Working in the design field, I commonly put together designs that have several points to convey to viewers. For example, an email might have a main offer, a secondary offer, an events calendar, and a link to a featured recipe. Often, there are between one and three paragraphs of text for each section, which means there are usually several paragraphs to put into a visual layout. All these considerations need to be balanced by the fact that we need the email to be easily and enjoyably digestible. This might sound like complaining, but it’s not! Designers get to rise to the challenge of making something beautiful out of raw data. It’s actually a lot of fun—but what does it mean for the viewer?
Well, before I can even dive into building a layout I have to digest the data myself. I have to decide what is most important and what is less important, hierarchically. I get to choose what imagery might convey the message best, and I get to build it. As part of this process, I need to also anticipate how viewers will process the message I’m crafting. This is where an understanding of how we read is important.
How We Read
I know, I know; I said in the title that nobody reads. But, we all seem to be able to process text and understand it—so what’s actually happening? Well, people don’t read; they scan. Even though you can stop and look at every letter on the page, your brain doesn’t naturally process words that way. There’s a lot of type design that goes into making text readable (a topic for another time), and a lot of our brains’ decisions are made based on what our eyes see when scanning quickly over words. Here’s a fun sample:
Eevn thuogh thsee wrods rae ismseplled, yuo acn sitll raed eht snetnec.
It might take you a couple tries, but you can still read the above sentence at a decent pace. Why? Because your brain doesn’t care about spelling. It only cares about getting the basics enough to piece together a message that you can understand. This same thing happens at a larger scale when reading an email or other designed offer.
Only What’s Necessary
When’s the last time you stopped to read the agreement terms for a sign-up? I know I haven’t read them in a while. Why not? It’s valuable information, and it’s probably not a bad idea to know what’s in there. Well, this is an example of our brains doing what just happened above—we’re scanning to extract the purpose, not to notice the details. Just like you could extract the meaning of the misspelled sentence, you can extract the basic meaning of the whole section of terms and conditions text just by reading the title. Once you’ve read one (or deduced what it’s about), you can then disregard the fine print to move forward and save time. Are there problems with this? Well, sure—but this brings us back to the designer’s job: making sure the necessary communication gets through.
Less is More
We’ve all heard “less is more.” It applies in many circumstances—including the headline of this section—but designers especially end up sounding like broken records on this point. Why? Because when you reduce something down to its minimal form, you’re left with the essentials, which makes the reader’s job much easier. When the layout stays out of the brain’s way, it empowers the viewer to achieve what he/she wants—whether that’s becoming more informed, sharing information, or buying a product. So the next time a designer tells you how important it is to have a design featuring a mostly blank page, think about how we read, then smile and nod.