“If you ever find yourself designing something a certain way because you think it would be better that way, then you’re probably performing art and not design. Art is about self-expression. Design is selfless.” – Jeff Harris
As I’ve been working on various projects, in the design realm as well as media literacy writings, I’ve begun to tackle the question of presenting information more regularly. The question seems to extend itself more and more to those I deal with, so I’ve decided to publicly expound on some of the ideas and practices I’ve entertained and exercised. I suppose, since this is to be a public discussion, or a thought put forth in the shelves of the marketplace of ideas, I should begin with my thoughts regarding the reason why presentation means so much to the writer.
In the earlier days of what might easily be labeled the “social web”, there were developers, creators and founders of web sites, or applications, welcoming the public to type their thoughts in textboxes. This practice has not changed, however the manner, or liberty with how much personality a person using these sorts of applications has. From the days of MySpace where a user could alter the background of their “page” to Facebook where the textboxes are strictly controlled for any adaptations, we’ve seen a strong adherence to the principles of presentation control. What you type into the boxes is your business-to a degree- but how that content is rendered to the public is a part of the visual branding of the application you are using.
Even with sites such as Blogger, the conversations of the founder’s regarding the earlier decision making is strongly geared to controlling how the writing of the users is presented. It should come to no surprise if one follows the trajectory, that Blogger founders move to develop Twitter, and in an even more controlled visual environment Medium. This need for a dictatorship over content presentation has evolved from a few select template designs with a styling guide predicated on a proprietary front-end code to an application where no choice in the presentation of content is to be found outside of the basic text editor. Some where in the boardrooms of start-up execs, the idea that how the words of individuals are presented in an application that seemingly promotes self-expression is a reflection on the application itself.
In our own writing, then, it should of course become something of a consideration. Does what you type become a prisoner of the format and surrounding design of that which you present what you’ve typed? Apparently, it would seem, yes. There are not many objective or groundbreaking presentations that are not capable of escaping the subjective force of the visual aesthetics they are presented through. The very font size we choose– although there is definitely an argument there in the realm of utility–brings with it concerns about presentation. How we present what we write has enough bearing on how it will be regarded to take note of it before having it published in the public sphere.
So far I’ve discussed business model constants and constraints. As a designer, I’ve matured from a purely artistic approach to one middling somewhere between “ah that looks dope!” and “okay, I get the message”. Return of investment is not the only reason one should be concerned with presentation. As hinted in the example of font size, one needs to be careful that how they present a message doesn’t impede the message’s resonance or reception. The most poetic and refined love letter written on toilet paper might communicate much more than what is actually written. This might seem an extreme example, but a business man with such success as owning an NBA team once published a missive typed in Comic Sans. As the world wide web has shown many of us, in the public communication’s sphere, it doesn’t take much to run into extremities!
Design for me has become a study of subjective objectives. That is, subjective considerations at root that manifest themselves as objective realities. It might not be prudent for the president of the United States(of any hue at any time) to address their country people as,”My Niggas”. The rendering of that term is purely subjective, yet the reaction and response to it is so objective that one could measure it without much resource loss. The use of Comic Sans as a font to illustrate one’s anger and frustration at a betrayal speaks at such a high degree of resonance that you could feel the laughter and the diminishing of credibility prior to even reading the missive. The jokes told themselves that night.
“Good design, good typography is a function of information and inspiration, of the conscious and unconscious, of yesterday and today a fact and fantasy, work and play, craft and art.” – Paul Rand
In an attempt to understand from a practical level what subjective objectives have to be considered, it is of course necessity to know ones audience. Knowing one’s audience is different than knowing one’s targeted market. It is the difference in knowing what you aimed to hit in a shooting range from what you actually hit. Who you wish to talk to is not always who you are talking to. This sort of reminds me of conversations I have with some sisters about the men that they attract. The phrasing is something like,”I am not happy with my options”, which can, and should be translated as,”I’m not happy with the type of men that approach me or that are attracted to me.” Possibly a painful honesty, but one that should be brought to bear if one is to be thorough in certain aspects of their self-analysis. It reflects exactly where we as writers often tend to neglect, and that is, we are not doing this just for ourselves, we may actually want something beyond typed ideas on a page. Knowing exactly what your efforts are yielding may actually be more important than knowing precisely what you want your efforts to yield.
I tend to take as default that most of us are targeting a market. That is to say, we want people that have money to spend to be interested in our publishings. That almost immediately speaks to a class demographic. It also almost immediately sets up an embrace of systemic languages and semiology used to create something that appeals to a group that is being largely appealed to. In essence, we promote a culture of marginalizing people in an indirect, yet direct way simply by targeting the group we believe will be capable of supporting our brand. Sure, this is a dangerous area, because, quite possibly these people will not be able to. I do not write for the illiterate population in Indonesia, and while for some reading that statement it comes across as obvious or common sensical, for another group, it could be taken offensively and used to harm my brand. Yet, the objective reality stands: I do not write for illiterate people, anywhere. An illiterate person is going to have some time making it into my audience, directly or indirectly. But, it is a market, and given certain technologies that exist, some writer’s reading this might want to consider if they have an illiterate base and make supplications for those of their audience that fit the profile.
