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Parallels Between Typography and Conversational Design, feat. Robert Bringhurst

I’m reading Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. It’s a beautiful work: a poetic book about a practical art, part philosophy and part a love-letter to the craft.

Given that my daily work is in conversational design, I found a few parallels here between typography and the aspect of conversational design wherein text-becomes-speech, which I’ll isolate here by calling it speech design.

Typography is the craft of endowing human language with a durable visual form, and thus with an independent existence. Its heartwood is calligraphy–the dance, on a tiny page, of the living, speaking hand–and its roots reach into living soil, though its branches may be hung each year with new machines. So long as the root lives, typography remains a source of true delight, true knowledge, true surprise.

Elements, Introduction

Speech design is the craft of endowing human meaning with an ephemeral aural form, and thus with a dependent existence. Which is a fancy way of saying: it’s what we all do naturally; it’s speech. And like music, spoken language uses time as its canvas.

Typography is to literature as musical performance is to composition: an essential act of interpretation, full of endless opportunity for insight or obtuseness.

Elements, Chapter 1

Like typography, the conversational designer acts as an interpreter. Instead of drawing on spatial concepts like kearning, leading, measures, ems, and picas–all “levers” that we can pull and change to change the color and experience of reading a page–a conversational designer pulls other levers. They draw on the properties of linguistics and speech by tweaking prosody, pitch, volume, rate, inflection, pronunciation, register, stance, pauses and breaks, sounds and ambience.

These properties are experienced aurally over time. And they are realized through a technology. Where the typographer had his or her printing press, we have our natural-language-processing and text-to-speech engines. These act as our “speech press.” It’s early days, and so we have limited control. But that control will likely increase.

One of the principles of durable typography is always legibility; another is something more than legibility: some earned or unearned interest that gives its living energy to the page. It takes various forms and goes by various names, including serenity, liveliness, laughter, grace and joy.

Elements, Chapter 1

As with typography, so with speech design. The first goal in speech design should be legibility, or better for this medium, clarity. In linguistics, this might be likened to the last of Grice’s four maxims: the maxim of manner, which suggests we should be clear in what we say.

I do not know if speech design should seek as another aim to be serene, lively, graceful, and joyous. Different contexts may require different tones and colors in the speech. But certainly, it should elicit the intended effect

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