Learning to read between the lines

10/26/2009 02:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For the past two years, I worked for an independent press specializing in architecture, graphic design, and visual culture, which means I got to work with a lovely array of books and indulge, on a daily basis, the side of me that's been interested in graphic design since my teenage years doing paste-ups and layouts for my high school newspaper. Whether flipping through instructional books on grid systems by Kimberly Elam, drooling over awe of a beautiful, gold-bound book on Robert Brownjohn, educating myself on Mies van der Rohe, or feasting on the eye candy of Mike Perry's hand-drawn type, I have to admit that I was and still am a huge fangirl of my former workplace.

But what I learned in my time of being so exposed to design books and design-heads is this: design and literature are both as antithetical and co-dependent as two things can get. As a college graduate only formally trained in the appreciation of literature and its accompanying theories, I find this both intriguing and troubling: what may look like a glut of black noodles bathing in an aesthetic, spatial harmony of white soup to one may simply read as black type on white paper to the other. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. A chunk of Proust might as well be a chunk of lorem ipsum and vice versa. Bring a design-blind friend to a screening of the documentary Helvetica and you'll note the effect it has on them. Riding the subway, walking down the street, they will feel the need to point it out to you: Helvetica! Helvetica. It's as if they feel the need to demonstrate how you have awakened the other side of their mind, the side that reads visuals as a language unto itself. Cross over to the other side and you find yourself analyzing street signs, emails, and posters in terms of grid systems, leading, and typeface.

Of course, I'm not naive enough to think that either party is incapable of seeing the value in the other's; designers determine their forms upon the meaning of the text they are trying to portray, while even the staunchest literati will admit that reading Chaucer in handwritten type changes not only the experience of the text, but the meaning of it, as well. It's just strange to think that for each party, words and letters on a page are like a visual magic eye that seem to evoke entirely different synapses in their brains. The two views are polar and yet inextricably tied together; both bound to the medium of language and letterforms, they stay married to printed matter. And yet to exist, they must co-exist.

Being an irrational, perpetually quarter-life crisis-ing 24-year old, I find this struggle problematic. As a lover of both literature (B.A. English, UC Berkeley '07) and of graphic design (budding enthusiast), I, resignedly, remain aplomb in the middle as a dirty dilettante--a purist at neither end, an expert in neither field. So I find myself adding the way I view language to a long list of ways that I'm slowly beginning to unlearn everything I've learned in college. You see, Wikipedia cites that a crucial part of the quarter-life crisis is exercising the need to articulate a substantial opinion on every subject. And, well, I tend to agree. Now a student of a widely exciting new program that aims to blur the distinctions between these two disciplines, I feel the gears in my mind, slowly numbed from the routine of a 9 to 5 (and the 5 to 10 of my second job, for that matter), gradually beginning to grease themselves. I'm learning to read between the lines, and approach the obstacle of shaping my mind to fit both hats--the visual and the literary--with a humble eagerness.