Are We There Yet?

Written by: Christina Wodtke
“Design is often the place where ideas become flesh, and that is where you discover conflicts in the constituency. We were no different.”

Over two years ago, Boxes and Arrows’ then editor-in-chief, Erin Malone, and I decided it was time for a redesign of the magazine. The site had been tweaked and tortured into a shadow of itself over its first two years, the staff struggled with the hacked-up Movable Type installation (the software the site ran on), and it seemed about time for a makeover. Design magazines should be updated often. It’s in their nature.

That was over two years ago. And you, gentle reader, are still asking “Are we there yet?”

Finally, barraged by emails asking about the mystery surrounding the contest, the strange under-explained changes, the increasing degradation of Gabe Zentall’s elegantly understated design, we’re coming clean. We’re sharing the redesign and development process—in all its messy glory—with you.

Yes, folks, we are opening the kimono… just don’t expect Cindy Crawford underneath.

Where is the new design?
Back when we decided B&A needed an overhaul, we held a contest for a new design of Boxes and Arrows. Boy, was that a mistake.

Quality wasn’t the problem. Although the designs were terrific—beautiful, clear, and innovative—not one was what we needed. A successful design is more than beautiful; it is appropriate. And for a design to be successful, the designers need to work hand-in-hand with the client so they understand the client’s vision, and so the client understands the choices made by the designer. Collaborative iteration is the secret to getting to the right design solution. It’s embarrassing that we tripped up this way, knowing how many articles this site hosts on good process. We should have realized a contest was the very opposite of good collaboration.

Compounding our mistake, we chose to have judges—judges who weren’t us—because we thought that seemed right. A contest needs judges, right? Let the experts decide! Well, the fact is: Boxes and Arrows is our site, and the judges had differing ideas of what a great design for B&A was. They even had differing ideas of what kind of magazine B&A is—a usability blog? An information architecture site? They choose designs as winners based on their vast experience in IA, usability, design. But they all had different experience, none of it in being a B&A staff member, and they all choose different winners. The most usable, the most beautiful, the most… you get the picture. When Erin and I saw the judge’s favorites, we knew we were in trouble. Not only did they differ in preference, they could not envision the direction we planned the magazine would go. The judges just weren’t psychic!

Erin and I struggled through the contest process, realizing the issues but committed to following through. Too many people had worked too hard on wonderful designs to toss it all away. We tried to reframe the problem with additional instructions to our judges, and further-defined specs, but it was clear we were in too deep for an easy out. So we held fast to our core goals and prayed the winner might understand.

Luckily, the winning team, April 3rd, had a similar attitude about process. When they won, they immediately asked “Can we redo the design?” They wanted very much to work with us, iterating and exploring, to come up with the right design for B&A. Somehow they’d kept in mind what we had forgotten.


Figures 1: Contest winner by April 3rd (Click to enlarge)

Those who don’t learn from history…
We also should have known better because we’d been down this path before. When we were working with Gabe on the first B&A design, it took a while to find the right style. He went through multiple color and font explorations before even beginning page design, and founding team’s struggle with the design led us to write a mission statement so we could share a single vision. Design is often the place where ideas become flesh, and that is where you discover conflicts in the constituency. We were no different.

Even after we thought our design was perfect and launched with it, we discovered many things needed to be changed to accommodate our audience and staff needs. Today it’s the font size-too small! The next it’s the color-too light! The next it’s the images-we don’t have a Welcome this week! We need a new icon! And soon the design only loosely resembled the original.

Even Gabe was annoyed with his design when he saw it in HTML. Daily, I received polite little fix-it notes. “The gray is #eeeeee, not #cccccc.” “Please make the type 10px, not .8em.” Eventually, he forced himself to stop looking at it and no more sad emails appeared in my inbox.

ba gabe sketch ba 2002 screenshot thumb

Figures 2: Original sketch by Gabe Zentall and the design in September 2002 (Click to enlarge)

B&A finally settled into a stable form, and lived more or less happily housing smarter and smarter articles by the design community. Until we decided to muck…

Our story continues
So finally we had a light at the end of the tunnel for the redesign. The design team had been selected, was ready to go and was eager to design something amazing. We had done our homework and we knew what we wanted from a new design! Ready, set…

And then several things happened at once. I decided to build a new CMS from scratch, and Erin decided it was time to pass the baton on to a new editor-in-chief.

