Your attention, please: how to appeal to today’s distracted, disinterested, disengaged, disenchanted and busy consumer by Paul B Brown and Alison Davis
Written by a journalist and a communication consultant, Your attention, please is a small manual intended to help business professionals to write in a way that holds the audience’s attention and get their main points across. The title did get my attention and it resonates with me as a typographer–information designer: that there is simply too much information around us, and people read ever more quickly and selectively. How does this affect writing (and typography)? There are two chapters that link writing to what typographers typically do: ‘provide easy navigation’ and ‘make it visual’. I tend to agree with what the authors suggest in this book. Most of us are not writing novels or other forms of long linear prose for the enjoyment of others. On a daily basis, we are writing with specific communication purposes in mind: that is, writing for ‘task-based reading’. Simple rules like ‘tell a story’ or ‘stay short and sweet’ seem to work well for this kind of writing. The tone of the book is journalistic and rather jolly, to the point of annoying at times. It does have a tendency to nag a little. If it were’t for the fluff and little anecdotes that do not add to the points that the authors are making, the number of pages could easily have been halved. This is nonetheless a good (short) text for practising graphic designers as well as design students, who have to write project reports and documentations for uninitiated readers.
From a typography point of view, this book does live up to its title: everywhere you look, everything begs for your attention. The designer, and to a larger extent (I guess) the authors, had decided to pull out all the stops. There are just too many typographic and layout variations in this little book: several different kinds of sidebars, pull-quotes, numerous kinds of lists, tables, boxes, panels etc., all trying to distract and disorient the reader from reading the continuous text – the main argument. A rough count yields at least 50 different typographic and layout variations in the main body of the book, excluding the table of contents, preliminary pages, index and navigational elements such as the running feet and folios.
Creating a consistent, predictable and most of all, learnable reading pattern is important, in order for the reader to form a clear mental model of the topics and ideas introduced in a document or publication. The systematic application of typographic and layout cues helps classifying different types of content and provide ‘signposts’ for access and navigation. So typography has a semantic function, not simply a visual or aesthetic one.
As suggested in the book, it is true that readers do not necessarily have to read anything from cover to cover, even when the writer (or designer) suggests a sequence or pattern. Magazines and newspapers are written, edited and designed in such a way that would enable readers to pick up and start reading anywhere and stop where they please. All the more reason to make the typography and layout consistent, predictable and learnable. Since the reading experience is fragmented anyway, when the reader picks up the publication again after a break, they would to be able to pick up on the pattern that they had previously learnt.
It’s time to think of a different strategy to consider layout, one that is based on content’s structure and classification rather than one that is primarily motivated by aesthetics and style.