I’m in the process of putting together my final portfolio for my MFA and looking around for ways to communicate my design beliefs, so I’ve been reading a lot more quotes than usual. There are two that have really stuck with me, one that speaks to the sheer delight and amazing capabilities of books and another that speaks to the purposeful nature of design, and I like them so much I thought I’d share.
The first is from Carl Sagan, an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, and author. He clearly had a great passion and respect for the capabilities of science and technology, a deep-seated wonder at our world and the way it works, and an appreciation for books. Those qualities are shown in the following quote, where he describes the incredible power of books:
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”—Carl Sagan
That quote just gets me. It really captures how truly incredible books are. I remember thinking a very similar thing (albeit not quite so eloquently) in high school when I was reading Plato’s Apology. Our class was carefully analyzing the subtle points of Plato’s logic, and I remember sitting back for a second and thinking, This guy has been dead for 2,300+ years, more time than I can really grasp, and yet his thoughts are here, today, in this book in front of me. So many people have thought about and debated his ideas for literally millenia, ever since he originally wrote them down. How crazy is that!
And the designer in me today loves Sagan’s description of writing—”lots of funny dark squiggles.” So often people overlook the importance of typography because they take it completely for granted that these black shapes on a page, or on a screen in our case, have a meaning that is decipherable to people. How did a circle become the letter “o”, that can be used next to two perpendicular lines (“t”) to create a word “to” that has so many meanings and helps hold sentences together? It’s amazing, when you sit down and really think about it.
But one thing to remember is that quote by Sagan was from his 1980 tv show and book, Cosmos, when there was no such thing as a Kindle, an iPad, or an ebook. The first personal computer was released by Apple in 1984, and the great wave of technology that has completely changed the shape of reading has all come since Sagan originally described the magic of books.
So I hope he’ll forgive us if we take the liberty of expanding the meaning of his quote to refer to the many different ways that thoughts are expressed by their authors and conveyed out to the greater world. Today, that amazing ability is accomplished not just by “a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts” but also by screens of all shapes that support ebooks, and really the very many different reading and publishing platforms available, including this post published on the internet via WordPress.
We could argue about whether platforms like Twitter, which allow people to author only very concise “books,” should be included, but if you are willing to admit Hemingway’s famous six-word story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) counts, then I think Twitter must also be included.
You could argue that really what captured Sagan’s imagination and appreciation is the longevity of the thoughts in the form of a book, and how they can connect people from distant epochs, and therefore today’s technology doesn’t count as it will probably not be accessible 2,000 years from now. In fact, its a pretty safe bet that even 20 years from now technology will have so thoroughly changed that many things will no longer be accessible (floppy disk, anyone?). But not all writing has lasted that long, and many authors works have been lost over the centuries. It’s always been a process of saving and passing along only the best works of literature, and that is the same challenge we face today, just with a much larger magnitude of written work.
So I, for one, would like to extend Sagan’s wonder at books and the power of written communication to include the many different innovative forms of ebooks and digital communication popular today.
The second quote by Paola Antonelli is related, but talks about design as a whole, and how design is fundamentally about caring how something works, not just what it looks like.
“People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.”—Paola Antonelli
In relationship to books, this mean that it’s all well and good if the cover looks great, but fundamentally what’s important about the design of a book is how the format of the book accomplishes its goal, namely, getting someone to pick it up and be able to read and understand it. To enable what Sagan loves: “across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.”It means, for ebooks, that all the flashy interactivity in the world is useless, and in fact detrimental, if it doesn’t somehow serve to improve the reading experience.
And this to me is the amazing challenge of design. How do you design something that makes people’s lives better? How do you use the tools of aesthetics, of typography, of color theory, of all sorts of “cognitive science” and “beauty” that Antonelli talks about, and perhaps more than ever today, use the tools of technology to design something that “the world didn’t know it was missing?”
What a lofty, and yet worthwhile challenge! Could a designer ever hope to accomplish anything better than to give the world something it didn’t know it was missing?