Rolling your own
Movable Type, despite the glowing blog entries and great success as a self-publishing tool, was not made for and is not a suitable tool for a team of writers and editors using an editorial workflow to produce quality articles. It’s a blogging tool. Knowing that we wanted a more-robust CMS, we looked at a number of open source solutions, including Drupal, WordPress, and Mambo. But after hacking Movable Type, we were wary of using the wrong tool for the job. That took WordPress out of the equation. And both Drupal and Mambo are like Swiss Army knives: they do everything, but not one thing well. Ever open a bottle of wine with a Swiss Army knife? Using an open source CMS is about as pleasant.

The fact that there were no tools for small groups to publish collaboratively seemed strange, and an opportunity. I suspected fate’s hand when, while giving a talk in Copenhagen, I was introduced to Lars Pind, a programmer who had built several CMS’s. He and I chatted, and he expressed the belief that it was time for a revolution in publishing tools. Around that time, both A List Apart and Digital Web were building their own CMS’s to run their magazines. I cried out “The writing is on the wall! Citizen journalism! New paradigm! Let’s make software!” With that, Lars and I started a new company, Cucina Media, and began our first product, PublicSquare.

So how does this fit with the redesign?
PublicSquare was originally designed to allow for lightweight customization. We thought if we wrote nice, semantic HTML all it would take to customize would be stylesheets, Zen-garden style. Again, we were mistaken. It soon became clear that people care even more about customization with their publications than with their blogs. A stylesheet can take you only so far, despite many articles to the contrary. It’s really not possible to completely separate form and presentation, as April 3rd learned to their chagrin. They struggled mightily to get the new B&A design launched for the 2006 IA Summit, giving up sleep only to see the launch fade in the 11th hour, thwarted by what CSS can and cannot do. With that failure, we decided to regroup.

Luckily, Lars tripped over an interesting templating language, Liquid, made by the folks over at Shopify. Liquid gives all PublicSquare users the ability to fully customize the design-including our much-put-upon B&A design partner, April 3rd. Now that we’ve got the templating language in place, we’re working to stabilize the markup so that April 3rd can do their job without having to redo it over and over again. Nobody wants to see the IA Summit fiasco happen again, even if the only ones who knew about it were Lars, April 3rd and I.


Figures 3: More recent iteration on contest winner by April3rd (Click to enlarge)

Now what? The redesign and beyond
With Erin’s move out of day-to-day oversight, Boxes and Arrows’ internal processes really had to start changing. We brought on new staff, including our first managing editor Javier Velasco, who watches over deadlines and quality; and Liz Danzico, the new editor-in-chief, who helps shape strategy. With new people, we’ve gotten a few new projects underway:

* Publishing: We started a series of new projects, including our first publishing venture. We’ve been talking about paper publishing since the beginning, but it’s just been this year that we’ve started planning in earnest. We’re stepping out with a collection of essays on tags and tagging.

* Events calendar: The Events Calendar, which you may have noticed, is another new addition that came about from personal experience. As a former design manager, I always had a hard time finding events for my direct reports to attend. My staff often came to me trying to choose a conference, but I never really knew about every event that was out there. I saw another opportunity: why not create a centralized dedicated list of events for design practitioners? I see you folks agree; we’ve been bombarded with events!

* Suggestions: You may have noticed the Suggestions area. This is the place for you to add your own story ideas and vote on what you think we should be doing. Beyond that, people have been using it to ask questions, note interesting articles, and make suggestions about site functionality. Don’t think we’re ignoring that! It’s clear more features such as a forum are required. B&A is a place for many voices, and we want to work toward making a tool that makes publishing more participatory while maintaining the quality that an editorial process and staff provides. We’re also learning a lot about voting, reputation systems, and user profiles (i.e., what makes a community tick).

