The Orientation of Words

Posted on Aug 14, 2014 in Songs For Spoken Words

“Why are books commonly presented in portrait orientation?”
“Attention span with portrait versus landscape”

These are a couple of the Google searches I’ve been doing recently, to try and answer a design question that’s been niggling me.

You see, I can’t read a long article on a screen (landscape mode). I just can’t concentrate on it, and the words don’t go in like they do with a book (portrait mode). I was pretty sure I wasn’t alone, and from some conversations here and there was also sure that it wasn’t completely imagined.

Why Am I Thinking About The Orientation of a Page of Words at All?

Songs For Spoken Words, a new project I’m working on for Time Travel Opps (kindly funded by a National Lottery Grant For The Arts), is about how words are rendered on a screen, and how they are taken in.

When you read a book, the words don’t just go straight in – there’s a level of interpretation, where you literally lift the words from the page. Some people even silently mouth the words they are reading in order to do this. It’s called ‘subvocalisation’.

Songs For Spoken Words is about bringing out your ‘internal reading voice’, creatively extricating subvocalisation (thereby helping “the mind to access meanings to enable it to comprehend and remember what is read” a bit better) with a literary format that is seen by many as scarily impenetrable – poetry.

When I hear poetry performed, I get it more from it. I like the way that changes in nuance can alter your perception of a simile or change what you thought the poem was about completely. I’ve seen poems performed by their authors, and it’s like a quieter version of seeing a band live – you see what they are about when you see them in person.

Think about the insanely long and complex sentences of David Foster Wallace, or the embedded imagery of Shakespeare – this stuff really comes to life when read out loud, or very deliberately subvocalised. This lovely thing from Tapestry really illustrates that, by getting you to click through each wave of an epic Foster Wallace sentence:

In literature there’s a ton of space in which to get a feeling going. Once you get into Hemingway’s rhythm, by the time he gets drunk, makes love, blows things up or sees people die, you’re right there with him and your pulse rises with his characters’.

Poetry is the opposite, more minimal. Often, it’s more about what’s not there, or what’s hidden. Some poetry is more like planting a bomb directly in the brain of the reader, something set to go off at a later date. I think this is why it can switch people off more easily than other written forms. The closest form being the song lyric, which is sung at you with emphasis and a handy emotive or tribally rhythmical soundtrack…

I’m going to be using simple CSS animations to present phrases of a poem on a screen just as they are (or might be) performed out loud – using timing and typography to create, suspense, emphasis and drama. The theory is that the reader’s subvocalisation of the piece will be guided into performance, bringing the poems alive in new ways and, hopefully, being an enjoyable thing.

The orientation question came into it when planning for how the poem will look on phones and tablets. I’m designing for mobile first, and having a verse of a poem fill up your screen looks really nice. When I expanded the design out to full screen, there was all this distracting space, and it started to feel more like a video – in which case, why not just make a video instead of faffing about with javascript and css?

Attention Versus Attention

“Despite the importance of display formatting and arrangement, the vast majority of consumers pay little conscious attention to the manner in which they receive information. All that matters is that the message is clearly communicated.”
- David Ross

The above is from one of the only articles I could find online about portrait versus landscape, and it’s actually more about digital marketing. This kind:


Ross goes on to say, “over time, landscape orientations have programmed individuals to expect to be idly entertained by the content – rather than to truly pay attention.”

This is what I’ve been thinking: when we watch a video, it’s landscape, and the story is projected into our minds by the script, the acting, the action, the soundtrack. When we read we have to do the heavy lifting ourselves, and this is the format we do it in:


Video = landscape = passive, watching.
Words = portrait = active, reading.

My solution is to simply restrict the width of the poem, so that it’s always in a book shape container, regardless of the size or shape of the screen. It’s a simple conclusion, but the research that has gone into backing it up has done two useful things.

1. It’s helped me to create a some rigid design rules for the project.
2. It’s quietened a nagging voice at the back of my head saying “just do a video you pillock”. Now I can say to that voice, “no – because videos are for watching, not for reading”.

And that’s why videos aren’t made in portrait mode, but books are.

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