Software reduces art to science and turns judgments into point-and-click routines. Desktop publishing and tax preparationÂ 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 fromÂ amateurs. Author Robert W. Harris shares the secrets of typography and graphic design in a forthcoming book, â€œThe Elements of Visual Style.â€ I read a preprint issued by Houghton Mifflin which has scheduled publicationÂ for May.
The title of this bookÂ harken’s back to Strunk & Whiteâ€™s classic, theÂ â€œElements of Style.â€ Whether â€œVisual Styleâ€ will have the shelf life of its namesake remains to be seen. But desktop publishers whoÂ readÂ this slimÂ volume will get aÂ 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 Designâ€ is not a program guide. It is not â€œdocumentationâ€ or a tutorialÂ for this, that or the other DTP package. The bookÂ presumesÂ readers have some grasp of how to use their software; what the author supplies is the foundation to useÂ DTP tools to best effect. Harris writes that â€œVisual Styleâ€:
— 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 â€œwhite spaceâ€) 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:
Â â€œThe main purpose of type is to convey ideas.Â Any inventiveness in using type needs to serve that purpose and not interfere with it . . .Â 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 . . .â€
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 Iâ€™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. Itâ€™s nothing personal. The whole drift of technology is to make toolsÂ 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 â€œThe Elements of Visual Styleâ€ makes a graceful attempt to raise the professionalism of printed communication.