The Faults in Our Defaults.

An essay by Christopher Swift

The blank page holds a special kind of sway over our imaginations. As a young designer, I was terrified of the empty page. I knew that other people had solved this, designers that I admired had filled their blank pages with beautiful and meaningful things. Designers I had judged and dismissed as untalented had done this thing that now seemed impossible to me, they had started with the same blank space and expressed ideas, cleverly or roughly solved communication problems, they filled the blank page. As I learned more about design, I learned that you don’t start with a blank page, you start with an idea, and from that idea, you can pull out all sorts of connections and pathways and solutions. The blank page is not blank at all; it has been formed and shaped for a reason; the designer has picked it because it helps solve a problem. As a new writer I know that the blank page is not a thing to be afraid of, that it is not empty, but I don’t have experience writing, so the blank page can feel like a dark room sometimes feels, I know it is not scary if I think about it, but it holds potential for something terrible. For designers and writers alike having a place to start, a steady foothold, a path forward, some clear markers of some sort, that can make this journey feel safer, feel like we are not alone in a dark room with no idea about what we are supposed to be doing can ease the worry and nudge us forward. Microsoft Word offers templates to start with; the writer fills in the blanks, and then you have something that is functionally usable. Adobe InDesign provides a set of defaults when a designer starts a new project, but these starting points are misleading; the path provided is almost entirely in the wrong direction or at least is a confusing trail that crosses itself and leads you to a worse place than when you started. From the shape of the page to basic paragraph formatting, InDesign offers senseless answers and obfuscates some critical questions in doing so.

The turn and tooth of a wood screw is a standardized and international norm[1]. Dutch insurers of ocean traveling ships wanted to make sure that the boats were being built to a high enough standard that the vessel would not be likely to sink and then that therefore they would not have to pay out for lost cargo and ships in case of sinking[2]. Making sure that all of the screws being used to build the boat were the same and met a certain quality created the need for an industrial standard. The stories behind why the objects in the world look and act the way they do are often hard to trace and difficult to tell. Graphic design exists inside of an invisible and blurry boundary of various industrial standards. When designing for print, how the object is meant to be used, the production process of the thing and the delivery method all create a defined edge to what the designer can create. These boundaries do not determine what the final thing should look like, but they do set the limits that need to be worked within. If the item being made is a book full of words then the shape of the pages can’t be so tall that the book falls over itself, it can’t be so small that the readers fingers and thumbs don’t have a place to hold onto without obscuring the words, it can’t be so large that it won’t fit on a large press sheet at the printers. While the content of the project will be the primary focus of the page, the designer must also consider press sheet sizes, paper grain direction, the final weight of the object, if it can fit inside of a standard envelope, and a series of other industrial standards that give boundary to the designed thing.

When faced with a blank page, I know that there are some invisible rules to follow, that repetition has created norms, that in the West I can safely place the start of my words near the top left corner of the page and that it will be understood by an audience to be the beginning. It is difficult to not start there with most of our tools and software. Starting a page at the bottom left of a page in Microsoft Word and working back would be hard, typing a letter on a typewriter, in the same manner, would be almost impossible. These standards are built into the tools we use to create things.

Graphic designers don’t often work with a text editing software or with a physical typewriter. They instead use Adobe InDesign, a powerful production and design tool that is complex and allows the finest details of the design to be considered by the designer. The designer can start a new project and define and control the hundreds of details that need to be considered in the making of a well-designed project. Adobe InDesign is taught in design programs in colleges across the world; it has been the standard tool for design for the past 20 years; it is what serious professionals use. Given its audience and intended users, you would assume that it’s suggested defaults when starting a new project would be a safe place to begin. When a new project is started, the designer is met with a new document menu with loads of options, and by default, they are filled in with what you might think would be a thoughtful page in mind. But the defaults that are suggested are so poorly considered you might think that the engineers who built this software don’t actually know anything about design, or that they are playing a joke of some sort. The suggested default is a letter-sized page, with half-inch margins around the entire page, and facing pages. While some designers have to work inside of the limits of a desktop printer and make work that is produced on 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper, most designers hardly ever work inside of those constraints, they create page shapes that help tell of the story of the project, that can be cropped out of a press sheet in almost any way they want, that can have images and color that bleed off of the page that can be cut into. This default of a letter-sized page makes me question if the engineers at Adobe really understand their user base and audience.

The margins on a well-designed page make reference to the object as a whole. The Guttenberg bible has margins that repeat the ratios present on the page to create what is considered a harmonious whole. The shape of the page and the shape of the text block on that page can repeat each other to create a repetitive harmony, or they can contrast each other to tell a story and create tension. The relationship between what is the margin and what is not, that relationship can express an idea, it can affect legibility, it can make a book feel cold and indifferent, or it can make the reading feel breezy and effortless. The margins the InDesign gives as a standard default are half-inch margins all around the page. This has no relationship to the shape of the page or its proportions, it has no historical precedent or meaning, it is just there, and if you don’t know any better than you might think that is a good and thoughtful margin and hit the okay button and start your new project with a page shape and margins that have nothing to do with the content you are working with and no historical or logical reasons. Microsoft Word has more considered margins by default and in its templates.

