Summer 2001

The big reveal: theatrical typography

Website choreography lets characters sing, dance and roll over, but you can learn several lessons from the routine revelations of daytime TV soap operas.

01 In the mid-1980s, I worked for eighteen months as a daytime television script writer.

02 During this unusually protracted lapse in my design career (to say nothing of the questionable lapse in judgment, let alone taste) I wrote long-term story projections (called ‘bibles’), script outlines (‘breakdowns’) and I wrote scripts, which meant I wrote dialogue I would slave over, hoping to mimic the rhythm of the way a certain actor spoke, looking to reinforce indelible character traits through the cadences of my graceful prose. The actors received their scripts a day or so before shooting, paraphrasing said prose with an irritating disinterest – a humbling process in itself. And a collaborative one:

03 Once a week, I gathered with nine other staff writers for a story meeting where we debated logistics. How to deal with an off-screen pregnancy (emphasise facial close-ups and shoot above the neck); how to deal with a character who in real life had asked for a raise (kill her off), or who needed four months off to shoot a movie (kill him off, then introduce his identical, though deranged, twin brother – lo and behold – four months later); how to deal with 40 contract players who would get paid whether you used them or not (build in a party scene, time-pegged to anything even marginally celebratory – the discovery of Antarctica, for instance).

04 Health emergencies and courtroom dramas were written with the support of telephone hotlines providing access to medical specialists and legal experts. I once spent an hour on the phone consulting with a Canadian cardiologist on the proper descriptive language for victims of electrical shock. (The character in question, seeking emergency shelter during – what else? – a tornado, had opened a screen door by grabbing its metal handle.) It was under these somewhat rarefied circumstances that I was thus able to write with surprising authority about defibrillators and demonic worship, crash carts and custody battles, triage, extortion and the vicissitudes of infidelity.

05 Though in the end I found it increasingly difficult to take any of it seriously, there were aspects of my life as a daytime television writer that I rather enjoyed. I once wrote a dynamically sequenced suicide scene, in which the narrative unfolded in a rapidly intercut crescendo between a sentimental church wedding and a spurned lover’s majestic leap off a city bridge. Would she or wouldn’t she survive? (She did, though in true serial style, the ‘suicide’ episode was shown on Christmas Eve, hooking viewers over an extended holiday weekend.)

06 Seizing creative licence where I could find it, I delighted in writing in casual references to my friends and enemies: I soon became quite adept at naming villains after fascist dictators, war criminals and the occasional ex-boyfriend. Defying the moronic nature of certain pointless scenes, I frequently found myself scripting absurd moments of kinetic hyperactivity.

07 I remember a scene in which a young ingenue (played by a then-unknown comic actress called Meg Ryan) struggled with a piece of toast caught in a toaster as she delivered her lines. On television and in the theatre, this kind of vaudevillian activity is known as ‘business:’ it’s a kind of physical choreography that provides a visual counterpoint to the unfolding verbal narrative. (As I dimly recall, the toaster dance was intended at once to distract Ryan’s on-screen husband and conceal her on-screen lover hiding in the closet.) Business is used to amuse the audience, to illuminate a character detail, or to physically communicate some aspect of the plot that would otherwise require a kind of expository dialogue: dialogue that telegraphs the ending, overstates the obvious, or reveals too much too soon. Indeed, the precision required to stage such revelation – quite literally, phasing the tension between establishing conflict and orchestrating its crescendo, denouement and eventual resolution – is a critical dramatic tool, and relies on nothing less than impeccable timing. We called it ‘The Big Reveal.’

08 I offer my own experience as a television writer as a preamble here because the methodologies in design are perhaps not so dissimilar: like writers, designers (particularly those engaged in new media) wrestle with issues of orchestration, presentation and articulation, and struggle to identify their exposition over time. In televised drama, as in theatre and film, a story’s underlying armature relies upon certain fundamental narrative conceits: the classic Hollywood three-act paradigm, from which most teleplays are loosely adapted, provides a solid, if somewhat formulaic structure intended to guide the dramatic action forward. Whether or not we possess similar editorial models to shape dramatic and visual orchestrations on the Web remains another question entirely, though on many contemporary ‘dynamic’ websites, there is perhaps a parallel organisational structure at play: these sites now open with fairly ambitious film shorts (formerly called ‘splash’ pages) which, like film trailers, introduce the tone and spirit of the site about to be revealed. Unlike film, however, such opening animations are largely intended to disguise (rather than reveal) the ‘loading’ of their parent sites. These somewhat elaborate mini-movies are Web variants of basic theatrical business: simply stated, they are little more than brief (and occasionally burlesque) digital adaptations of the age-old drama of distraction.

09 But the similarities hardly end there. Typographic choices on a site, like actors on TV, frequently become our primary emissaries of communication: they’re all about posture and characterisation. (On this topic, the American satirist H. L. Mencken once wrote that there should be a typeface that slants backwards, for irony.) Now here’s where it gets really interesting. If a designer once made typographic choices that embraced a wide yet essentially static set of conditions, these were decisions that could be counted on virtually to ensure a kind of dependable consistency. Type in books, for instance, intentionally evokes a set of formal conditions that allow the content to be both well supported and reliably cohesive. But unlike book typography, this new screen typography dances; it sings; it shouts; it does somersaults and cartwheels and then, when it settles down, just as you think you’ve grasped it, you mouse-over a word and it transforms instantly into something completely different.