Being without-profit
Until now, B&A has been a “without-profit” venture—just me, paying the hosting and keeping volunteers motivated with the help of an amazing volunteer editorial staff. B&A is still going strong, but we want to take it to the next level, which requires money. We could pursue sponsorships and go non-profit, but we’ve decided to try to make B&A into a self-sustaining business. People, no matter how committed to design and the community, eventually want their weekends and evenings back, and get sick of working with no return beyond the gratitude of the community. The goal is to be able to pay editors and writers, as well as fund new ventures needed by the design community.

This does mean some changes in the site you’ve grown so fond of, including the addition of ads. Don’t fret! We plan to stick with only relevant ads and relevant features. Although Budweiser won’t be advertising here anytime soon, do expect things like a job board or a bookstore.

We care about “Y”
We’re working toward a special way to launch the new design. We’ve asked a guest editor to curate a special issue on virtual and physical spaces, and we hope that will be the first in many special issues to come. Sure, we all love wireframes, but man cannot live on Visio alone!

We’re also interested in hearing more about the directions in which you’d like to see the magazine go. Too often, people dismiss the chance to help a publication grow—”They are all about X, they don’t care about Y.” Well, we do care about Y, we care about it very much. Boxes and Arrows was originally created to fill the need of senior practitioners to get better articles on the questions they faced in their work. As those practitioners have grown, we needed to grow also. Watch for more articles like Erin’s on creating a five-year plan, more articles like Icon Analysis, and, in general, more exploration of the issues you are just becoming aware of (…We hope! You are hard to keep ahead of!).

So, that’s our story so far. The good, the bad, and the ugly. We decided to let you know, even though it’s not a pretty story. We have made missteps, gone out in strange directions, realized we were drinking strange brew, and then tried our best to get back to a better course. In our daily lives we often make mistakes and then spend our time covering them up, trying to look cool. So this article is all about admitting we’ve done dumb stuff and owning up to those mistakes in the hope that you won’t emulate us, but will keep us honest and relevant.

Boxes and Arrows is our magazine. The line between staff and reader grows thinner and thinner. We welcome you to help us as we grow, with your honesty, your critiques, and your participation!


The Elements of Style for Designers

Written by: Christina Wodtke
With some exceptions, what is good for words is good for pictures too.

The creative act of writing is always bounded a bit by the audience: journalism is not writing a novel. The same can be said of design: it is not art. Yet the materials are the same—words and pictures—and it is no big surprise that what is good for fiction is good for nonfiction. The surprise comes when one discovers that, with some exceptions, what is good for words is good for pictures too. And thus we discover The Elements of Style is just as relevant for young designers as for young writers.

E.B. White finishes The Elements of Style with a “List of Reminders.” It could have easily been “Ten Rules for Clear Writing” or “A Writer’s Manifesto” or even “Hanging Commas 99% Bad” but he opted for the gentler term: reminder. He did so because rules were meant to broken—learned first, but broken. And so he reminds us as we innovate and play what those rules were in the first place, and reminds us that breaking a rule can sometimes be hard to pull off. In that spirit, I will try to translate his writing reminders into design reminders. After reading them, you can go off and exuberantly ignore them.

1. Place yourself in the background.
Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.

You’re the best designer in your graduating class; you had three job offers the instant you started looking. Now you are designing a bank site, and someone tells you to use blue. What do they know?

Of course you are good, but no one is so good that her whims should override the conventions and constraints of the design. Just because you have a flamboyant style doesn’t mean it is right for every project. If someone can spot a site and know it’s yours, perhaps you are getting in the way of the work.

2. Write in a way that comes naturally.
Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to mind. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaw.

The seduction of fashion, the desire to impress or stretch your skills are all pitfalls unless you temper them with your natural skills and temperament. Still, talent is not enough.

