Tuesday, December 12, 2006

I Am Sorry, But ‘Tel’ Is Just Not A Real Word

One characteristic personality trait common amongst graphic designers is obsessing over the details that other people (most often their clients) either do not notice, or else find impossible to feign interest in once they are brought to their attention. Due to the projects I have been dealing with recently I have been tackling the many inconsistent conventions that are habitually adopted when communicating contact information. This is part of the low-level visual plumbing that we designers have to deal with on a daily basis. The majority of communications designed today will feature some form of contact information. There is no right or wrong way of presenting such information. What tends to be problematic is where people simply do not think through what they wish to say and how they wish to say it. They fall back on conventions and formulae that may not be applicable in their context.

You call, I call
When expressing phone contact information people now frequently utilise the construction: “call John Example on 01 234 5678” a linguistic stumbling block which always trips me up whenever I read it. The most appropriate form is “call John Example at 01 234 5678” which emphasises where you want your call to go: where John is at. If you were going to use ‘on’ then why not ‘via’ or ‘over’? Would you say “call John Example via 01 234 5678” or “call John Example over 01 234 5678” I don’t think so.

Make with the clickey
In my analysis a website functions as a destination within a sentence. I favour “visit www.website.com” over “go to www.website.com” but that is merely a stylistic preference. (Anyone else recall the days of “surf to www...” and “browse to www...”?) Most frightfully, one of my clients recently requested this forlorn construction: “go on www.website.com”. I succeeded in talking them down from that particular ledge. My most charitable interpretation of this was that they were thinking along the lines of “go online to www...” It is still surprisingly common for some clients (particularly those with an engineering background) to argue the case for including the full “http://www” prefix in their given web address. No doubt to facilitate anyone out there still using IE3 or Netscape Communicator.

Business cards
A phone number and a fax number are indistinguishable and easily confused, so they always require a caption. An email address and a web address do not look like anything else, so including a caption is redundant. I wouldn’t like to total the amount of time I have spent talking clients out of adding ‘Web:’ before ‘www.webaddress.ie’.

Fax is a three letter word, as is web.
When I started working for Information Design back in 1991 we just had to deal with phone and fax numbers and the occasional direct telephone line number. The convention at the time (well, the Information Design house-style at least) was to use the three-letter words Tel, Fax and Dir. Two of which are not even words. It can be argued that even fax is lexicographically suspect; but you can use it in conversation, so it passes my rule of thumb.

You don’t add up your phone numbers
My theory as to why Tel and Dir were adopted at all is because of a widespread misconception that contact numbers have to align vertically within a layout. People tend to misclassify contact details as columnar data as in a spreadsheet, whereas it is only read as individual lines of text. What typically makes this clear is that first conversation with, say, someone the Accounts department, who can’t grasp the concept that the character-width for the numeral one is a lot less than that of a numeral eight and are still obsessing about the fact that their phone and fax numbers ‘do not line up’. The problem is compounded when you want to use proper words: Phone, Direct, Fax and Mobile as your captions and your client wants to align all of their contact numbers (perhaps so that they can be added-up). There is inevitably a problem with the gap between the shortest word ‘Fax’ and its related number. This inevitable problem then becomes the designer’s task to solve... Then the forlorn amputees Tel, Dir, Fax, and, er, Mob are dragged onto the page.

Another popular solution is the minimal, one-letter abbreviation methodology. Not one I have ever favoured, as what you gain in layout conformity you sacrifice in comprehension. T, F, M, E and W all make sense, but when you system has to stretch to incorporate oddities such S for switch, S for Skype, D for Direct and H for Home you are heading for trouble. (Lets not forget such oldies as I for ISDN and P for Pager.)