why does typography matter?Conserves reader attention

Ty­pog­ra­phy mat­ters be­cause it helps con­serve the most valu­able re­source you have as a writer—reader at­ten­tion.

At­ten­tion is the reader’s gift to you. That gift is pre­cious. And fi­nite. And should you fail to be a re­spect­ful stew­ard of that gift—most com­monly, by bor­ing or ex­as­per­at­ing your reader—it will be promptly revoked.

Once a reader re­vokes the gift of at­ten­tion, you don’t have a reader any­more. Then you be­come a writer only in the nar­row­est sense of the word. Yes, you put words on some pages. But if your reader has dis­ap­peared, what was the point? How is your writ­ing more valu­able than a ran­dom string of char­ac­ters? Like the prover­bial tree falling in the woods, no one’s there to no­tice the difference.

Un­for­tu­nately, many pro­fes­sional writ­ers adopt a high-risk model of reader at­ten­tion. In­stead of treat­ing reader at­ten­tion as a pre­cious com­mod­ity, they treat it as an un­lim­ited re­source. “I’ll take as much at­ten­tion as I need, and if I want more, I’ll take that too.”

What could be more pre­sump­tu­ous? Or dangerous?

  1. Writ­ing as if you have un­lim­ited reader at­ten­tion is pre­sump­tu­ous, be­cause read­ers are not do­ing you a per­sonal fa­vor. In most cases, read­ing your writ­ing is not their hobby. It’s their job. Which likely in­volves pay­ing at­ten­tion to lots of other writ­ing too.

    I’ll even go one bet­ter: I be­lieve that most read­ers are look­ing for rea­sons to stop read­ing. Not be­cause they’re ma­li­cious or aloof. They’re just be­ing ra­tio­nal. Read­ers have other de­mands on their time. Why would they pay more at­ten­tion than they must? Read­ers are al­ways look­ing for the exit.

  2. Writ­ing as if you have un­lim­ited reader at­ten­tion is also dan­ger­ous, be­cause run­ning out of reader at­ten­tion is fa­tal to your writ­ing. The goal of most pro­fes­sional writ­ing is per­sua­sion, and at­ten­tion is a pre­req­ui­site for per­sua­sion. Once the reader’s at­ten­tion ex­pires, you have no chance to per­suade. You’re just giv­ing a mono­logue in an empty theater.

If you be­lieve reader at­ten­tion is a valu­able re­source, then tools that help you con­serve that re­source are like­wise valu­able. Ty­pog­ra­phy is one of those tools.

Good ty­pog­ra­phy can help your reader de­vote less at­ten­tion to the me­chan­ics of read­ing and more at­ten­tion to your mes­sage. Con­versely, bad ty­pog­ra­phy can dis­tract your reader and un­der­mine your message.

I’m not sug­gest­ing that the qual­ity of your ty­pog­ra­phy is more im­por­tant than the qual­ity of your writ­ing. It’s not. But ty­pog­ra­phy can make good writ­ing even better.

Con­sider a job in­ter­view. (Or, if you pre­fer, its so­cial equiv­a­lent—a first date.) By the day of the in­ter­view, you’ll have spent a lot of time prac­tic­ing an­swers to likely ques­tions. But do you show up to the in­ter­view in a swim­suit and flip-flops? No, of course not. You wear cloth­ing ap­pro­pri­ate for the work­place. And when you talk to the in­ter­viewer, do you slouch in your chair and mum­ble to­ward your shoes? No, of course not. You speak clearly and confidently.

You do these things be­cause you ap­pre­ci­ate, as we all do, that non­ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion counts. Oth­ers draw in­fer­ences about us not just based on what we say, but how we say it.

It’s the same on the printed page. The sub­stance mat­ters, but if that’s all that mat­tered, then every­thing could be set in 12-point Times New Ro­man. And that would be the equiv­a­lent of mum­bling to­ward your shoes. Just as good speak­ing skills mat­ter dur­ing a job in­ter­view, good ty­pog­ra­phy mat­ters in a writ­ten document.

“But I don’t have vi­sual skills. I don’t know any­thing about graphic de­sign.” That’s like say­ing you can’t dress prop­erly for a job in­ter­view be­cause you don’t know any­thing about fash­ion design.

It’s easy to learn the skills to pro­duce good ty­pog­ra­phy. Be­yond that, you need only the abil­ity to form opin­ions about ty­pog­ra­phy. And every­one who reads—even kids—can do this.

Un­con­vinced? Try this. Imag­ine you’re a di­rec­tor of hu­man re­sources. Be­low are two ré­sumés that you’ve re­ceived for a job open­ing at your com­pany. Be­ing a busy per­son, you only have two sec­onds to de­cide who gets the last in­ter­view slot. Who do you pick?

Don’t read the ré­sumés—you don’t have time.
Just make a two-sec­ond decision.

Whose ré­sumé got your at­ten­tion—Vi­o­let’s (the first one) or Trixie’s (the sec­ond)? Whose ré­sumé bet­ter per­suaded you, in two sec­onds, that the can­di­date was worth interviewing?

I’m guess­ing you picked Trixie’s. But why? Maybe you’d say Trixie’s ré­sumé looked more pro­fes­sional, neater, or bet­ter or­ga­nized. All true, but those qual­i­ties don’t ap­pear out of thin air. And if you look again, you’ll see that the cre­den­tials on the ré­sumés are iden­ti­cal. The only dif­fer­ence is the ty­pog­ra­phy. 

So what hap­pened? The ré­sumé with the bet­ter ty­pog­ra­phy at­tracted the bet­ter qual­ity of at­ten­tion. Trixie will be get­ting that in­ter­view; Vi­o­let will not. Not only did you just prove that ty­pog­ra­phy mat­ters, you proved that it mat­ters to you.

And if ty­pog­ra­phy mat­ters to you as a reader—a lit­er­ate adult with no spe­cial vi­sual skills or train­ing—it mat­ters to other sim­i­larly sit­u­ated read­ers. In­clud­ing every­one who reads your work.

Writ­ers skep­ti­cal of ty­pog­ra­phy of­ten say, “No one cares how a text looks. They just fo­cus on the sub­stance.” This is plainly ab­surd. Our ex­pe­ri­ences as read­ers re­peat­edly prove the op­po­site is true. The Vi­o­let–Trixie test is just one example.

Ty­pog­ra­phy mat­ters. The only ques­tion is whether you, as a writer, are go­ing to ne­glect it.

by the way
  • If you truly pre­ferred Vi­o­let’s ré­sumé to Trixie’s, you didn’t fail some ty­po­graphic lit­mus test. The point is the same—what­ever pref­er­ence you had, it was based on ty­pog­ra­phy, not sub­stance. (Though af­ter you read more of this book, come back and see if you still pre­fer Vi­o­let’s résumé.)

  • The old adage that “you can’t judge a book by its cover” may have been ac­cu­rate a hun­dred years ago, be­fore books had dust jack­ets. But it’s not ac­cu­rate to­day. As the Sec­ond Law of Ty­pog­ra­phy pre­dicts, book shop­pers have al­ways been in­clined to make judg­ments based on cov­ers. So book pub­lish­ers have learned to spend time & money cre­at­ing cov­ers that com­mu­ni­cate some­thing mean­ing­ful about the book. There­fore, judge all you want.

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