| November 16, 2011 5:59 pm

For the past several months, I’ve found myself teaching technology courses. (Which is strange, since I’m not really a technologist.) To date, I’ve taught courses about Web Development, Programming, Networking, and (most recently) … Microsoft Office. I hope that you can appreciate the irony in this.

While I don’t have anything against Microsoft [1], I have a grudge against Office. This isn’t because it’s unstable, that it often makes easy things impossible, or that it has mangled and masticated my work. No, my single biggest complaint against Microsoft Office is that it contributes to an uglier world.

Don’t believe me? Consider the default typefaces: Times New Roman and Arial [2].

There is a reason that Times New Roman (as used by Word) and Arial are reviled. The one is a knock-off of a newspaper font meant for narrow columns, and the other is a Helvetica copy. In Word, they are used for the body and headings, respectively, and that is wrong. Using Times New Roman for body text results in way too many characters per line and makes the text more difficult to read. Using Arial with Times New Roman leads to a font-mismatch of epic proportions. Fonts have histories, personalities, and contexts and Arial and Times New Roman just don’t fit.

And I’ve said nothing about Word’s notoriously poor type-handling and typographical quality [3]. Whether it’s optical margins, font kerning, ligatures, or numerals; it’s all consistently wrong. Microsoft is a big company, if they wanted to get things right, they could.

But, they don’t.

For that reason, I spend most of my time convincing people not to use Word. I steer them toward writing tools like Scrivener, which provides a lovely way to capture ideas and create drafts; page layout tools like Scribus and InDesign, where they can exert fine-toothed control over the appearance of their document; or (best of all), technologies like LaTeX and LyX, which combine the best of both worlds.

Unfortunately, though, Microsoft Office is one of those pieces of software that everyone needs a familiarity with. It’s in every industry, and many companies, universities, and organizations mandate its use. For this reason, I’ve kept most of my venomous opinions to myself. (Moreover, it would be bad form — crass, even — to directly slander the Office Suite to students taking an introductory course in Microsoft Office.)

* * *

Instead, I’ve decided to take a different tack. Rather than directly attack Word as the embodiment of “good enough,” [5] I’ve been trying to cultivate an awareness of beautiful communication.

We’ve had class discussions about what it means to communicate responsibly, looked at why an author [4] has a special accountability to her audience to facilitate understanding, and I’m planning a discussion about how beauty influences understanding. And while I’d prefer to be teaching LaTeX, LyX, Scribus, and the related technologies, these conversations have made the course extremely enjoyable; insightful, even. What’s more, I’ve been tremendously impressed at the depth that many of the students have shown.

For the most parts, these aren’t graphic design students or art connoisseurs. Yet, they know what beautiful communication looks like. They recognize carefully crafted writing, differentiate between effective and distracting illustration, can filter out chart-junk, and appreciate beautiful design. Nothing needed to be taught, they just knew. Certainly, they might not have the vocabulary to express the technical details, or the knowledge to produce similar work on their own, but the apps students know what good is when they see it.

I’ve been so impressed in the comments and insights, that I’ve found myself wanting to repeat the conversations with a slightly different audience: the readers of this website. You, dear readers, are an interesting group. Some of you are coders, designers, and artists. Others are scientists, engineers, and technologists. Still others are horse people. But despite the diverse backgrounds, many of the people I’ve met through the postings here have greatly impressed me with their knowledge of writing, typography, art, and design.

For that reason (and if you will indulge me), I’d like to pose a few of the same questions that we’ve been discussing in my apps class and to hear your thoughts [6].  Here is the first:

While the soul of a message lies in what you have to say, there are other aspects of creating a presentation, numerical report, or written draft that are important as well. One of these is how beautiful the final product appears.

Whether we like it or not, Western culture has a bias for beautiful things. We like slick electronics, nicely designed clothes, and carefully typeset literature. Indeed, in many cases, it is expected.

Companies like Apple, IKEA, the Gap, and others spend millions of dollars each year making sure that the materials their customers come into contact with – literature, advertisements, signage, etc – are beautiful. In the advertising world, such branding and impression management offer lucrative opportunities.

But how important are such considerations for individuals? Should a teacher judge the contents of your final report based on the font you choose to use? Should an employer reject an applicant because they used Comic Sans when composing their resume?

For that matter, what makes for a beautiful report, poster, paper, or flyer? How can you strike the balance between what you have to say, how you have to say it, and the impression that the final product gives to others?

Please let me know what you think in the comments.


[1] Indeed, unlike many open source people, I have a great deal of respect for the people at Redmond. They’ve created some very nice technology. Their developer tools, for example are superb (though costly) and their expression design tools are handy (once you get the hang of them).

[2] I will concede that more recent versions of Word have gotten much better in the default fonts department. The default font in Word 2007 and 2010, Calibri (for body texts) and Cambria (for Headings) are nice fonts, but … the default document settings are still lackluster. And when you start considering the default color palettes … well … we’re back to ghastly.

[3] Yes, I know that Word 2010 supports advanced OpenType features. But it is inconsistent and requires quite a bit of work to get right. As far as I’m concerned, another example of actively making the world an uglier place.

[4] I’m using the terms “author” and “audience” very broadly. In addition to those who string words together, I’m also including those who speak, present, and use numbers to communicate larger truths about the world.

[5] I’ve got a serious peeve about “good enough.” The enough is a qualifier. Good enough prevents people from striving for excellence. Instead of making the additional refinements which would transform the draft, picture, service, or product into something truly outstanding, people stop at “good enough.”

[6] In full disclosure, I also have a somewhat selfish rationale. I am currently workshopping the last few chapters of Open Source Writing and I’ve found these conversations help to inform the information found in the book.


2 Responses to “Beauty and Understanding”

Alisdair wrote a comment on November 26, 2011

Probably I’m not best qualified to comment on this, but I’m arrogant enough to have a go!

Perhaps context and purpose should govern the answers to these questions.

In a situation where we are writing ‘under authority’, e.g. as a student producing an essay, and employee writing a report, I would strongly argue that as a matter of fairness and responsibility it is up to the ‘authority’ to provide a ‘house style’/templates, etc. to release the writer to concentrate on the content, and not be distracted/anxious about ‘the look’.

More generally, I was always taught that the default position for any kind of formal presentation is that it should not distract from the content, but discretely complement/enhance it. This is occasionally derided as boring, but then we’ve all had the to endure atrocities where someone has attempted to make the content ‘look’ interesting.

More excitingly, we shouldn’t always depend on professionals to do the work for us. It’s only by doing that we learn, but then we should also actually be willing to learn, i.e. seek out and take on board advice and criticism.

So, here’s to the typographic atrocity; long may it continue, but may the perpetrator move on to develop an eye for what is beautiful—for what ‘works’—and leave the next atrocity to another who is setting out to communicate in type and graphics.

Rob Oakes wrote a comment on November 30, 2011

Thank you for sharing this extremely well-thought out comment. I agree very strongly with several, especially regarding your points about being “under authority.”

In particular, I like the point about perpetrating atrocities. We all know good design when we see it (whether that design be typographic, aesthetic, or interior in nature), but we don’t always have the skills to create it. For that reason, we should absolutely be allowed to experiment, try, and fail. After all, it’s usually through failure (and correction) that we get better (even if it’s just self-correction).

Care to comment?