Style Rulz


Software reduces art to science and turns judgments into point-and-click routines. Desktop publishing and tax preparation are examples of professional skills that have been boiled down and percolated into general practice.

But professionals still have tricks-of the trade that set them apart from amateurs. Author Robert W. Harris shares the secrets of typography and graphic design in a forthcoming book, “The Elements of Visual Style.” I read a preprint issued by Houghton Mifflin which has scheduled publication for May.

The title of this book harken’s back to Strunk & White’s classic, the “Elements of Style.” Whether “Visual Style” will have the shelf life of its namesake remains to be seen. But desktop publishers who read this slim volume will get a good grounding in the essentials of graphic design. I know the subject first hand. In 1980s I ran a small typography and publishing firm that was ultimately clobbered by desktop publishing.

“Visual Design” is not a program guide. It is not “documentation” or a tutorial for this, that or the other DTP package. The book presumes readers have some grasp of how to use their software; what the author supplies is the foundation to use DTP tools to best effect. Harris writes that “Visual Style”:

— catches the eye
— directs attention
— organizes information
— is easy to comprehend
— is void of distractions

Neatly and adroitly, Harris explains the fundamentals of choosing type; how to mix styles and toward what end; how to use photos, designs and emptiness (called “white space”) to evoke feelings or aid in comprehension. Although this is a book for the layperson it is meant to create an awareness and appreciation of the professional ethic that good design never calls attention to itself. It is, instead, self-effacing. Harris writes:

 “The main purpose of type is to convey ideas.  Any inventiveness in using type needs to serve that purpose and not interfere with it . . .  Designing a page is essentially a matter of dividing it into text, space and art . . . you want the appearance of a page (or an entire document) to make sense based on its purpose . . .”

I look back on my graphic design days with some nostalgia. Desktop publishing first emerged when I had about five years experience as a typographer. Five years later we had decided to get out of typography. It was hardly a choice. Virtually every one of our prime accounts had taken the work we used to do in-house, buying a desktop publishing system and designating some staffer to produce the newsletters, brochures and other printed materials that had been our stock in trade.

Today I’m a newspaper reporter, another profession being challenged by citizen amateurs. Once again my professional skills are being distilled and disseminated through software. Oh, well. It’s nothing personal. The whole drift of technology is to make tools  more capable and democratize skills. Some technologists ultimately hope to create machines that can surpass human intelligence. Humankind is in for a comeuppance if and when artificial intelligence gurus get their way.

Meanwhile, the best thing professionals can do nowadays is to reckon themselves to the inevitable surrender of their specialty and do whatever they can to help the amateurs behave responsibly. In that light “The Elements of Visual Style” makes a graceful attempt to raise the professionalism of printed communication.