“Wait a second,” a friend said to me. “The next issue of PRINT is about ‘text’?”
“Yeah,” I said, as he looked to the floor for a moment.
“Huh. … How does that work?”
I’ll admit: A graphic design magazine and a text theme may seem like strange bedfellows. But for me, it goes back to a debate I’ve eavesdropped on a fair amount over the years: Which is more important—word, or image? The copywriting or the “creative”? The “editorial” or the “design”?
As someone who straddles the line between text and design on a daily basis, I decided to explore the question via the pages of this issue. I started with the task of doing a count of every word and image.
• Some 32,000 words of text
• Some 470 images—or rather 160 images … if you don’t count every single emoji in Zoe Mendelson’s piece (page 52).
So does that mean text is the more important element, given that there’s such a wild surplus of it? … Or does it mean that design is the more effective and thus more important element, given that it manages to accomplish in a mere 470 pieces what took 32,000 words of text?
Sometimes the separation of Word Church and Design State is clear-cut: E.g., in our story about braille (page 58), there are 3,206 words of text, and eight images.
But then there are the pieces that befuddle and, perhaps, reveal:
Should I count the 3,000 words in Rebecca Bedrossian’s article about text messaging (page 42) as, well, words—or should they count as nine images, as Debbie Millman hand-wrote the entire thing?
Do I count the words in Maria Popova’s Florilegium (page 71)—or is that just a static image?
If I’m counting every emoji in Mendelson’s piece as a distinct image, what then becomes of the normal punctuation sprinkled between each emoji? (Do emojis thus become words?)
Is the word “print” in our gallery of Print75s (page 72) a piece of text to be accrued, or an image to be filed elsewhere?
Finally, what are we to extrapolate from pieces such as The Last Word (page 96), which comes in at a mere 13 words, with a single dominant image?
All of this, perhaps, asks a larger question: At what point does text become art, and at what point does text remain plain old text? … And does it even matter?
When this issue was in its planning stages, I considered pulling off a dirty trick, a stunt—we could create the entire Text issue with text only, and no images. But as I began editing my way through the issue, it became clear that a volume like that would be anything but clear.
On the flipside, stripping all the text out of PRINT and running it with images only would be an equal failure in our mission to document the dialogue of design. (Though the challenge sounds like the sort of thing we’d have fun taking on.)
Outside the pages of PRINT and in the wild, I suppose there are two major problems at hand: One being that too many writers don’t care about—or have no basic understanding of—graphic design. The other: Designers are sometimes criticized for treating text like the dummy type that precedes it, a thing to be haphazardly thrown in merely to justify a piece of design’s presence.
But as we know, it’s more productive to view both as ingredients. After all, it’s only in that ever-delicate execution—when the words truly give breath to the images, and the images truly give breath to the words—that the circle of life, the best of both worlds, becomes something entirely its own. And when that happens, we’ve done something right; we’ve created a tapestry in which the two are inextricably linked, and one would starve without the other. The best writers and designers know that symbiosis. Text and design are not two sides at war, but rather peculiar allies that must exist side-by-side, for better or worse (hopefully, always, for better), in their own yin yang, a combination that has the potential to elevate both and extract their true power at a core level.
Moreover, what are words, if not the art we type, that have already been designed? Each letter is a creation, a building block of a mosaic whose meaning can change in a reader’s mind based on a stray ascender, an odd flourish, a scoped terminal.
“Designers don’t care about text,” my friend later opined. But I don’t believe him. Because in my experience, as Rick Poynor also points out on page 81, the best do.
It’s time to celebrate strange bedfellows and necessary allies.
It’s time to turn a design eye to text.