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from Doug Sundseth:

The fonts and colors thing is usually referred to in the page-layout business as "ransom-note typography". As you might guess, it's considered a mortal sin among professionals.


In the past it was usually a sign that the designer had just gotten a DTP (desktop-publishing) package for the first time and could now change fonts trivially. Many seemed to believe that the possibility of using dozens of fonts created a requirement to use dozens of fonts.

It's a sin because it makes the page hard to read and understand. Good page design should lead your eye to the most important items without your noticing.

This isn't just true of textbooks.

One of my favorite books is Robin Williams' The Non Designers Design Book. She has some wonderful riffs on The Locals and their desktop publishing atrocities.

Her Core Principle: never, ever use the Text Center command.

Here's Williams' advice on good web site design. (We've got some changes to make....) update 7-18-2006: Williams' columns have vanished

And here are her columns for Eyewire Magazine. update 7-18-2006: ditto - vanished

Last but not least, she's fabulous on the subject of how to mix typefaces.
I bet Robin Williams would have a Few Choice Words to offer on the subject of American textbook design.


Yes, indeed, Robin Williams does have a few choice words to offer on the subject of American textbook design. By extension, at least.

Under the heading, bad web site design we find this:

  • Meaningless or useless graphics

What is a meaningless & useless graphic, you ask?

Take page 206, Prentice Hall Pre-Algebra. Section 5-7: Multiplying and Dividing Rational Numbers

The text opens with a word problem involving glaciers:

About 3/4 of the world's fresh water is found in glaciers. Antarctica has 9/10 of the world's glaciers. What fraction of the world's fresh water is in Antarctica?

Good question!

Meanwhile, in the margin, we have a picture of penguins diving off a snow cliff that looks like this:


I don't know about you, but I find the image of penguins diving off a snow cliff FAR more riveting than the question of what fraction of the world's fresh water is in Antarctica.

Which tells me this graphic is not just off-topic and useless, it is actively distracting.

A penguin-diving graphic does not help me learn math.


A penguin-diving graphic distracts me from learning math. A penguin-diving graphic leaps off the page, grabs my rapidly ageing Attention Faculty with both hands, and shrieks, FORGET ABOUT MULTIPLYING A FRACTION BY A FRACTION! PENGUINS ARE DIVING HERE!

blinking and animations

Williams also dedicates an entire category to blinking and animations. If there is one principle upon which the entire universe of Design Useability Experts agrees, it is the horror of blinking and animations:

Anything that blinks, especially text
Multiple things that blink
Rainbow rules (lines)
Rainbow rules that blink or animate
"Under construction" signs, especially of little men working
Animated "under construction" signs
Animated pictures for e-mail
Animations that never stop
Multiple animations that never stop

Tom Friedman should be down on his hands and knees THANKING GOD his daughter doesn't have to learn math from an online animated textbook.


I hope you're impressed that I managed to sneak an image of penguins diving off a snow cliff onto a math ed web site without being either meaningless or useless.

Glencoe page splatter
Doug Sundseth on ransom note typography
Tom Friedman piles on
distance tutors & mathematicallycorrect review Glencoe
page splatter and the frontal lobes
page splatter redux

-- CatherineJohnson - 16 Sep 2005

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