Written by Mark L. Levinson
At home I have two books by Jerome K. Jerome, which is not as many as a person should have but enough for a comparison. One is a continental edition from 1934, paperbound but on good thick paper with the margins wide and the words spaced generously. The other is a 1965 Penguin. Let me get my ruler out.
The page design in each case is representative of a series of hundreds of books by the same publisher over a period of years. In the 1934 edition, the area for the running text takes up 46% of the page’s area; the rest is the headers and margins. In the 1965 edition, which is the same width but enjoys three quarters of an inch more in height, the running text takes up 63%.
Within that text area, on a typical page, the 1934 edition averages 15 words to a square inch and the 1965 edition averages more than 19. Altogether, there are about twice as many words on the 1965 page as on the page of thirty years earlier.
What happened in those thirty years was that the modern mass-produced paperback book appeared, originally selling for twenty-five cents or even less. And it affected our visual expectations. As Marshal McLuhan said, we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.
Margins, once wide enough for our grandparents to write comments in, were economized down to almost nothing. Words were squeezed together like a car pool of kindergarteners in a fuel shortage. The extra space between sentences too was eroded to save some pennies, and then it was crushed by the indiscriminate regimentation of software until today it has become non-standard typography. There are even people, lifelong readers of the crowded page, who’ll tell you that extra space between sentences is an ugly waste. So, I suppose, are long stems on roses.
Anyway, as readers and writers we came to the computer screen with an ethos of more words in less space, and the screen of the 1970s gave us 24 lines of 80 characters each, which continued to encourage compressing the message. Only recently have we started to see high resolution, big screens, and with them a re-emergence of white space. Things are opening up again. Space is our future. If you’re lucky and you have the whole computer screen to play with, you’re limited only by the hardware constraints of your least fortunate customer. If you’re writing help to be viewed alongside a program, you need to negotiate space, but at least you have something to negotiate. Twenty-odd years ago, writing instructions to go with a graphic program on the IBM PCjr, I recall being limited to two lines of forty characters.
Progressive companies are integrating documentation right into the user’s workspace instead of consigning it to a separate window. Conservative companies, still conditioned by tools we no longer use, prepare typewriter-paper-shaped documents for display on TV-shaped screens. Does that make sense? “Yes,” you’ll be told, “the users read them from printouts anyway.” So has anyone checked how that diagram where the light blue boxes contrast with the light green boxes looks as a black-and-white printout? “No,” you’ll be told, “because the users read them from the screen anyway.”
Digital technology has brought back marginal notes, sometimes in the form of comments that you can stick on what you save or send and sometimes in the form of public space like the comment zone at the end of Mumpy’s articles. The borders are blurring not only between the product and the documentation but also, as link leads to link, between the documentation and the user community.
Paradoxically, in an age when people spend hours and hours viewing blogs, on-line debates, and special-interest mailing lists, the idea still prevails in documentation departments that “People don’t like to read.” I think that given the design opportunities of today’s digital media, they can be coaxed to.
Comments and questions are welcome: ]]