3. Work from a suitable design.
Before beginning to compose something, gauge the nature and extent of the enterprise and work from a suitable design. … Design informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel or of prose. You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision, a cathedral from another.

It’s worth saying twice, both in the thin book and in this article, because it is so often forgotten. Context is everything.

4. Write with nouns and verbs.
Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.

The nouns and verbs of web design are objects and widgets. If you have chosen the wrong widget, no amount of help text or arrows will fix the issue.

5. Revise and rewrite.
Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try.

It’s painful when a client or a boss rejects your first design. Sometimes that initial effort seems perfect. But revision is a way to reach a better design. Or sometimes—and only sometimes—shed light on the perfection of the first. When this odd event occurs, it’s best not to be upset because no one recognized your initial brilliance. Instead, remember that design is as much process as result, and part of your job is to get everyone participating in the design to the end goal.

6. Do not overwrite.
Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.

Beware of gratuitous use of flash, AJAX, and gradients.

7. Do not overstate.
When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise.

How many Verisign and trustE logos do you need in your sidebar? How many awards plaques?

8. Avoid the use of qualifiers.
Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.

In web design, the “qualifiers” are often styling. Just because you can create your own look and feel for a scroll bar doesn’t mean you should. Many of the browser defaults work quite well; do not overburden your users with your desire to show off your mastery of CSS.

9. Do not affect a breezy manner.
The volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. “Spontaneous me,” sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.

Here White speaks to fashion. Just because Jeffrey Zeldman did it doesn’t mean you should. Or Jason Freid. Or IDEO. When you see a hyper-simple site, or one with scrolling photos, or one with 64 point type, ask yourself if you can and if you should pull it off.

10. Use orthodox spelling.
In ordinary composition, use orthodox spelling. Do not write nite for night, thru for through, pleez for please, unless you plan to introduce a complete system of simplified spelling and are prepared to take the consequences.

White goes on to quote Strunk:

The practical objection to unaccepted and oversimplified spellings is the disfavor with which they are received by the reader. They distract his attention and exhaust his patience. He reads the form though automatically, without thought of its needless complexity; he reads the abbreviation tho and mentally supplies the missing letters, at the cost of a fraction of his attention. The writer has defeated his own purpose.

Web standards. Don’t Make Me Think. Pattern language. Enough said.

11. Do not explain too much.
It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied,” and the like: “he said consolingly;” “she replied grumblingly.”

A lesson I have learned by working with web search is: if you want people to notice something useful, the worst thing you could do is adorn it with lines, colors, or animation. A light touch actually indicates to users that this is worth paying attention to; blue and underlined is often the most effective. The most usable is often also the most used.

12. Do not construct awkward adverbs.
Adverbs are easy to build. Take an adjective or a participle, add -ly, and behold! You have an adverb. But you’d probably be better off without it. Do not write tangledly.

We can now invent widgets from anything. Anything on the page can open, close, launch, select. Sometimes it is the perfect metaphor for the job—such as clicking a thumbnail to see a larger image—sometimes it just bewilders. Do not design tangledly.

13. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking.
Dialogue is a total loss unless you indicate who the speaker is.

When you read a rapid-fire conversation in a book, often the author drops the “he said” “she said.” But have you ever had to stop and count forward from when quotes stopped being labeled? It is the same with design; it’s better to have a hint unobtrusively available than to ask your audience to memorize and track everything on the site. It’s always a thin line between assuming your audience is a pack of morons and expecting them to remember the shortcut key you offered on the homepage. Try to strike a sensible balance.

14. Avoid fancy words.
Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.

Yup. Do I need to translate?

15. Do not use dialect unless your ear is good.
Do not attempt to use dialect unless you are a devoted student of the tongue you hope to reproduce. If you use dialect, be consistent.

Are you imitating an established style? Be sure that you understand it, and that you can keep it going throughout. The Onion is the reigning king of this proposition; their adherence to being a respected newspaper goes beyond the content to the design.

