had been featured in the image on the tweet, and I think what ultimately drew me was a potential glimpse behind the scenes of the merging of artistry and serendipity. (My favorite unplanned acting scene has to be in The Hateful Eight when Kurt Russell accidentally grabbed a real antique Martin guitar from Jennifer Jason Leigh’s hands and smashed it. Horrible to lose such an awesome guitar, but it’s a good story.) I didn’t realize the irony of the link click, the unplanned planned-ness of it all.
So I scrolled and scrolled through the article, seeing more advertisements and more short little summaries of scenes in which improvisation occurred. In times like these, when I know the algorithms have me, I’m looking at the browser scroll bar, seeing how much more I have left. On the really terrible sites, they will put one article after another–infinite scroll. But the good ones will finish the article with eight other clickbait articles that you’ll probably look over but must resist.
Well, this article just didn’t end, not infinite but endless. Evidently, there are too many examples of serendipity hitting film sets, so much so that there has to be vasts amounts of improvisations that were not happy accidents. Like real life. And so, when my chagrined rational mind finally caught up with my internet dopamine mind, I closed the browser tab and moved on.
Design That Tricks
Design can be a form of manipulation, just as writing can be dishonest and without good ethos. A good designer knows humans and how they work. It’s the reason why handles on coffee mugs rule the world or the pull tab on an aluminum can is of only one type.
When Tristan Harris and others began talking about how social media and other sites that get money off advertisements are competing for your attention in ways that we haven’t really thought of before, this was an issue of design.
Smartphones are designed to be portable and connected. If a company can harness the power of influence that resides in most powerfully in the individuals we’ve surrounded ourselves with, then that’s approaching a human phenomenon that advertisers are not privy to: word-of-mouth advertisement.
Humans are famously illogical beings in ways that make us look pretty undeserving of our successful fate so far. It’s strange that someone can talk to a bunch of safety experts and engineers, find out what the best car is for their uses, and then change their minds when a friend expounds upon the delight they’ve had with a car they’ve owned that remains unapproved by the professionals. We prize the opinions of the people we know over all else. We are tribal.
It is true that some companies do get into our inner circles. For instance, Apple has done a pretty decent job. But it’s practically impossible.
So, there is design.
And this question: “How does one design an advertisement that will infiltrate the power of word-of-mouth in diverse tribes?”
Design That Doesn’t Trick (Or at Least Is Good for Us)
When you are driving 45 mph toward an intersection, you need super solid communication to indicate what to do to cross that intersection safely. That’s why traffic signs need to be easy to read and optimized for distance.
For instance, the “STOP” sign went through many design iterations to get to where it is now. It used to be hexagonal yellow sign with black text. In low light conditions, it was as difficult to see as lawn signs.
When life-threatening accidents serve as indicators that a form of communication is not working, it really gets things going.
In 1954, the stop sign was so important that it evolved from a sign of “caution” to a sign to be very much followed. By that time, all signs were caution signs, and they were all yellow like the stop sign.
Traffic lights had been using the color red with success. We can easily pick out red in nature because red is a very radical color. We see red when we are angry; we bleed red; fire outlines itself in red. Even romantic red roses have a dicy handle. So the stop sign became red.
Before the color change, various reflective materials were trialed-and-errored for low light conditions, including glass beads. Next time it is dark, you need only to shine a headlamp or smartphone light on a stop sign to see how serious its ability to reflect is in the dark. It’s almost a light unto itself.
Now, a stop sign is unmistakable in traffic. All that design for one word, for one sentiment. But, like good writing, the stop sign invites the reader in to its true meaning.
Good writing evolves to ensure that the writer is no longer writing for themselves, but for an audience that is various. Conditions are more complicated than night versus day: writers need to appeal to diverse background knowledges, from words to the context of history and the news of today.
Writing is so complex that lots of writers would disagree with the paragraph above. To define good writing as “writing that is easy for the reader to read” is not fair, though it is oddly hypocritical to write such a thing about a form of communication.
But here is what we must admit: like in so many other areas, humans are not totally logical creatures. We have feelings. And, in the end, writing is art, and art harnesses this interesting logic-not-logic of our species, making us see things in new ways, which is a logical way to live life in my opinion.
But if you are to know the powers of writing, you need to feel what it means to be understood. And to be understood, you need to make it easy for the reader. Because, after all, when you first start out, you are a novice and a nobody. We must be honest and admit that such a writer needs all they can to get a reader to choose to read an entire piece of writing, let alone pay for it before reading it. More audience means more feedback. Therefore, new writers need to welcome their potential readers with coziness and care.
IKEA designs their instruction manuals to be read without text, just graphics. Though this is a bold statement upon instruction manuals, IKEA is not making a categorical argument against all instruction manual writing. What it is doing is making it easier for amateur builders–all of IKEA’s customers–to feel comfortable shopping and buying their products. This is good design.
But the most successful information design of today has to be social media.
