Designing Literature

I have been thinking a lot about design and human interaction, particularly as it concerns pedagogy. A friend of mine, Tim Richardson, who’s an associate professor of English at UT Arlington, and I are planning to teach concurrent, collaborative courses about speculative fiction, postdisciplinarity, and design. Our plan has made me think a lot more than normal about design, particularly as it relates to physical objects like the book. In general, when most of us think of human interactions with literature, we usually envision the paradigm of the book. With books, we are mostly engaged visually with the text. However, as my friend and I continue to research and design our syllabi, it is starting to become clear that the general conceptualization of the written word, as visual and mental processes is wrong, that we should think of writing and reading (as well as the book artifact) as far more tactile and perhaps olfactory than generally recognized. Designers of books covers, magazine layouts, and the other physical aspects of long-form publications seem to think about the physicality of text as a matter of course. Perhaps as literature teachers, we ought to pay more attention to it as well.

The idea of literature appealing to a multiplicity of human senses hit home over the weekend when I was at the local Tom Thumb killing time browsing the magazine section. I noticed that the October 2014 edition of Wired magazine was dedicated to design, so I couldn’t help but pick it up to see if there might be something of relevance to what Tim and I were doing for our course. The moment I touched the Wired issue was actually a treat. I was struck by the unusual feel of the cover, its seemingly luxurious texture. To my hands, the cover had a slightly grainy, but otherwise silky feel. It was a warm sensation, not like the typical cool, slick texture of a magazine cover. This cover made me think about the way a smooth, freshly painted wall feels, one that was well prepped with a very fine-grained sandpaper prior to the application of a high-grade flat paint. The feeling of satisfaction that comes with completing such a project. My first nice apartment. My home. Cover of Wired Magazine, October 2014 issue
I realized that even without opening the cover to read a single article, I was going to buy that issue. The cover alone would make a very nice example for my students to explore as a design feature, and there were, in fact, several good articles that will prove useful. Plus, there was still that something about the simple feel of the cover. The designers of the cover did their job well, consciously incorporating the sense of touch into the reading experience.