16. Be clear.
Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style. There are occasions when obscurity serves a literary yearning, if not a literary purpose, and there are writers whose mien is more overcast than clear. But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue.

Clarity can only be a virtue. Tape that to your monitor.

17. Do not inject opinion.
Unless there is a good reason for its being there, do not inject opinion into a piece of writing. We all have opinions about almost everything, and the temptation to toss them in is great. To air one’s views gratuitously, however, is to imply that the demand for them is brisk, which may not be the case, and which, in any event, may not be relevant to the discussion.

You ought not say anything if you can’t say anything nice. Stick to the minimum to make your point. Just because you don’t want that item on the homepage doesn’t mean you have to make it khaki.

18. Use figures of speech sparingly.
The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating.

Pick your poison: replace the term “similes” with “photos,” “diagrams,” “giant fonts,” “orange,” and so on …

19. Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity.
Do not use initials for the names of organizations or movements unless you are certain the initials will be readily understood. Write things out. Not everyone knows that MADD means Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and even if everyone did, there are babies being born every minute who will someday encounter the name for the first time.

How many folks label a button “go” because they haven’t much space, or worse, remove the submit button completely because “everyone” knows you can just hit enter. Bite the bullet and redo the design, and make it clear.

20. Avoid foreign languages.
The writer will occasionally find it convenient or necessary to borrow from other languages. Some writers, however, from sheer exuberance or a desire to show off, sprinkle their work liberally with foreign expressions, with no regard for the reader’s comfort. It is a bad habit. Write in English.

The showy “foreign language” of the web is the language of early adapters. Really, not everyone uses, flickr, Google Earth, and not everyone speaks the language of their interfaces. Be cautious in your adoption of new paradigms.

21. Prefer the standard to the offbeat.
Young writers will be drawn at every turn toward eccentricities in language. They will hear the beat of new vocabularies, the exciting rhythms of special segments of their society, each speaking a language of its own. All of us come under the spell of these unsettling drums; the problem for beginners is to listen to them, learn the words, feel the vibrations, and not be carried away.

In art school, I was asked to copy master works. I didn’t understand why, until I began copying them; when you imitate you do actually learn. You don’t just copy, you understand why the brushstrokes went left then right, you know why bright green was used in a face. And when writing, I always wrote with the voice of whomever I was reading. Hemmingway made me economical, Salinger verbose.

When you work you can try on many hats but in the end, you have to find a way to once again hear your own voice and see your own design.

Your turn
These reminders are just the beginning. Try adding your own as you learn hard lessons, try collapsing some of his into a simpler reminder set. I often use “clarity, brevity, concreteness” to remind myself what I want from my work. It’s up to you to take from this source, or any other source, and incorporate it into your style and your approach.

I’d like to invite all of you now to share the interpretations or lessons you’ve learned that would enhance a list of reminders for designers. No one has all the answers, but by being open to learning from others we can all get a little better.

Putting the White Back in Strunk and White

Written by: Christina Wodtke
“Style and appropriateness may seem like an odd duo, but they are not. Style is the natural result of the over-abundance of energy and unique perspective a designer—a creative person—is gifted and cursed with.”

In web design screeds, the most commonly cited book is not what you might expect. It is not by Jakob Nielson or Jeffrey Zeldman or Edward Tufte. It’s not even on design or typography or code. It is a thin volume of guidelines on writing by a professor “at the closing of the first world war” and treasured by one student enough to put it into print. William Strunk was the professor, and E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, was that grateful student. White took the master’s set of laws, removed some “bewhiskered entries,” corrected some errors, and added his own chapter at the end for “those who feel English prose composition is not only a necessary skill but a sensible pursuit as well.”

The most common excerpt from the book is one from Strunk, quoted as much for its poetry as its proposition:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

This concept seems to have permeated the design community’s collective mind. Minimalist websites eschewing borders, decorative graphics, and even color abound. The book’s principles are often held up to praise Google or damn eBay. But is anyone reading Strunk and White, or are they simply taking away quotes they like, and leaving the rest of the movie on the cutting room floor? There is a richness in the entirety of the text, which ranges from rule of grammar to approaches to structure, to even the heart of design: personal style.