10 It’s The Big Reveal, and it is perhaps the most stunning change in typographic form-giving since the invention of moveable type. In this medium, type is no longer an empty vessel, silently poised at the perimeter of a page – form awaiting content. This new theatrical typography is content, revealing its subtext, reinforcing its context, captivating and catapulting the viewer toward new cognitive layers of suggestion, increased meaning and added depth. What’s more, this new typography only comes to life when a person touches a mouse and rolls over a word. (The relative subtlety here is astonishing: the word isn’t even clicked upon – it’s rolled upon.)

11 By way of example, consider the visible evidence of language, for a moment, brought about not so much typographically as topographically. For National Geographic, the designers at Second Story produced an interactive ‘attack’ map, that contextualises the events surrounding the bombing of Pearl Harbour, by treating the cursor as a kind of kinetic compass: part magnifying glass, part periscope. The site magnificently demonstrates the rollover’s capacity for revealing multiple narratives on a single screen. For the Discovery Channel, they used the metaphor of ‘unwrapping’ mummies via rollover: here, one literally ‘unravels’ bandages to excavate underlying narratives that offer additional archeological evidence. (A) These sites are at once informationally and theatrically rich – and because rollovers are by their very nature so unpredictable, they are also oddly mysterious.

12 In a fascinating perceptual reversal from the early days of the New Economy, which didactically proclaimed the Cartesian virtues of user-selected empowerment (‘I click therefore I am’), rollovers are precisely this: mysterious and hidden, like secret landmines. They are elusive: you quickly find yourself poking about the screen for hints of their presence, pursuing them madly like an obsessed lover. They are playful: you recoil when they surprise you, yet are quickly reminded that they can be programmed randomly to provoke a different response mechanism each time they are activated. (B) And these sites are strangely yet deliriously choreographic: here, rollovers engage us in an enchanting pas-de-deux between the screen and the mouse, the hand and the eye, the reader, the word and the idea. What soon becomes clear is that The Big Reveal isn’t enabled by a click-through on a navigation bar. It isn’t made possible by a bunch of union-approved writers plotting a story and constructing its careful evolution over time. It’s activated by your hand, rolling over a series of letterforms, transforming a word into an idea into a translation into an argument into a counter-argument into a mathematical equation into a Shakespearean sonnet. It is like giving language (and by association, typography) its own self-actualising oxygen supply.

13 Of course, you can roll over an image, or a pattern, or a grid just as easily as you can roll over a word: the rollover itself can be applied to anything on the screen. (C) But when it’s language that is being transformed – and in design terms, this means deploying typographic nuances to mediate that transformation – there is perhaps something more unusual taking place. First, it suggests a new idiomatic use for typography: let’s call it choreo-typography, because it relies as much upon kinetic orchestrations as stylistic conceits. (D) Next, there is the question of timing: how can the order of things rolled-upon (and yes, eventually clicked upon) affect the ‘reading’ of a story by challenging its classic linear progression? (Websites often rely upon axial structures – horizontal and / or vertical navigation bars, for instance – to guide a user’s progression. Such logic is obviously challenged, if not thwarted entirely by the idiosyncratic and somewhat parenthetical messages liberated by the meandering rollover.) Finally and most importantly, typography can now be endowed with dramatic qualities, among them, subtext (what’s really happening beneath the surface?) and context (how might that surface be extrapolated and extended across a site or story?) In bringing The Big Reveal to the little screen, the typographic rollover has galvanised our expectations of classic story structure, and in so doing, has introduced new and radical theatrical considerations to the way we think about shaping graphic evidence in time-based media.

14 The idea that revelation, in narrative terms, can be made evident through means at once physical (you move the cursor) and visual (you uncover something new) is what is really Big. Yet beyond the subtle typographic pratfalls beginning to surface on certain experimental sites, few have yet to truly engage the typographic opportunities (let alone the opportunities for an entirely unprecedented form of graphic authorship) liberated by the rollover’s dramatic potential: letterforms dissolving, words exploding, storylines unravelling – where will it all lead? (E) Perhaps the best model is a theatrical one: and indeed, while the perceptual shifts made possible by rollovers may imply a chameleon like role for screen typography, quite the opposite may, in fact, be true. In his classic paradox of acting, the French theorist Diderot wrote a century ago that in order to move the audience the actor must himself remain unmoved. Now imagine the comparative role for type on the screen. Unmoved, yes: type remains true to its own noble heritage, and good kerning prevails. But unmoving? Not a chance.

A The National Geographic and Discovery Channel sites succeed by sustaining an active visual tension that balances gestural grace with informational precision: yet these sites remain oddly enigmatic. But isn’t it enigma, after all, that lies at the core of classic, edge-of-your-seat storytelling?

B Sites like and make use of rollovers to activate grid transitions, colour deviations, and other visual permutations on screen: these sites are celebrations of the cursor as moving target.

C and are two such sites that explore some of the more abstract visual properties of rollover-enabled screen compositions.

D The dancing letterforms and kinetic mark-making displayed on, a portfolio site for a design firm in Milwaukee, exemplify this notion of typography as a kind of mutable yet connective tissue: it is a rather literal form of poetry in motion.

E Taken to its extreme, if logical conclusion, isn’t the act of ‘revealing’ something merely a slow, gradual process of elimination? This is the working metaphor behind such successful TV programs as Survivor, Big Brother and the recent hit The Weakest Link, in which participants seek, quite literally, to ‘reveal’ fatal flaws that result in eradicating their opponents live – and on screen. It’s a grim and somewhat menacing notion: rollover as annihilator.

Jessica Helfand designer and writer, Connecticut

First published in Eye no. 40 vol. 10 2001

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