Design for design's sake is all very well - but the text is important too, says Griselda Heppel

Exhibit A: exquisite torment provided by programme design
I am not a great user of Facebook.  If I post something and it gets a handful of likes and the odd comment, I’m doing well. So I was all the more surprised recently when something I put up sparked a whole host of likes, comments and discussion from a wide range of people, for whom I’d clearly touched a nerve.

What can it have been been – political?  No no, stay clear of all such, say I. The dreaded B word? As if. Enough misery about that as it is.

Stygian gloom.
(Photo by Damien Petit on Unsplash.)
No. All I did was upload an example of a blight that has been seeping gradually into the printed world for the past few years, until now it affects every play, opera, concert and musical programme, magazine, brochure, exhibition text, restaurant menu and just about everything printed you can think of. Even websites aren’t immune. It is a kind of exquisite torment dreamt up by designers to tempt you with what looks like an interesting, important piece of writing – only to make it impossible for you to read it.  Pale grey text on off-white paper. Small chunks of green writing set by themselves – presumably to highlight their meaning – in yellow background boxes. Items on menus printed in such tiny point sizes, diners need a pocket magnifying glass if they aren’t to go hungry (not helped by the fashion for restaurants to plunge their customers in Stygian gloom so no one can see the menu anyway).

Art by Yasmina Reza at the Oxford Playhouse
Look, I know my Great Age is part of the problem. The majority of designers and editors, presumably under 40, are blithely unaware that lavender type on mauve paper is illegible for Oldies Like Me. But a heck of a lot of Oldies Like Me go to the theatre, restaurants and art exhibitions, and I can’t help feeling that if the directors of these have gone to all the trouble to commission articles from distinguished writers and experts in their publications, why wouldn’t they want a large proportion – who knows, perhaps even the majority – of their clientele to read them? What, for goodness sake, is wrong with black and white?

So back to Exhibit A, above. I had never seen Yasmina Reza’s brilliantly witty, poignant play about the balance of power in longterm friendships, until it came to Oxford Playhouse last month. Intrigued, I badly wanted to read the interview with the playwright in the programme and was faced with not only pale type on pale paper but, ye gods, splashes of paint daubed across the text (a, you know, clever reference to the play’s title, Art). OK, so I managed eventually, the next day, with the aid of bright sunshine, but it was a slow process. Whereas if it had been black on white, like the article I’m writing here, I’d have skipped through it like a young fawn. 

Skipping through black and white print like, er, one of these
(photo by Mathew Schwartz)

Perhaps I should start a Campaign for Printing in Black and White, snappily known as CAMPBAW.

I could be on to something, you know.

Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:
and her children's books:


Umberto Tosi said…
Absolutely! The importance of text in design is something that I work with - and sometimes clashed with - many designers over the decades when I was a magazine editor on books with high visual content. The best designers, however, always welcomed strong text and worked with those providing it as a team. Excellent post.
Hear, hear! Thank you for articulating something that the majority of us struggle through in silence.
Ann Turnbull said…
Oh, I SO agree! And it's not only magazines and leaflets. I am in my mid-70s, but surely no one could read some of the minute, pale print that appears on the side of most food packaging these days. One should not need a magnifying glass when cooking, for goodness sake!!
Sandra Horn said…
I'm with you all the way, Griselda! Sign me up for CAMPBAW!
Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you all! So good to know it drives others mad as well though it would be even better if we could get that message across to the worst culprits (whose numbers are legion). But of course it’s not fair to tarnish all designers with the same brush and the best ones, as Umberto says, actually want to work with the text and editor to communicate as clearly as possible.
Oh yes, Ann, tinsy winsy instructions on food packaging - that’s another infuriating phenomenon!
You're not alone! I suspect it's my eyes at fault, but I found it almost impossible to read the pale yellow text on an off-white background in the latest issue of my favourite magazine... they seem keen on pale grey text, as well.

I remember my agent saying she couldn't read the white text on a black background on my new website, and as my eyes get older I begin to see what she meant, but even that's easier for me than pale yellow on off-white paper!

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