Designers traditionally hate text. It’s the grey stuff that gets in the way of the pictures, and there’s always too much of it. (Or, according to a satirical member of the design team at Bloomberg Businessweek, “Words: page clutter to be eliminated.”)
But as an art director, I find myself atypically drawn to magazines that still offer something to read. Vanity Fair carries pieces as long as 20,000 words and and it’s not unusual to find 30,000 word stories in The New Yorker.
The latter has just launched an iPad app that’s “all about reading”, according to Pamela Maffei McCarthy, the magazine’s deputy editor. The app isn’t a visual desert – each feature starts with an enticing opening spread, but is followed by, as in the printed version, pages of unadorned reading matter. As McCarthy says, “There are some bells and whistles, but we’re very careful about that. We think about whether or not they add any value. And if they don’t, out the window they go.”
However the comparatively text-heavy Vanity Fair and The New Yorker are the exception in our modern age of time-poor consumers, where the trend is towards more visuals and less (and more fragmented) text. In a recent interview, the writer PJ O’Rourke bemoaned the situation. “The changes in medium are shortening attention spans. There’s less market for serious thinking because serious thinking can’t be done in 800 words. One worries.”
It’s a very modern issue. Go back to to the mid-19th century and large areas of unbroken and unillustrated copy were the norm in newspapers and magazines. This was largely because photography was in its infancy and reproducing illustrations was a laborious process. But, more importantly, people were more inclined to read. Without the distraction of TV, radio and film, reading was an important source of information and entertainment and images weren’t considered essential.
Indeed in a poem of 1846 Wordsworth was appalled by what he saw as a trend towards dumbing down by illustrated books and newspapers:
“Avaunt this vile abuse of pictured page!
Must eyes be all in all, the tongue and ear
Nothing? Heaven keep us from a lower stage!”
It’s really digital technology since the 1990s that has enabled and encouraged a faster-reading, text-light style of page, both in print and online. A massive increase in channels competing for readers’ attention has accelerated the trend.
So do we all now have shorter attention spans? Have we lost the habit of reading? Do we really lose interest after 140 characters? Or, as Nicholas Carr asked in The Atlantic magazine, “Is Google making us stupid?”
In fact we’re probably consuming more words than ever before – when you include emails, websites, and print and online newspapers and magazines. And of course books and, increasingly, ebooks.
But people are now used to having their diet of reading matter chopped up for them and served in bite-sized chunks. As publishers we combine ingredients – headlines, intros, pull quotes, box outs, hyperlinks, captions and crossheads – to whet the reader’s appetite. And we give them the choice to graze on bite-sized chunks of copy or tuck in to satisfyingly involved features – depending on the brand and its customers’ tastes.
And that, of course, is the key. Readers are as hungry for content as they’ve ever been. It’s just a question of serving it appropriately.
And having stretched an analogy to breaking point, maybe I should return to my pictures.