Re: Text is bad: Was Ideas in Motion

Subject: Re: Text is bad: Was Ideas in Motion
From: "Tim Altom" <taltom -at- simplywritten -dot- com>
To: "Mark Baker" <mbaker -at- omnimark -dot- com>, "TechDoc List" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 16 Mar 2000 14:51:24 -0500

Mark Baker says, in response to Tim Altom's posting...

> This is a bit much for someone from a company called "Simply Written".
> Perhaps it should be "Simply Drawn".

Conventional usage of "written" has come to mean "developed using text and
other elements". "Written" is no longer specifically for text alone. And for
many situations, we do advocate relying heavily on graphics rather than

> <heavy handed irony>The superiority of pictures over text is clearly
> demonstrated by the virtual extinction of phonetic alphabets in favor of
> hyroglyphics. We writers are the last surviving remnant of literate
> civilization, and the sooner we learn to quite this archaic use of words
> learn to communicate by grunting and drawing pictures on the walls of our
> caves, the better.</heavy handed irony>

This is, indeed, heavy-handed. Pictographic alphabets did not die out.
Rather, they remain one of the oldest means of writing in the world...the
Chinese character set. Compared to the age of the Chinese written language,
our own "advanced" alphabet is a kindergarten child.

The fact is that reading, unlike speech, is an acquired skill, like
rollerblading or surfing. Some people are good at it; others are not. And
the fact is that, especially on the job, few people read for fun. As I wrote
before, up to 20% of our population is locked out of textual material, and
an unknown larger number is reluctant to use it. A good estimate is that our
text is uncomfortable or unusable for up to 50% of its readers.

We are not reading creatures. We are visual creatures. Even in our
super-literate, whiz-bang, high-techie culture, most people ask for training
from a real-life human, rather than from a textbook. It's not only the
illiterate or semiliterate who are the problem. A surprisingly large number
of college graduates are unlikely to open a book to track down a problem.

Examples abound. Quality assurance stations now generally use color photos
to distinguish good and bad parts, rather than using descriptions. Software
demos are done with visual software, not with words. Maintenance manuals use
little text...they rely more on schematics, exploded drawings, and nowadays
PDFs let them incorporate actual footage of procedures. Pick up any lawn
mower repair manual and see how many drawings it contains. The best software
doc uses copious graphics of buttons, fields, and other screen elements.
And, as I've heard so often, "One picture is worth a thousand words". True.
Text, by its nature, is extremely fallible. Even the most concrete words are
capable of misinterpretation. Even the word "text" itself has multiple
meanings. It's at best a kluge.

I repeat...text is used extensively not because it's an excellent means of
communication, but because other forms are far more expensive. Drawings come
high. Movies higher still. Personal training still higher. Text was, until
just recently, about the only means of communicating symbolic meanings over
long distances. Not anymore. And witness the Web...we're moving rapidly
toward voice activation, as well as much greater reliance on graphical
elements like Flash. Today the best sites don't use stacks of text links,
but rather graphical representations. Even listservs are becoming more
flexible, allowing the addition of complete Web pages in messages.

Why would all of these changes be taking place if text was so obviously
superior? If you'll look carefully at the history of technology, you'll see
that just about all communications technology began by transmitting voice or
text, then went on to use graphics. Witness radio and television, telegraphy
and the Web, character-based software and GUIs. At every turn, we have
continued to press our technology until it yielded us graphics. The old
ASCII pictures have virtually disappeared. Why would that be, if text is so
satisfactory? It's not good; it's just cheap. And yes, the phone book could
easily be done graphically, if the cost wasn't so high. What is a yearbook
if not a pictorial directory?

Tim Altom
Simply Written, Inc.
Featuring FrameMaker and the Clustar(TM) System
"Better communication is a service to mankind."
Check our Web site for the upcoming Clustar class info


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