This is one of the reasons I do not like the appellation of “blogger”. Bloggers have to consider urgency in every element of their design and presentation. Although I do enjoy crafting link bait type titles for my pieces, I do not like composing lists. Lists are used to attract the eye and play upon the need for structure in the mind. They work well for people that write for those with busy schedules. My audience tends to enjoy reading the more comprehensive and detailed aspects of my thoughts on certain topics, so my fondness of theoretical frameworks as opposed to more conceptual ones is good enough. But, if you are writing for an audience that demands short bursts, you will need to get familiar with the color red and the bold button in your word editor. You probably will also need to develop a fondness for large font-sized headers, in fact, if you don’t know what h1 through h6 are, Google should be your friend. Furthermore, if you are one that needs to employ lists fairly regularly, I would suggest studying various methods of separating one point from another. In my experience, numbers lend themselves to a sense of momentum that can add dynamism to your writing.
“Changes in the visual organization of a document can lead to changes in how people perceive its content.” – Karen A. Schriver
While we are on the topic of styles, I write communications that are attractive to other writers. I have other writers in my audience. This is not something I considered when I first started Owl’s Asylum, but it is something that fairly quickly came to my attention. Many writers have informed me that they have learned to write better by reading my works. The number one lesson that these particular writers have conveyed is the use of punctuation, particularly the use of the comma. Now, to some, this might seem elementary, however, I have overheard several conversations between undergrads about the use of the comma. It is not an uncommon device to use incorrectly, or more to my point, effectively. Now, this is not a style guide, I bring this up because if you are going to be a writer, you should be careful about using communication devices in a way that is appropriate to your audience. That may seem like something that should be solely the arena of grammar, but writing is writing and it is most effective at the point of design. How you sprinkle commas and bold type impacts the message and whether a person reading your writing will desire to continue to figure out exactly what you are typing about.
As stated, I do not write for illiterate people in Indonesia. I do not expect that my audience will be highly composed of illiterate peoples of any culture. That being written, I also do not take time to research the cultural idioms of Indonesia with regard to spoken communications. I do not study the devices used to translate the written word into the spoken word. I do not waste a lot of time studying how to cater to audiences that I do not have. I also do not think you should.
I make this statement about not writing for illiterate people prominent in this piece because it establishes two very core principles I take to heart in public writing. One, know who you are writing to, and know the difference between who you are writing to and who you wish to be writing for. I personally do not find it necessary or appealing to write Asylum for people that do not like reading. I am simply not the writer who should be contacted to compose works for people that do not like to read, or who cannot read. Unlike many bloggers who are asked to write at an eighth grade level, I have been blessed to attract an audience that typically aspires to read at a college and above level. Due to my cognizance of much of my audience, I know that if I wrote on an eighth grade level, it would ruin my brand. However, you’re audience may not be my audience just because you are in my audience.
On that topic, I also advertise Asylum as a US Black media literacy essay archive. Now, much of my audience is made up of White Women. This is something I learned after publishing a piece stating why I did not date or romantically involve myself with White Women. I was readily informed via Twitter just how sizable my White Woman audience was, and just how much they enjoy reading my writing. Needless to type, I have since then always kept in the forefront of my mind prior to hitting the publish button of whatever styling that what I have just written will be read by a nice amount of White Women. Knowing your audience is of utmost importance because, why? Well, if you have not figured it out by now, your audience, whether you like it or not, whether you planned for it to be or not, is your market.
Your audience, the group of people that actually are reading your works, is your market. That is to say, your market being that group of people that will and are spending money with you because of your writing. What I have seen from US Blacks using digital platforms to communicate to their audience is this practice of building a base, and then changing the content that attracted the base. Change is important, I tend to believe if you are not changing, you cannot be growing. However, if you built a base around erotic sexual stories, and one day your entire branding is communicating the idea of community events, this really hot to neutral rebranding, I think you’ve lost out. I have seen this more times than I am willing to count, and it almost always sends a person’s brand awash.
My audience is important to me. It is who I have been having these conversations with for the last half decade or more. I would be lying here if I typed that I am not in the business of talking to myself. I am certainly in the business of talking to myself, I totally enjoy and am endeared by my introspection. Yet, I am also indebted to and fond of my audience. You should be, as well. I would be willing to put my name on the line here and type that sixty to seventy-five percent of the writing craft is research, organizing my thoughts, creative style and inspiration gleaning. That other forty to twenty-five percent is all presentation. That includes the language I write in, the vernacular, the grammar, the font choices, the mediums chosen for exposure and publishing, all the way down to the color the screen is styled in. These are all audience considerations. These should be considerations you as writers are making as well.
A writer should be allotting at least twenty-five to forty percent of all time of their published communications towards audience presentation. If you are writing a book and decide to use seven different fonts throughout that book, you better check to make sure that does not offend your audience’s sensibilities. My audience will not stand for it, neither will I, but still. If your audience is composed primarily, or hell, even sparsely of the Jewish community, possibly using that swastika as a logo might be a bad idea. If you are prone to publishing posts with seven different font colors, I would suggest, at least, to consider how your audience is going to react. Prior to your drawing up infographics mapping your return of investment, you should at least have some familiarity with how your audience responds and reacts to your future design considerations.
I do not write for illiterate people in Indonesia. I have never written for illiterate people in Indonesia. I still quote essays I wrote for Owl’s Asylum with published dates from the year when I started Owl’s Asylum. I have been asked to alter the content in the same manner addressed in the above paragraph. I have declined. I have been asked to rebrand, tone down, start another site, write under another name, and otherwise stop Owl’s Asylum from many people over the years. I have not. I do not write for illiterate people in Indonesia, but, I do write for who I write for. I write for the people that are attracted to my writings and have been attracted to them for some years now. Abandoning Owl’s Asylum would be abandoning my audience. It does not say that Owl’s Asylum is bad, and I have agreed that it is bad, and needs changing. It would be saying, my audience is bad in some way, and that I need to be attracting a different audience. And to that, I say, “nay!”