Both Strunk’s original “little book” and White’s rework are available online, and comparing the two is surprising. The original was a rulebook, full of dos and don’ts. It could be used as a quick reference, perhaps, as one wrote a midterm. But the revised version is a way to approach the act of writing. It is manifesto as much as manual.

For example, section three, “Elementary Principles of Composition,” begins, in Strunk’s world (1) with:

Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic.

If the subject on which you are writing is of slight extent, or if you intend to treat it very briefly, there may be no need of subdividing it into topics. Thus a brief description, a brief summary of a literary work, a brief account of a single incident, a narrative merely outlining an action, the setting forth of a single idea, any one of these is best written in a single paragraph. After the paragraph has been written, it should be examined to see whether subdivision will not improve it. …

But in White’s world the section opens with:

Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur. This calls for a scheme of procedure. In some cases, the best design is no design, as with a love letter, which is simply an outpouring, or with a casual essay, which is a ramble.

A sonnet is built on a fourteen-line frame, each line containing five feet. Hence, sonneteers know exactly where they are headed, although they may not know how to get there. Most forms of composition are less clearly defined, more flexible, but all have skeletons to which the writer will bring the flesh and the blood.

What advice should the designer take: a set of didactic pronouncements or a framework for approaching the world?

A love letter is not a sonnet in the way that eBay is not Google. Instead, Google is like a sonnet; it is highly structured and full of rules. User research, not imitation, might be the reason all search sites look the same—they are being driven by users’ behavior.

But why do all blogs look the same? Isn’t a blog a love letter to its readership (except when it’s a love letter to the blogger himself)? And why should a newspaper site look like a search site? Each thing is its own creature, with its own design patterns that have been developed over the last several years.

Concise is not always nice
“Conciseness is not always the same as effectiveness,” writes White. He rewrites Thomas Paine’s line, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” from The American Crisis, into:

Times like these try men’s souls.

How trying it is to live in these times!

These are trying times for men’s souls.

Soulwise, these are trying times.

All are grammatically correct, but grotesque. This lesson is one᾿s salvation when caught up in the battle to avoid the dangling participle, or adhere to the rule of the underlined link.

While Strunk teaches us economy and clarity, White teaches us there is style and appropriateness. And while economy and clarity are important, even vital, they are excessively constraining if not tempered.

Style and appropriateness may seem like an odd duo, but they are not. Style is the natural result of the over-abundance of energy and unique perspective a designer—creative person—is gifted and cursed with. Appropriateness is what helps them guide it in its application.

White’s first two items on his “List of Reminders” are, “Place yourself in the background,” and “Write in a way that comes naturally.” He says:

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author.


Write in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using words and phrases that come readily to hand. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaw.

This is an easy translation into the design space—although you may have an impressive design style, make sure that your design is tempered to the needs of the project. A commerce site should probably not evoke gasps of pleasure at its beauty, but rather a sense of security, trust, a wealth of choice and appropriate prices.

You have a style and a way of working that is natural to you; to take on an unnatural style will result in a flawed product. Conversely your style is not necessarily suited to every project. Too often, because we are praised for our natural talent, we think that is all there is to design. But there is craft, there is understanding the product’s brand, and there is understanding not only conventions of the web, but conventions of the domain. Somehow one must balance our design nature with the environment of work.

A simple substitution and White’s quotes make perfect sense for today’s designer: (2)

Design in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the website, rather than to the mood and temper of the designer.


Design in a way that comes easily and naturally to you, using layouts and type that come readily to hand. But do not assume that because you have acted naturally your product is without flaw.

Once you understand the game, his advice is fantastically accurate.

