Some People Actually Read: Sparing a Thought for ‘Readers’ in the Design Community

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The ever burgeoning web design community has received numerous plaudits for its incessant dedication towards collaborative information sharing. Tutorials, CSS website showcases and open source web development projects are some of the many treats available to the knowledge-seeking design enthusiast. Social media networks too have been thoroughly utilised in promoting the vast amount of material available for designers, amongst other like-minded visual arts aficionados. But what is there in store for the ‘reader’? – The normal thumb-twiddling average Joe who has a keen appreciation of visual aesthetics but is first and foremost a reader.

It is rather ironic that designers, the people chiefly responsible for making the web a more visually attractive and ‘readable’ place, are men and women of few and calculated words. Till date, it is almost a rarity to find full-length commentary based articles on design related matters, apart from certain established web magazines that have developed rich content for years.

Learning Through Reading

Don’t get me wrong, information compilation and sharing are vital ingredients in stimulating creative inspiration, but we must also realise the true potentialities of the Internet as a discursive space for learning through reading.

It seems that a large majority of design practitioners have taken the ill-advised route of assuming the web to be a place for quick, superficial and intellectually undemanding browsing. “Information bombardment” seems to be an apt descriptor to account for the generous emphasis placed by designers on the collation of ‘lists’, summaries and other compact types of content that do little to stimulate concrete discussion. It is high time the community took a retrospective look at how to contribute more effectively towards incisive and analytical debate on design aesthetics; readable feature length articles on pertinent issues in the world of web design that engage and provoke constructive discussion. Initiating this seismic shift from information to content is however not easy.

Statistics have shown that online audiences are not ‘patient’ and passive readers, but rather active ‘clickers’ who have an innate tendency to dash through multiple RSS feeds at lightning speed.

Statistics

Chart showing the maximum amount of text users could read during an average visit to pages with different word counts. (How Little Do Users Read?)

Based on the above premise, it would be pointless to introduce substantial content-rich editorials. But the earnest is on designers to create design environments that encourage online visitors to read and respond and not simply scurry through. The process of design extends beyond the visual domain. It also concerns the dynamics of communication and information architecture – how content is put across and conveyed in a poignant and compelling manner.

It is thus a logical to infer that designers, to a certain extent, ‘design’ their own audiences. They have the power to instil and inculcate specific ‘reading cultures’ through the manipulation of various design elements, such as typographic compositions and content presentational techniques.

The field of web design in particular has progressed leaps and bounds, both in terms of community participation and technical prowess.

It's Time

It is time now for designers to take the next giant leap in designing a reader-friendly web not just for lists but for hard-hitting, ground breaking and poignant content on design.

Are you up for the challenge?

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Josh is an academic researcher, specializing in online media and visual design culture. He is currently doing a PhD on youth engagement with new media. In addition to his academic pursuits, he runs Tripping Words, an award-winning design blog housing an array of opinions on web design philosophy.

  1. 1

    A great read. Great article.

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  2. 2

    Beautiful article. This somehow reflects the whole mood going on right now, especially after the highly debated article of Drawar…
    And I think it’s is a general problem, not only in the design community. But frankly I believe that this is just a phase and at some point in the future links named “100+ best bla bla resources” will simply not be clicked anymore because designers and developers will realize that it did not help them in any way to learn more.

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  3. 3

    @Acuity – Thanks!

    @Mary – I agree with you. Even though I do post list posts here in Design Informer, they are mostly inspiration posts of artwork that I find. That is why I am the Design Informer. :)

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  4. 4

    Thanks for the comments.

    @ Mary- Thanks for the compliment. Your postulation that ‘lists’ are simply a part of a periodical ‘phase’ is very heartening. Hopefully more content will arise from the community.

    Design Informer has a good balance of both. In my opinion, it is probably one of the best design sites out there at the moment. Excellent work Jad!

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  5. 5

    I strongly agree. Personally I’ve found that traffic and subscriber wise I’ve been getting steady and increasing site traffic and a pretty good reader base. When the entire list phase was in full force I actually found it to be highly annoying because it really didn’t do much in terms of allowing a designer/developer to learn something new, plus a lot of it was recycled.

    I know in my early days of design up till now that I appreciate and happen to be more attracted to articles that gave me something to think about or challenged me.
    .-= David´s latest Blog Entry – Navigating Awkward Clients =-.

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  6. 6

    @Josh – Thanks for the compliments. I love your blog as well. Absolutely fantastic content. Your articles are always thought-provoking.

