I admit I’m a Luddite, despite that, or maybe because, I sit at a computer all day. I even went without a cell phone for a staggering six years till I felt compelled to have one for travel. I’d abandoned my earlier cell phone when I realized it didn’t work where I most wanted it to…in the wilderness (in case I got lost while mushroom hunting).
I fully embrace my inner Luddite when it comes to written communication that, today, has gone awry, in my opinion. I was recycling an article I’d saved at the end of which was a series of comments from readers. One dense paragraph was written in all lowercase letters. Looking at this is the visual equivalent to fingernails on a blackboard. I lean towards more formal typography as espoused by the very clever Robert Bringhurst and his wonderful book The Elements of Typographic Style, excerpts of which I used to make design students read. They didn’t seem to delight in his descriptions like I did. Here’s one:
“In a badly designed book the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field. In a book designed by rote, they sit like stale bread and mutton on the page. In a well-made book, where designer, compositor and printer have all done their jobs, no matter how many thousands of lines and pages, the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles.”
I admit, there are parts that are too esoteric for anyone without a love affair with type. And blog comments are not books, informal as they are.
But recently, I posted some things to Craigslist. Among the many responses I received, most were practically unreadable. Little, if any, punctuation was used. Sentences ran into each other. Most were written in all lowercase. I’d seen this before and my conclusion was that these were from scam artists hoping you’d take a money order. Bad use of English was a dead give away. But one guy sounded sincere. I told him of my dilemma. He thought I was funny…and quaint, I’m sure.
“It’s just an email. I figure why be formal.” he replied.
True enough. But the writer does take a risk that people like me might not bother to read the email. Try this: Eliminate all the capital letters from a dense paragraph and see if your reading comprehension is the same. My guess is no. Cool as it may be to write in all lowercase and pretend you’re ee cummings, sentences that lack a capital letter do decrease comprehension.
I’m a fan of reading and responding to questions on LinkedIn. This being a professional forum, I’m surprised by the number of hard-to-comprehend posts. Many are filled with garbled language and spelling errors. Given that prospective employers or clients might read posts, it’s too big a risk to look that sloppy. An error here and there is one thing. It is, after all, an extemporary venue but graphic designers need to communicate well in writing. Facebook, on the other hand, might be the perfect place for your all-lowercase-lacking-in-punctuation communiques.
There’s a difference between a professional forum and text messaging. But while these lines are blurring, our ability to shift gears in comprehension isn’t keeping pace. Think about how long you’ve been accustomed to a period separating two complete thoughts. Technology is asking us to reverse something we’ve known since we were four or five years old. Another test: eliminate any spaces, periods or dashes in a phone number. Then try to read the number to yourself without doubling back. It’s very hard.
A friend recently asked if I’d look at a small website she designed. What jumped out was the jarring lack of capital letters at the beginning of sentences, most of which started with the company name (whose logo is all lowercase). I admitted I was pretty formal about such things but if I stumbled while reading, others would, too. There’s something to be said for brand consistency, but like most decisions, it’s about weighing solutions and picking the lesser of evils. First, the user is there to read, learn and understand. Not to care whether your company name in logo form starts with a lowercase letter.
Perhaps we will, and must, broaden our comprehension skills in the face of changing communication modes. But we know too much about our brain’s habits and its reliance on visual signposts like capital letters and, god forbid, a little punctuation.
Updated June 2010