The last lesson of White’s—in the too often skipped introduction to the revised Strunk manual—is perhaps the most precious,

I treasure The Elements of Style for its sharp advice, but I treasure it even more for the audacity and self-confidence of its author. Will knew where he stood. … He had a number of likes and dislikes that were almost as whimsical as the choice of a necktie, yet he made them seem utterly convincing. … He despised the expression student body, which he termed gruesome, and made a special trip downtown to the Alumni News office one day to protest the expression and suggest that studentry be substituted … a coinage of his own, which he felt was similar to citizenry. I am told that the News editor was so charmed by the visit, if not by the word, that he ordered the student body buried, never to rise again. Studentry has taken its place. It’s not much of an improvement, but it does sound less cadaverous, and it made Will Strunk quite happy.

Passionate pundits are not just a sign of our times, but a phenomenon that has existed as long as there have been craftsmen. I’m certain many of White’s fellow students squirmed under the oppressive certainty of William Strunk’s pronouncements. But E.B. White embraced and extended, and even appreciated the “law” laid down by Strunk. As we read vigorous statements such as “Flash is bad” or “Don’t do testing; just ship and watch,” it’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction. But stepping back from the initial emotional slap, we can see more than a petite dictator laying down the law. We can see an impassioned craftsman trying to share both his love of the trade and impart some of his hard earned learnings. Like White, can we begin to love and listen to all the Strunks out there, without becoming angry but instead synthesizing their knowledge with our own perspective?

The real secret of E.B. White is listening, incorporating, translating, and finally accepting pundits into our practice. We aren’t at war at all. We all want the same thing. We all want more great work in the world.


(1) This was the only online version of Strunk and White I could find, presumably because Strunk and White is still under copyright, while Strunk’s solo effort is not. It is misattributed to “Oliver Strunk” but comparing the text to my own paper copies, it seems to be a faithful version of the fourth edition.

(2) Is there anything worse than writing about E.B. White? James Thurber said “No one can write a sentence like White,” and as I write this essay, I cringe and rather wish I could just replace “writer” with “designer” in his book and leave it at that.

For more information
The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

The Elements of Style, Illustrated

Article in Dutch White verdient zijn plek in Strunk en White

Under the Boxes-and-Arrows hood

Written by: Christina Wodtke

Boxes and Arrows started as a lunchtime conversation, a whim shared by two colleagues pondering the emerging disciplines the web bubble had produced. Before long, it grew up into a respectable magazine (although we still won’t admit that in public) with professionals around the world contributing content that matters to them. We’ve already made a difference.

As an editorial team, we thank you. We think about you all the time, in fact, and enjoy working with you. But now there are so many of you. And you have such brilliant ideas. That’s why we’ve decided to give the magazine to you, in part.

Starting today, you’ll begin to see some changes. While the editorial team will still maintain the tone and consistency of B&A, you’re now officially invited to be part of the process.

Here’s how:

Better ideas, better magazine.
Instead of emailing your new story idea to an editor, you post it here for comments and ratings …by everyone. This shared editorialship will help authors refine ideas and help us understand what you want and need to read.

Say that again?
Yes. You decide what gets published. (Well ok, we’ll weigh in some too.)

Ratings and transparency and reputation points. Oh my.
The B&A community has always been a smart, respectful community. We’ve been amazed at how little spam and how few trolls we attract. But we know this can’t last forever, so we’ve instituted a reputation manager. See an offensive comment? You no longer have to wait for us to get to the issue, you can help get rid of the drek. Moreover, you can star the best comments, and help the cream rise to the top!

Location, location, location.
You can see where the conversations are happening and who’s having them. Each page posts stats on conversations and people, so you can quickly find the most interesting, controversial or insightful moments on the site.

Home transparent home.
The homepage gives you the full list of site stats as well as access to your profile on B&A. You can now see what we see—what a vibrant, smart community we’ve got!

But wait! This is only the beginning. The new look and feel is still to come, now that we’ve got a new set of features. And you, our beloved community, are invited to let us know how we’re doing (as if you’d hold back!) And watch this spot—the tool we’ve build for you to enjoy B&A, we plan to make available to you to build your own community of practice.