These apps are crisply designed; you follow at least one tribe on social media; the computer itself has been tasked to keep you engaged; content is bite-sized and easy to digest; and scroll is infinite.
Social media companies have a lot to work with, or at least more so than one of our oldest designed forms of communication: writing.
What Once Was
It’s very easy not to realize that written language has so many design choices.
Yes, when we write something, web designers and typesetters work through copy and make things look clean and inviting. But language on the page without all of that, well it’s designed.
The Greeks started experimenting with punctuation marks as far back as 200 CE. Before that, there weren’t any punctuation marks. Just strings of text.
Punctuation marks were designed to substitute for all of the things we lose in speech–tone, facial expressions, volume, cadence. One could say the same of a stop sign: red standing in for a voice raised to a shouting volume, “Stop!”
Regardless of the success of punctuation, the Romans were never convinced of such things. (In fact, the Romans didn’t even have lowercase letters.) One reason was because a capable writer should be able to get the reader to know what the rhythm a text is.
What we have here is an argument of design. One culture thinks that the writer needs to be good enough not use the safety-ism of punctuation marks; the other thinks that writing is inherently flawed without markers for the reader.
Both want the same ends: an easier time for the reader.
I often think that language is the most democratic thing in the world. A language contains adopted norms, but these norms are always in flux. The culprit is creativity: slang in word and in punctuation (emojis being the newest form, perhaps) become norms once they are adopted past an event horizon of language speakers. It is really the masses that control everything in as close to real time as you can get with any sort of democracy. No authority is calling the shots, not even the grammar police. The English language is shaped by what the majority are willing to use in both written and spoken language.
But such democracy is not designed. We don’t have agreement on easy design choices like whether to use the Oxford comma or what form and spacing an em dash should have.
Paragraphs still hold a ton of mystique, even after centuries of use. These are one of my favorite design choices because they, unlike individual sentences, create the most blank space. And just like a beat drop in music uses silence to bring out its opposite, so do paragraphs.
But we make design choices out of this democratically-made-thing to tame writing for readers, users, and/or audiences.
For example, paragraphs help organize information so that a reader knows when something is ending and another thing is beginning. Or, with artistic one sentence paragraphs like the one above, the writer is making the reader’s job easier by highlighting something the reader needs to really munch on.
When you make poor paragraph choices, like using long paragraphs or not making paragraphs at all, you are adding more work for your reader. Not only does the reader have to keep in mind what you are trying to say, but they have to figure out how what you are saying should be structured and organized.
A writer, like a traffic sign designer, wants their audience to do the least amount of work possible, though there are caveats to that too. But like anything, even with usage of the Oxford comma, context is everything.
Imagine if stop signs were instead designed with these words: “For the safety of yourself and others, please slow your vehicle to an absolute stop before passing this sign”? That is too much work for a driver to imbibe whilst in the crazy environmental atmosphere of traffic, let alone with absence of daylight. But a long-winded mediation on leaves falling in a work of fiction that helps to connect autumn with the death of a family’s fortunes might be worth the extra words.
Why Does This Matter?
As a writing teacher, I’ve found that many students don’t really understand the full implications of writing for others.
In school–and I’ll include college here–we get that writing could be for ourselves (notes and diary entries) or for a teacher. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we think of our classmates as audience members. Mostly though, young people hardly ever write something long and measured for an audience.
Many students also suffer from a very popular human ailment: imposter syndrome. I get this all the time as a teacher: Am I really helping these students? But students, with their inexperience, can really suffer from it.
Imposter syndrome is so endemic in high school, that I address it multiple times at the beginning of the year when we do our narrative units. In fact, it’s my goal to make sure that before we move on, students know the power of their own lives in writing.
Like our stop sign, how would writing be useful if it didn’t do something for both writer and reader?
The other issue is that meaning is interlinked with design.
What comes first? What comes last? What anecdotes do I add? Is this too much? Is this really three paragraphs? This sentence is probably too long. I feel like an em dash is better to use than a colon here. Did I use this word correctly? Will my reader get this neologism?
As for this piece of writing, I attempted to get into your inner circle, your tribe, to become–if only temporarily–a trusted friend by letting you into my own struggles. I humanized myself with my honest story about being totally tricked by social media. I told stories about the history of traffic and the development of written language to get you to see a story in another way as well as increasing my credibility as an observer of the world.
The style of my writing is loose, and it is my hope that it hints at the person behind it. That too humanizes me.
But I don’t have the luxury of time here. An inner circle, a tribe, these are built with time and familiarity. Therefore, this text needs to be far briefer and more concise.
If we didn’t need such meticulous design in writing, the internet would be far vaster and infinite. Just spreadsheets and spreadsheets of data. But we are not computers.
Instead, we choose the power of stories, the power anecdotes. And we design texts with rules agreed upon over the centuries to shape a form of communication that evolved over thousands of years ago.
It’s a challenging medium to design in.