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Unleashed Graphic Designers – Art Over Function

Many readers object to illegible print in contemporary print newspapers and magazines. In today’s print news, legible print is on a collision course with flights of fancy by graphic artists.

Admittedly, this is the golden age for graphic artists to show their creativity. Editors have convinced themselves that with readers’ shorter attention spans and the younger generation’s aversion to spending time with print publications, the graphic artists must be unleashed. Never mind what the ophthalmologists or the optometrists may think. Space, color, and type size are the domain of liberated gung-ho artists.

There is one additional problem with low expectations for print newsreaders: Even though print readership is shrinking, there will be even fewer readers of print if they physically cannot read the printed word.

I have tried, to no avail, to speak with graphic design editors of some leading newspapers about three pronounced trends that are obscuring content. First is the use of background colors that seriously blur the visibility of the text on the page. Second is print size, which is often so small and light that even readers with good eyesight would need the assistance of a magnifying glass. Third is that graphic designers have been given far too much space to replace content already squeezed by space limitations.

Function should not follow art. Readers should not have to squint to make out the text on the page. Some readers might even abandon an article because of its illegible text! One wonders why editors have ceded control of the readability of their publications to graphic designers. Editors cannot escape responsibility by saying that the graphic designers know best.

I am not taking to task the artists who combine attention-getting graphics with conveyance of substantive content. A good graphic provides emotional readiness for the words that follow.

However, in the February 17, 2019 Sunday edition of the New York Times, the page one article of the Sunday Review Section was titled, “Time to Panic,” about global climate disruption by David Wallace-Wells. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. The editors wanted to strike fear in readers to jolt their attentiveness to such peril, through a lurid two giant fingers with a human eye in between. A dubious attempt. Taking up the entire first page of the precious Sunday Review section (except for a hefty slice of an ad for the Broadway play “To Kill a Mockingbird”), smattered by three paragraphs of small, white and almost unreadable text on a dark pink background, is counterproductive. Less graphic license and clearer type would have had art following function.

Many graphic artists seem to have lost their sense of proportion – unless that is, the editors are pushing them to bleed out more and more valuable space with their increasingly extravagant designs. It is bad enough that print publications have been shrinking due to diminished ad revenue. It is time for better editorial judgment and artistic restraint.

Unfortunately, there is no sign of such prudence. In that same Sunday edition of the Times, over eighty percent of page one of the Business Section was devoted entirely to a graphic of a presumed taxpayer smothered by flying sheets of the federal tax return – it rendered the page devoid of content. At the bottom of this front page, there was a listing of five articles under the title “Your Taxes 2019.” I can only imagine Times reporters gnashing their teeth about having their prose jettisoned from being featured on this valuable page of the Business Section. That wasn’t all. The artists ran amok on the inside pages with their pointless artistry taking up over half of the next three pages of this section.

Think of all the additional articles on other pressing business topics that never reached readers. Gretchen Morgenson’s prize-winning weekly column exposing corporate wrongdoing used to be on page one of the Business Section. She is now at the Wall Street Journal.

This is happening in, arguably, the most serious newspaper in America – one that tries to adjust its print editions to an Internet age that, it believes, threatens the very existence of print’s superiority for conversation, impact and longevity for readers, scholars, and posterity alike.

I first came across run-a-muck graphic design at the turn of the century in Wired Magazine. Technology has dramatically reduced the cost of multi-colored printing. I could scarcely believe the unreadability and the hop-scotch snippets presented in obscure colors, and small print nestled in-degrading visuals. At the time, I just shrugged it off and did not renew my subscription due to invincible unreadability.

Now, however, the imperialism of graphic designers knows few boundaries. Many graphic designers don’t like to explain themselves or be questioned by readers. After all, to them readers have little understanding of the nuances of the visual arts and, besides, maybe they should see their optometrists.

Well, nearly a year ago, I wrote to Dr. Keith Carter, president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and Dr. Christopher J. Quinn, president of the American Optometric Association, asking for their reactions (enclosing some examples of designer excess). I urged them to issue a public report suggesting guidelines with pertinent illustrations. After all, they are professionals who should be looking out for their clients’ visual comfort. Who would know more?

Dr. Carter responded, sympathizing with my observations but throwing up his hands in modest despair about not being able to do anything about the plight of readers. I never heard from anybody at the Optometric Association.

Of all the preventable conditions coursing across this tormented Earth, this is one we should be able to remedy. It is time to restore some level of visual sanity. Don’t editors think print readers are an endangered species? One would think!

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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