    @David – Thanks for joining in the discussion. I like regular articles, but I also like list posts as well. I wouldn’t be able to just read article after article without a list post in between. The only pet peeve I have about list posts, like you said, is that most of it is just recycled and after a while, you start having round-ups of round-ups.

    Something like:

    50 excellent round-ups of the 20 best showcases of the top 300 tutorials of all time.

    :) What do you think of that title?

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  7. 7

    Interesting article! I would also add that I find a lot of the content being pumped into the design community to be virtually unreadable, mostly because of poor grammar or really bad English. I understand that English is not the mother tongue of everyone in the community, but good writing is important! If you’re English skills aren’t up to snuff, consider partnering with a good editor who can polish your content for publication!

    Just my two cents. Great article, though.
    .-= Matt Ward´s latest Blog Entry – Echoes – Week 15 (Dec 1, 2009) =-.

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  8. 8

    Being an author for Smashing Magazine, I have written quite a few round-ups, lists and showcases in the last month or so. I say written because in most of my work I do try to include at least a line of text for every image I present to the readers, however at times it’s not always possible.

    I too do like a good article once in a while; it’s something I’m going to try and improve on over the new few months and would like to post at least one every couple of weeks over at Circlebox Blog.

    I think one of the biggest problems (other than English not being the mother tongue of everyone in the community as mentioned above by Matt) is that it is hard to come up with topics to write about, especially with so many design sites out there now. Where as round-ups and showcases can be done on a regular basis because so much content is being pumped out by great designers and what not.

    Really interesting article though, great read.

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  9. 9

    I wonder what sort of re-engagement English and Communications departments might make with web-based writing instruction. A lot of instruction – even in professional and technical writing – doesn’t come from people with significant design backgrounds; but then, I know that I’m thankful for the many lists and the many design sites out there so I can manage a baseline level of incompetence with design software and theory, typography, color and layout, all that stuff. We still tend to teach writing for books and essays, with books and essays, and rarely stray into other disciplines for alternative techniques.

    Interesting article, at any rate, one I’m going to have to consider as I prep for next semester’s classes.

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  10. 10

    Cheers for the comments.
    I do realise that writing for the web requires an independent set of skills. I guess we have to keep our expectations realistic. At the end of the day, we want good quality reads which may not necessarily be literary masterpieces. There is so much to write about design and visual aesthetics. As a researcher, I’ve often wished that the design community would direct more resources towards the ideas, concepts and philosophies behind design. While appreciation for visual aesthetics is necessary, having an intellectual grasp of the field is equally important. That is one of the primary reasons why I started my own blog.

    Josh

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  11. 11

    @Matt – Your statement is very true. As an English speaker, I really get turned off by articles that have very poor grammar and spelling errors. The sad thing about that is some of these blogs actually have good content, it’s just that their English is so poor. Like you said, they should consider partnering up with somebody. I know someone who has great blogs but he really doesn’t speak English very well, and he is now hiring editors.

    @Callum -Yes, I guess after you have blogged for some time, you do start running out of ideas.

    @Jason – I’m thankful for them as well. Just can’t stand it when they make re-make another list that has already been done a few times.

    @Josh – Thanks again for writing this article.

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  12. 12

    I’ve been mulling this over for a couple months now, and have started a modest little blog a couple weeks ago with that goal in mind: to add what little I can to an under-developed side of design, the “thinking person’s designer.” Every designer is an observer, that’s what makes us designers, but I find that I can understand a topic even a little bit more when I write about it. Even if it’s only a couple hundred words, putting thought to “paper” helps me elucidate my own jumbled mess of a thought process. Now that I’ve gotten in a rhythm, I’ve also found that I think more than I did before about what I’m doing, and I try and tie together events in “reality” with how they relate, if at all, to design.

    In short, writing has made me a better designer, even if only marginally. Concurrently, I’ve been looking for sites, similar to Design Observer, A List Apart, Ideas on Ideas, etc which focus on the thoughts behind the actions of design, advertising, etc. Lists hold no interest to me, and Smashing is one of the few “second wave” of design blogs which I still read with any regularity. It never hurts to keep tabs on lists, etc, but the bulk of my daily RSS reading is on a smaller number of higher quality reads.

    For what it’s worth.

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    • 13

      Stuart,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Design Informer. BTW, it was refreshing to read the articles on your blog.

      but I find that I can understand a topic even a little bit more when I write about it.

      That’s one of the main reasons why I started this blog. Right on!

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  13. 14

    I admit that I fall into the “active clicker” category. This article has helped to ground me. I do appreciate the various tutorials and roundups out there on the web, and have learned a great deal in a short amount of time thanks to the constant stream of information that flows through twitter. A lot of this information probably would have not passed through my browser otherwise. To give you a frame of reference, this is the type of design and development that is happening where I come from: http://remus.org Sometimes it’s nice to just take a break and peruse just the image portion of the sites mentioned above as visual stimulation.

