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Learning to Be Happy
Little pressure here: our humanity depends on it

by DK Holland

Aoccdrnig to rseerach cnoudtced at Cmarbigde Uinervtsiy, the olny iprmoatnt tnhig in raednig is taht the frist and lsat ltteers are in the rghit pclae. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn brian deos not raed ervey lteter: it gtes the gsit of waht is siad.3

We can each sum up the point of the film Groundhog Day even though it was never spelled out to any of us. And we may even agree! We can each say why we love or hate New York City (OK, we may not agree on this one). We get the gist of words and things even though we can't necessarily verbalize it. Our brains are designed to “clump” things together because when we can see patterns we automatically rationalize, make assumptions about the thing based on what we think we know. Pretty dangerous since if our folders may be kind of messed up (too many drugs, brainwashing, head trauma, etc.). But regardless, we do this thousands, if not millions, of times a day.

Designer Roger Whitehouse, with whom I happily shared a studio in years past, has studied the marvels of alphabets and their readability for many years. At one point, Rog posted different sheets of paper, one at a time, at the end of our very, very long hall. Then he asked each of us to stand way at the other end and recite what we saw on the paper. I strained to read “Qrztv,” but, to my surprise, when Roger changed to a new sheet of paper on which read the word “Random,” I saw it instantly. It was a word not disconnected letters and a different part of my brain had clicked in. The same is true with reading versus hearing. We’re much more used to hearing language than reading language, like by thousands and thousands of years.

Whitehouse, who is an environmental graphic designer, says, “With wayfinding signs, we have discovered that upper and lower case words are much more easily recognizable at the same size, than all capitals. This is because each word has a ‘footprint’ or outline shape that distinguishes it from other words, which doesn’t happen with all caps.” On a different issue, Whitehouse also says “At the age of about 55, I decided to learn to touch type, and was amazed to discover, not only that it made typing easier, but that it happened as a ‘sixth sense’ and didn’t use the conscious part of the brain that you need to hunt and peck, so you were not aware of typing, but solely of the content you were composing. You simply thought the words and watched them flow onto the page, enabling you to judge them critically as you did so.”

What do you say in your mind when you see the letter a in the word “saw”? Do you pronounce it “ah,” not “ay”? Amazingly don’t you instantly understand the context of the word “saw” in the sentence you're reading? You know whether to interpret the word as “the past tense of see” or a “tool for cutting” or “understood”? I bet you do. You do this very, very quickly, exercising in your own personal mental gymnasium that muscle we call the brain—constantly. And so it grows.

Before we had any big vocabulary of words, we had a vast, lush mental gallery of gestures, body language and drawing skills with which to communicate. Creative director and principal of Think Tank 3, Sharoz Makarechi, says, “An icon or simple image can telegraph entire concepts with the emotion it evokes. There are associative memories that are built over time; whether you’re young, old, literate or not, most people know what it means when they see an icon of a fork and knife on the highway, or even more simple, an arrow or line pointing the direction one should drive on the road and, of course, the most amazing set of symbols are those of any alphabet. There is an association to be made between proper typography, writing, illustration and, ultimately, communication design. At its best, design is a universal language. Along with photography, design helps close the gap.” And design is, happily for designers, now integral to technology.

We’re Cyborgs thrusting our metallic arms in space, attaching to thousands of applications, Web sites, browsers on our smart phones and laptops. Big robotic smile on contact. Because once again we are rewiring our brains—and making yet another quantum leap. When we forget momentarily what it is we so desperately need to know, we are having a “Google Moment.”4 The fear held by oracle Marshall McLuhan, the father of communications and uncanny predictor of the Internet (30 years before it was invented) was eerily like Plato's. “The medium is the message.” McLuhan espoused. He believed that the medium can be distorted or override the content or meaning. He, a devout Catholic, also thought we could lose our souls. Maybe because we can’t stop overdosing on information? Do we risk devolving into sound bite tech junkies? This fear goes way back to the moment writing was invented: Even those robe-wearing, papyrus-reading Roman Senators worried about information overload.

Digital technology is clearly a bonanza that is pushing us forward as a species. We can’t deny that. It allows us to order our own vast and ever-expanding virtual library: We can go off in endless directions online within a text (unlike a book), hit a link, come back and reassess the text with new knowledge, go off again, consider the text further. We have the potential to be far more knowledgeable, far more informed if we take advantage of it in a disciplined way. Take that Plato and McLuhan! And all this is made possible by the kind of technology that they could not have fathomed. Children (who we hope and pray are also making mud pies and smelling grass) are eagerly figuring all this out while they are still in diapers. And they are drawn to working in teams to do so, as Mitra observes.

Designers are glued to their keyboards more than ever—in virtual offices (or cyber cafés), staring at rectangular plasma screens (full disclosure: me too) and I am here to say, we are not loving it. Solitary confinement is punishment in the penal code after all and a “time out” for kids. “Do your homework!” leads to isolation. Bad memories here. In protest, we need connection with others for our mental and spiritual health and development. Ah, to work on a good team. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.