Now you see it, now you don’t
While You’re ReadingText and design by Gerard Unger
Translated by Harry Lake
Mark Batty Publisher, .95 / £19.95
When you think about it – and Gerard Unger has spend four decades thinking about it – there is something magical about reading. Stylised marks on a page dissolve in the mind ‘like aspirin in water’, conjuring up ideas, images, voices and feelings, but the minute you look at them they turn back into letters. As a type designer Unger is understandably fascinated by this trick, and eager to share his observations on the process.
For all the work that has been done on the psychological, linguistic and educational aspects of reading, there is, he says, remarkably little on the input of type designers, yet these are the very people who ‘can make or break the legibility of a text’. Yet if few readers know the meaning of the word serif, and even fewer can voice their appreciation of the ‘ear’ on a lowercase g or the position of the crossbar on an uppercase H, that does not stop them responding to the look of type, sometimes with great antipathy. If, like more than a few designers, they sometimes confuse legibility and readability, While You’re Reading, an updated translation of a book first published in Dutch in 1995, will put them right.
Unger practises what he preaches, producing a book that is not only physically readable, being set in user-friendly large type (of his own design, naturally) with generous margins but is also as easy to read as a novel. Short, chatty chapters flit happily around every imaginable aspect of reading, from design theory to his own personal practice, via pattern recognition and negative space, engrams and emotional values, saccades and psychograms, the effects of convention and illusion and physiology. Even the most graphically illiterate reader should respond to his enthusiasm, and type designers should be inspired by it.
Unger’s observations are unashamedly personal, but the millions of readers he was acquired via the pages of usa Today and The Scotsman, the motorways of the Netherlands and the street signs of Rome, suggest that his hunches cannot be too far off the mark. Certainly, much of what he says feels right. And, like the rest of us readers, he knows what he doesn’t like. He reproduces a particularly off-putting example of ‘noisy’ typography, with interwoven / overlaid texts and enough typefaces to fill a font catalogue, and lobs a little grenade in the ‘war of the serifs’ with a simple comparison of two otherwise similar types, illustrating how the serifs act as ‘a kind of attention safety net’.
The mystery of the reading process is graphically illustrated (without comment) by the opening section of letter fragments printed on translucent paper; the negative spaces in the chapter titles; and the endpapers with cryptic patterns that hover, tantalisingly, on the verge of communication. The greatest mystery, however, is why the publisher of a book so focused on attention to quasi-invisible detail did not pay the same attention to that other ‘invisible’ process that makes a text readable: the editing. What possible excuse can there be for word-breaks such as lite-rally and ty-peface in unjustified text? Or captioning errors and misalignment of index material?