    After seeing Mary Lou’s comment, googling and reading the Drawar article, it really makes me wish that I started out at a younger age. The community contributory sharing vibe going on right now is truly beautiful, although I have heard that this was not as present in the early days of development.

    I’m really not a true designer yet, but the intense passion is flowing through my veins. I’ve had no formal college or training for that matter. The writing aspect brings a gripping feeling of fear. I full-heartedly admire, even have a sense of adoration for those who can communicate and write well. It’s truly a gift. Anyone who has had the financial resources/opportunity to earn a degree is very blessed.

    I’ve often thought that it would be very cool to find an book that would instruct the fundamentals of writing for the web to one coming from a very low level of education. Maybe the information is out there and I just haven’t discovered the correct keywords yet.

    As my palms sweat while writing this comment, I offer you a sincere thank you for helping me move to a path beyond hyper.

    “Hi! My name is Sü Smith and I was an active clicker.”

    lol, cute: 50 excellent round-ups of the 20 best showcases of the top 300 tutorials of all time.
    .-= Sü Smith´s latest Blog Entry – Web based email client with collaboration & business apps =-.

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    • 15

      Sü,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Active discussion is definitely something that I want to happen here on Design Informer.

      I myself will admit that I am an active clicker. :)

      BTW, glad you have a passion in design. Keep practicing and learning and eventually, you will be good at what you do. I’m glad you liked this article.

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  14. 16

    Hi Josh,

    This is a very interesting article. But it makes me really wonder about something and I’d like to ramble a bit and share my thoughts. First of all, I want to say that English is not my first language so please don’t judge the content by the form. :)

    My question is: will the nature of the Internet usage in the future be in reading? The Internet is very young medium and is still evolving. What if its natural course isn’t in reading but in browsing? If not when speaking about the Internet in general, at least where social networking, blogs and other similar services are concerned. If I can give the same message both visually and by text, I’d rather use visuals. If I can choose to receive some information (statistics for example) in text of in graph, I’ll always pick the visual way (and no, I’m not dyslexic :) ). I’m not saying to give up on written text altogether, but use it either sparingly or only where the visual way is impractical. And let’s wait and see where the evolution of the Internet will take us. Personally, I am very curious about how the Internet content will look 5 years from now.

    I hope that made sense.

    Cheers,

    entis

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  15. 17

    @ Entis

    You make some very good points. Well, I certainly agree that the Internet seems to be veering towards an age of visual stimulation as opposed to wordy articles, more so in the design community. While images are useful in certain circumstances (statistics, showcases etc), I believe that good literary content will serve to further elaborate on design. Concepts, ideas and philosophies are best written to ensure clarity and reduce ambiguity. I believe the future of Internet reading lies in the hands of web practitioners themselves. If more members of the design community (or any other field) make it a point to churn out thought-provoking content on a regular basis, there will be ‘readers’. As I mentioned in the article, designers ‘design’ their readers to a large extent.

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    • 18

      Well said Josh. Nice response!

      I believe that good literary content will serve to further elaborate on design.

      I completely agree. You can only explain so much with visuals, and there are definitely times where a literary content can further delve into more detail. You can’t always attach a photo or a clipart with every sentence you write. :)

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  16. 19

    Great post.

    Using and breaking grids helps us tremendously to organize, emphasize, unify.

    Organize the information in a visually appealing way, columns of text, headlines, images, call-outs, etc. without sacrificing readability or consistency is the key. Color represents the theme. White space creates an easier reader experience, inviting the viewer to feel more relaxed and engaged.

    Emphasize the content by using the proper hierarchy for our web pages allows for a quick scan the content to find the most relevant items.

    Unify – proportion is a beautiful thing, but simple and subtle changes have the potential to really make a difference to the reader.

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  17. 21

    This was an impressively written article. A List Apart should positively be the aim for any design blog looking to publish inspiring content.
    I believe that if a website pushes out lists constantly, the user is going to eventually understand that they don’t care about the community and are really here only to serve themselves. I agree with Mary Lou, in that users will eventually not find this type of content as attractive; the sooner the better which is exactly why articles like this are important.
    .-= David Korona´s latest Blog Entry – The Heart of Our Community =-.

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    • 22

      Thanks David for sharing your 2 cents.

      I enjoy going to your blog and reading what you have to say. Keep up the great work and I look forward to your first guest article here on Design Informer. ;)

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