As the look and feel change, so do our minds . . .

I’m a text geek. Most of what I do professionally involves text, either writing it or making it more appealing to read. I think in text, to the extent that (as I wrote about in Viral Learning) when I think of the color red, what I see in my mind is not the color itself, but the letters r-e-d (in a serif font, of course).

Every so often, though, something reminds me that the way I look at text has changed considerably over my lifetime. Consider the page spread here, which I shot from the 1954 Britannica Book of the Year my brother sent me for my birthday last year (because it covers the events of 1953, the year I was born).

what spiffy text used to look like

Once upon a time, this was bright and appealing page design, at least for publications as dignified as Britannica. When I received this volume last summer, I was shocked at how the pages looked–when we were kids, my brother and I used to love looking at these yearbooks partly because they had photos and looked far more interesting than the regular encyclopedia volumes.

As an adult, I find these pages unappealing—they’re a slog to read through, and not just because of the tiny print demanding too much of my presbyopic eyes. The margins are too narrow, the blocks of texts are too solid, and subheads are virtually nonexistent. I’m far less willing now to scan through the pages looking for the specific information I want.

Why so? I’ve been trained over the past three decades by the changes in the ways information is presented now. The early GUIs, like the first Mac OS, taught us to notice typefaces—sometimes explicitly (most of us quickly learned to avoid ransom note fonts), but more often in ways beyond our conscious notice. This was brought home to me a couple of years ago when my parents returned my copy of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth unread (they’d not wanted to watch the movie because they find his voice annoying), because, as my mom put it, “It’s too dumbed down with all the pictures and big print.” I’d thought the book was an effective conversion of the slideshow, keeping the feel of the original with the charts and photos while adding plenty of additional information (including plenty of text). It would not have occurred to me that the size of the print meant the contents demanded a lower level of cognition. In short, my parents (in their 70s) expect serious nonfiction to look like the Britannica used to. My own expectations are different now.

I demand more now from the nonfiction I read. (With fiction, I’m still perfectly content with page after page of straight text–after all, I’m still into linear stories rather than the graphic novels that appeal to my older daughter these days.) i want good tables of contents and running heads and plenty of subheads to guide me. Modern publishing technology means that adding all those bells and whistles—making texts pretty!—is easy. It’s the effect of using software instead of lead type.

But I’m also reading far more than I read three decades ago. I’m not reading a book or two a week the way I used to—I’m reading books, plus articles from journals I’ve never seen physical copies of, newspapers from other continents, not to mention all the web information sources that don’t even have paper analogues. The volume of material I read is probably several times what it was when I was confined to paper. Without all the assistance from modern design esthetics, I couldn’t get through everything that interests me these days. I’ve learned to sort and judge material in ways I don’t even yet realize.

My brain processes are undoubtedly going through more changes even as I wonder at how they’ve already changed. Take that Pulse Reader on my iPad, for instance. It’s not only a pretty implementation of a news reader, but it lets me view more feeds more quickly than I could with my old RSS readers. (The review has more photos and a video.) In another year, who knows what new apps will be changing the ways I think and work?


Pulse Reader on the iPad


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