Re-Defining Reading

Laura Franz
Professor, Design Department
Head, Graphic Design Option (Major)
College of Visual and Performing Arts, UMass Dartmouth

For decades, critics have predicted the end of the written word: “No one reads anymore!

No one writes anymore!” Yet from birth certificates to gravestones, from T-shirts to text messaging, the written word—and thus reading—is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

Throughout history, we have used the written word to record and preserve who we are and what we care about: possessions, laws, commitment, ideas, and memories. Words and characters, once impressed in clay, written on papyrus, and printed with ink, are now manifest in pixels of light.

The use of text messaging for casual conversation has exploded, surpassing phone conversation as the communication method of choice—suggesting that our personal connection to reading and writing continues to thrive.

People may not participate in sustained reading the way they used to (or the way we think they used to), but people read. They text, tweet, and post on Facebook and Instagram. They search for things they need or want to know. They get lost in stories.

People read what is important to them. If we define reading only as a sustained and literary activity, if we acknowledge only one kind of reading, then we measure ourselves against a fabricated truth. We ignore the actual activity and exclude people’s needs and desires.

In Re-Defining Reading I illustrate three common approaches to reading; reflect on how re-defining reading has informed how I use and teach traditional typographic theories and practices within the context of web design; and show how a subtle shift—from user to reader—can help us adapt knowledge from the old (print) to serve the new (web).

The truth is there are different ways to read, and they are all valid and important. As designers, we can support them all.