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 designercreative personis 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
Article in Dutch White verdient zijn plek in Strunk en White