Some people go as far as to say that web design is 95% typography, while others use more modest hyperbole. Either way, it’s a lot. It takes only a few hours of staring at a design file before those stems and crossbars melt into a visual soup of lorem-gibberish and the meaning of the text all but disappears. Many designers dedicate their careers to making containers for text, but the content is strictly someone else’s beeswax.
Conventional wisdom tells us that the container is “design” and the content is not. Design is typically expressed visually in space—interactive and tangible. Content, on the other hand, is ethereal and intellectual, manufactured by mysterious wizards. As long as it fits in the container, you don’t ask too many questions. As a designer and avowed word enthusiast, I’d like to offer a provocation: when you take a step back from the production line and look at the origins of writing, many of the boundaries that we draw today will disappear altogether.
Imagine that you’re an ambitious entrepreneur in neolithic Mesopotamia. The year is 3235 BCE, and it’s an exciting time to be alive. You’re bootstrapping a startup where you connect buyers and sellers of various agricultural goods. “It’s like Etsy, for sheep.” You start off by dragging carts of grain and livestock all over town, but that solution doesn’t scale because there are many sheep and only one of you. You decide to use pocket-sized clay tokens to represent commodities. A small clay cone represents one sheep; a big cone is ten. And a disk is a bushel of grain. Now you can coordinate transactions from the convenience of a market stand.
The tokens work for a while, until you have so many that you can’t keep track of them. You’re worried that your shady Sheep Exchange Operations guru might be pocketing spare tokens when you’re not looking. You start packaging tokens in sealed clay envelopes for improved accounting and security, and file a patent for blockchain. So far, so good—except there’s one problem: once you seal and dry the clay envelope, the only way to check the contents is to smash it open. Your business can’t grow because it’s ruinously expensive to smash your storage containers every time you want to make a trade or check your records. Your burn rate is catching up with you.
In all of human history, no business has survived the headwinds you’re facing, so you need to innovate—fast. You keep hearing buzz about design thinking, so you welcome your first design hire, a 23-year-old hipster from Uruk. One Sprint™️ later, the two of you hatch a brilliant new solution: before drying a clay envelope, a mark is made on the outside to indicate what’s in there. You can press the tokens into the surface to leave an impression, or you can scratch lines on the side with a stylus (ugh).