There are lots of different ways to shape a page and determine margins and measures. The measure is graphic design jargon for line length. One method is to determine the type size of the main body copy that will fill up most of the page and where the reader will spend most of their time and then determine the ideal length of a line of text, with that length known you can subtract it from the page width and what you have leftover creates your horizontal margins. The other method is essentially the same process but reversed; you create your margins as a function of the ratio of the shape of the page, and whatever is not margin space is the text block space. Classical Western typography for extended texts says that 66 characters per line are ideal, and between 45 and 75 are in the range of acceptable. Once you know what your line length is going to be, you can do some simple math to determine how large your type needs to be to result in a 66 character line. The defaults that InDesign uses create such long line lengths that to achieve an ideal 66-character line your body copy would need to be set at 18pt and would look absurd.

There is an inverse relationship between a page’s margins and measure; as one increases, the other decreases. Once that relationship is figured out you can solve for your type height for an ideal measure length. The line length (measured in points) divided by 30 equals “x” where “x” is type height in points. A lot of designers don’t enjoy math very much and are frustrated by this kind of system, but that frustration does not make it less useful. InDesign sets the default type size to 12pt, which creates lines with, on average 100 characters (which is well outside of the typographically acceptable range.)

Typography that obscures the text by creating difficult to read text is common and can be found in “the fine print” of legal documents. The content is there, but not to be read, but the line lengths are large, the type is small, and the leading is tight, all of that makes for difficult to parse text. A long line length can still work in a layout if the leading is generous. If the long lines have enough room between and around them, they can still be legible and help in the ease of reading. A leading of about 18pts for 12pt type can work without hurting legibility. InDesign’s defaults do not care about use or function; they just exist and look roughly good enough. InDesign sets a default of 120% of text height as the default leading, it does not matter how long the measures are, 10pt text is set over 12pt leading even if the measures are long. That default leading creates a difficult to read page.

The baseline grid can be a valuable way to align lots of text blocks on a single page or throughout a long document. If employed, it overwrites the leading a designer has set for their text and forces everything to a new leading that creates the baseline grid. Text set in columns that don’t use the baseline can feel sloppy when the lines of text in each column don’t align along the baseline, it is a subtle thing, but it helps to create a sense of unity in the text and on the page. The text size default that InDesign creates is 12pt type set over 14.4pt leading, so the baseline grid default should match this 14.4pt leading. It does not. It is set at 12pt. This default, if used, would force your page to have very tight leading and have very long line lengths, this would make for challenging text to read.

While there is no hard and fast rule about what a perfect rag for left aligned text is, most typographers would not use hyphenation in text set that way. Hyphens should be used with justified text to help prevent strange gaps in your text that can be distracting for a reader, but text set left aligned, and rag right does not need hyphenation. InDesign’s default text block is rag right with hyphenation turned on for the paragraphs.

In the Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman says if you don’t know how to use a tool properly, it is designed badly[3]. We expect that as we go through a day using things, making a coffee, opening a door, using the suggested defaults in some software, that the recommendations are pointing us in a good direction, that we are being helped, and that it would be better to use the suggested default instead of blindly guessing at what we are doing. My coffee machine suggests that for six units of water, I add four of the provided scoops full of ground coffee. I assume that this will make a reasonable cup of coffee, I assume that the provided scoop is the correct size, I assume that the units of measure for the water are useful in some manner. Using the defaults in InDesign will create a poorly designed page that somehow manages to get at least some aspects of typography and design wrong.

The feeling that I have of something that is very much like fear when looking at a blank page, the stress of being unprepared to start but knowing that I do have to start, the knowledge what makes the blank page awful is just me and my lack of something, and I can’t figure out what, this is what pushes me to do almost anything else in the world other than write. I know that starting with a blank page is not the place to start, the page shape itself is part of the communication, a DIN ISO shaped page has meaning, a page set in the golden section ratio has meaning, and this meaning affects the design whether you understand it or not. From the pages shape and the ratio that page is built on, you have all of the information you need to create thoughtful margins, measures, type sizes, and leading. The blank page is blank, but it is not empty of information. InDesign could suggest much more thoughtful defaults, but as they exist now, new designers would be better served if InDesign had no recommended defaults, and in fact, asked the designer to consider all of these settings. Instead, designers are given bad answers to questions they did not know they were being asked.

[1] "The Long Chain." Connections. BBC. Time Life Films. Dec. 1978. Television.


[3] Norman, Donald A. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Doubleday, 1990. Print.