No matter who you are, the word “textbook” brings to mind images of lengthy passages, torturous studying, and droll information. So why haven’t publishers tried to give textbooks a better rep? The truth is, not all textbooks are the same, just like not all books are the same. In our culture, time is of the essence. There have been studies done on our shortening attention spans, so it would seem that publishers and authors need to consider new ways to keep students and casual readers reading.
Recently our class looked at The Story of Writing by Andrew Robinson, which discusses in great detail how writing has evolved over time, and how different cultures and languages use writing in different ways. The material is heavy. At times, it can drag on. But what makes this textbook readable are the design details Robinson and his publishers use to create mental breaks.
First, there are over 200 pictures. The pictures are placed alongside text largely as an aid in explaining the detail of writing as it evolved over time. The pictures are a necessity because many of the forms of writing Robinson mentions are unknown to common readers, so the pictures help illustrate his points and foster a better understanding. But the pictures do more than just that. The pictures create a break from the heavy text. They allow readers to engage in more than one way, and give audiences’ brains a chance to catch up with what is being said. This is a wonderful tactic to help enrich a textbook and improve understanding. Unlike other textbooks, this is accessible to more people because it employs different modes of communication. While the alphabetic text is still the most dominant, the pictures also pull their weight.
Page breaks, sub-headers, chapters, and sections also provide readers with a chance to recollect thoughts and make meaning. The text is broken into smaller and smaller chunks to allow for a seamless collection of ideas to flow. There are a lot of sub-headers, which help focus readers on different time periods and writings as Robinson moves through history. Each new topic begins on its own page and tends to stick to around 1-2 pages in length. This stops readers from being bogged down with too much information. Likewise, the chapters help organize ideas into an even broader area, and the sections help move readers through history. The above techniques are all successful ways to organize ideas and information, especially thousands of years of history, into readable chunks.
These design choices are not an accident of the author or the publisher–they were made to allow for better readability. By creating a more functional page layout, they were able to design a textbook that didn’t really read like a traditional textbook. The choices reflect the intent of the author. The design develops a deeper understanding and is intuitive, providing answers and examples just when the text becomes too overwhelming.
After reading through this book, I feel as though I have a better grasp of how design can improve audience interaction with a given text. I think the decisions people make in writing and publishing are often overlooked, so breaking down the different elements are a helpful way to understand how different strategies work to afford more accessibility. I am interested in digging deeper into the choices from an authorial perspective because I hope to become a successful writer one day, and I think having an understanding of the best ways to inform readers will be truly valuable to my writing. The choices made by writers are definitely something to keep in mind as our society progresses further into the technological era. If our attention spans continue to shrink, I am not sure what we writers will do! Hopefully as we continue to learn more about the ways information and writing are structured, we will be able to answer that question!