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Dean's New Alphabet

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A New Alphabet - Language Icons and Embodiment of Digital Literacy.

Dean, Jeanie S. e-book, 2002. <http://pw.english.uwm.edu/~jdean>.

An E-book Where the Medium Erases the Message

As an artist, editor and writer, who is in love with typography, I was prepared to fall in love with with Jeanie S. Dean's electronic book called A New Alphabet - Language Icons and Embodiment of Digital Literacy (http://pw.english.uwm.edu/~jdean). I instead find myself profoundly disappointed.

New is ambitious. Its subject matter is text and art. Dean endeavors to explore representations of the alphabet and the cultural meaning systems that can be derived from those depictions. This is a fascinating and worthy subject to be explored. If this e-book was created 10 years ago I would have said Dean had produced a technically clever albeit narratively weak discussion.

Those of us who rely on the Internet and navigate it as we would our living rooms consciously expect our interaction with technology to be smooth and clever. The text we read, in both form and content, we now expect to be self aware in its irony or its sincerity. We look for layered meanings in the color choices of a web site, in its font, its layout, and a site's navigating buttons/surfaces must guide us both physically and metaphorically. In a web site we expect to be challenged or to gain insight or to have the message be purely represented. A well designed site is a device of presentation that should disappear from our awareness achieving a transparency its transmittal of information. Unfortunately New fails in these many elements.

Dean states that "This book was produced with the assumption of a paper bound book viewing frame although it is also translated to HTML for internet publication and browsing." If we judge it as a book, especially as one that focuses on the alphabet, it has problems with basic presentation. There are mistakes in spacing and punctuation. There is no coherent organization. The heavy Times New Roman font in the main areas of text is distracting and the use of different fonts and colors throughout is clumsy. Font and text need a light hand and to be "set" by someone with a familiarity with the psychological aspects of font. Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographical Style or The Non-Designer's Type Book by Robin Williams would have been helpful, basic guides to Dean.

If we evaluate New in terms of an e-book there are problems again with basic expectations for the medium. Much of what appeared to be links to web sites were not live when I visited the site. The link to Rhizome.org took me to George Lakoff's page. As well, the link to the journal Consciousness, Literature and the Arts took me instead to the web site for Enculturation.

The images that Dean has used are beautiful. However, they are placed one after another with no discussion to connect them. They are often not properly referenced as the name of the artist responsible for an image is often missing. Some images do receive better treatment, but the frame that houses their discussion on the page is intrusive and clumsy. In the sections of the e-book that have theoretical discussions the theory and theorists discussed are not placed within a structure or context either to each other or within the site as a whole. As well the text is visually heavy and needs to be packaged in more accessible chunks. There is, oddly, no use of hypertext in the blocks of text as well.

A web site should be an inter-related whole. Font choices, argument, navigation, color, image, and text, should reference each other. This is a basic concept in design and is not apparent in this e-book. Here Tufte's classic trilogy: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative would have offered solutions to the problems of visual narrative found throughout this web site.

Dean makes many profound sounding statements that on closer examination have no clear meaning such as when she states: "Fine Art images were chosen for their meaningful visual value" and "The mode of digital production is a new kind of literacy that constitutes its own alphabet." In an e-book that is already cluttered and unclear such statements do not clarify the message of her medium.

A web site that strives to comment on text in an electronic medium should be an exemplar of design, text, narrative and navigation. While the goal of this e-book is noble it lacks both basic and expert skills to bring it to fruition. New is interesting but not ground breaking.

J. Lynn Fraser