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 Geek.com review has more photos and a video.) In another year, who knows what new apps will be changing the ways I think and work?

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Pulse Reader on the iPad

Update on the new toy

It’s been a week now that I’ve been playing with my new iPad (and by the lack of blog entries I’ve posted during that week, it’s pretty obvious that playing with the iPad is what I’ve been doing).

The iPad is now my favorite tool for reading email and web cruising. The Mail app, especially in landscape mode, is just plain gorgeous, and far easier to read than on my MacBook. For my RSS feeds, I’ve recently started using Pulse, a newsreader app, which has somewhat the same esthetic effect–Pulse gives you each feed in a scrollable row, so that it’s easy to skim through them for interesting items, and allows you to view the full items either as text or html, and gives you the option of jumping into Safari. Essentially, my morning mail-and-web routine now uses my iPad, which frees me from my desk to wander where I will while I catch up with news from the outside world.

Writing has been a bit trickier to work out. Though I like Pages well enough for its design and layout options, and for the occasional short letter, I’m not a fan of it for my regular writing. On my laptop, I use Scrivener for most of my writing, exporting to Nisus Writer Pro when I need something that looks like a Word doc to the rest of the world. But Scrivener is the product of a teeny two-person shop and there is no iPad version planned, so for the time being, I’m using myTexts for my everyday writing. It’s a nice straightforward, no-frills writing app, great for banging out the words without worrying about styles and formatting.

All I need now is to tweak the ergonomics of writing on the iPad  a bit. I’ve used a Bluetooth keyboard at my desk with my MacBook for a few months, which has worked wonders for my shoulders—my desk is too high for comfortable typing on the laptop, and if I actually use the laptop in my lap, the arms and wrists are happier, but my eyes and neck and shoulders are not.

Sitting at a table, with my keyboard on my lap and the iPad on the table works pretty well, but I think I may toddle off to Ikea one of these days for a wheeled laptop tray, so I can slouch with my feet up in my recliner or on my sofa with my keyboard on my lap and the iPad floating at the right eye level.

So I’m comfy at home, or with the 3G, free to read my morning email at the local Peet’s. Life is good.