History of Print Standards

by Jakob Nielsen on July 23, 2000

Sidebar to Jakob Nielsen's column on End of Web Design.

Barbara Kaye sent me the following commentary:

I read your July 23, 2000 article on the end of web design with great interest.

It's true — but this is not necessarily bad; and the "loss of creative freedom" not necessarily something to be mourned. In fact, it's merely the extension of what has happened to writing over the past maybe 30 millennia or so.

See, I have a background in print and print communications, and 30 plus years studying print has given me a little bit of insight into what's happening to the web.

In a nutshell, it's not new, nor unexpected.

I won't go into the details but suffice it to say that the rise of literacy created standards. These standards were more than just language, spelling and letter forms. Physical standards were just as important. Clay tablets had to be small enough and light enough to be portable - but large enough to hold significant information — and to withstand journeys and storage. Medieval books were dictated by the size of the animal whose skin was used to make the parchment (They were made from everything imaginable, but mostly the skins of rats, cats, lambs, kids and calves.). Today, most [hardcover] books are basically the same size — roughly 7.5" × 10" using the same size type (10–12 points) — one of only a handful of faces that are designed to be easily read by most people (Helvetica, Times, Courier, Bodoni, Garamond etc.). Imagine having to read an entire book set with 36 point Blippo or some other fancy typeface. There are standards for leading, weight, size, line width, book size (does it fit on a shelf?) etc. Just go into a library and you will see that 90% of the books are approximately the same size, give or take an inch. Why? Because it's a very portable size — not too large, not too small, not too heavy.

You can also see this physical standard concept applied to all other print material. Magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, brochures, all apply an evolved set of standards that govern size, weight, appearance, etc. etc. Many of these standards evolved spontaneously without basis of scientific study until after the fact. For example, an average self-mailing brochure is going to be approximately 3.6" × 8.5" folded so that it will be covered by USPostal bulk mailing rules. Anything outside these postal restrictions will cost extra to mail — so it's cheaper and easier to adhere to the postal standards.

There are times and places for breaking the rules as well. We all probably grew to know and hate those huge unabridged dictionaries that never fit the living room bookshelves. They were kept to seat little children at the dining table, right? Coffee-table books, certain magazines, foreign dictionaries for travelers, are all deviants from the standard 7.5" × 10". They, like websites that "don't conform," have their place in our society — if they serve a direct purpose. That's the key, by the way. Break the rules when there is a really good reason to do so. Otherwise, please stay within the lines.

So where does all this lead? Well, why should the Web design be any different? In the Stone Age, the Internet was just a means for scientists to send messages to each other. The elite few were the only ones with any access to it (think of the Book of Kels). The rest of the world really didn't need it nor care about it. Then someone made it available to businesses and smaller institutions just like the Gutenberg Bibles. It was only a matter of time when technology became available to make PC's cheap enough to be in most people's homes. All of a sudden, the illiterate masses were able to get this wonderful new media in their hands. They wanted bells, whistles, and geegaws to play with. Today, the web has "grown up" and while there is still a place for geegaws (like pulp paper romance novels) the bulk of the viewers want information, thank you. They don't really want to have to spend forever playing at someone's site anymore.

The only thing is that what took print communication 30,000 years to accomplish; electronic communication was able to reach in less than two decades. It's the same dance — just a different tune. That's not necessarily bad — just not a surprise, ether.

Author Biography

Barbara Kaye is currently a Visiting Hypermedia Communicator in the Administration Information Technology Services department of the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana. She has a BFA in Communication Arts and Design from Virginia Commonwealth University and has been a writer and graphic designer in both the public and private sectors for the past three decades.

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