Some people go as far as to say that web design is 95% typography, while others use more modest hyperbole. Either way, it’s a lot. It takes only a few hours of staring at a design file before those stems and crossbars melt into a visual soup of lorem-gibberish and the meaning of the text all but disappears. Many designers dedicate their careers to making containers for text, but the content is strictly someone else’s beeswax.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the container is “design” and the content is not. Design is typically expressed visually in space—interactive and tangible. Content, on the other hand, is ethereal and intellectual, manufactured by mysterious wizards. As long as it fits in the container, you don’t ask too many questions. As a designer and avowed word enthusiast, I’d like to offer a provocation: when you take a step back from the production line and look at the origins of writing, many of the boundaries that we draw today will disappear altogether.

Let’s time-travel:

Imagine that you’re an ambitious entrepreneur in neolithic Mesopotamia. The year is 3235 BCE, and it’s an exciting time to be alive. You’re bootstrapping a startup where you connect buyers and sellers of various agricultural goods. “It’s like Etsy, for sheep.” You start off by dragging carts of grain and livestock all over town, but that solution doesn’t scale because there are many sheep and only one of you. You decide to use pocket-sized clay tokens to represent commodities. A small clay cone represents one sheep; a big cone is ten. And a disk is a bushel of grain. Now you can coordinate transactions from the convenience of a market stand.

The tokens work for a while, until you have so many that you can’t keep track of them. You’re worried that your shady Sheep Exchange Operations guru might be pocketing spare tokens when you’re not looking. You start packaging tokens in sealed clay envelopes for improved accounting and security, and file a patent for blockchain. So far, so good—except there’s one problem: once you seal and dry the clay envelope, the only way to check the contents is to smash it open. Your business can’t grow because it’s ruinously expensive to smash your storage containers every time you want to make a trade or check your records. Your burn rate is catching up with you.

In all of human history, no business has survived the headwinds you’re facing, so you need to innovate—fast. You keep hearing buzz about design thinking, so you welcome your first design hire, a 23-year-old hipster from Uruk. One Sprint™️ later, the two of you hatch a brilliant new solution: before drying a clay envelope, a mark is made on the outside to indicate what’s in there. You can press the tokens into the surface to leave an impression, or you can scratch lines on the side with a stylus (ugh).

Envelope from Susa
Envelope from Susa, Iran, circa 3300 BCE, courtesy of Musée du Louvre, Départment des Antiquités Orientales, Paris.

Armed with your groundbreaking IP and freed of repackaging expenses, your startup takes off and soon everyone is copying your model. You spend the rest of your career as a seed investor—mainly in barley. Life is good.

Those little clay markings might seem like a small detail—a humble UI label—but within a few iterations they evolved into the first written numerals and the alphabet you’re reading right now. Nearly every piece of written content on the internet has its origin in this neolithic microcopy. As much as modern education may try to convince you that writing was invented for the sake of novels, poetry, and other lofty pursuits, it has always been about facilitating interaction.

Today we’re witnessing another revolution: software is eating the world, and it’s every bit as transformative as the birth of writing. What is more, it’s built on the same fundamental pattern as the clay vessel: on almost every link or button, we have a piece of text telling us what’s on the other side of that interaction. Take another look at this web page. The text that you see—the url above, the links below—are all functional design elements that help you navigate through digital space and tell computers what you want. Language is the soul of software.

Applying the lens of design to content reveals opportunities to improve many common patterns. Consider the abrasive legal terms that we see all over the web right now. Go to any transactional page and look for the chunk of legalese in the shadow of a giant button. That text tells you what you’re agreeing to, and it’s important for any consumer to know—so much so that it’s legally required to be on the page. Yet it’s never an easy read. The font is shrunk down until it’s microscopic, the opacity lowered until it’s translucent, and the wording made so recherché that you’ll be left scratching your head (recherché means obscure; I had to look it up myself).

Get it free

The consequences of having this information obscured for you can be distasteful, whether it’s unexpected recurring fees or bad people getting your data. If you ever design one of these pages, challenge yourself to make it accessible for those of us without a law degree. After all, Dieter Rams taught that good design is honest—thorough down to the last detail—and makes a product understandable.

The fable of the neolithic piggy bank illustrates what can happen when a design uses words, rather than just containing them. Ignore them at your peril, because the blind spot can hide egregious dark patterns. How can the tools and standards of design make content more useful and beautiful to users?

Latest in Writing

Smoke stack

101,572 words in 30 days

Every November, hundreds of thousands of writers around the world hunker down to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. (That’s 1,667 words per day.)