Digressionary Print Formats

The cover story of the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly is by David Foster Wallace on the subject of talk radio. I enjoyed the piece, and as always Wallace’s great writing but I’d like to draw attention to the design of the article, specfically the use of sidenotes to accomodate and encourage Wallace’s penchant for digressions, footnote, and asides.

The best way to understand the design of the piece is to buy a copy of the magazine. A PDF is available online to subscribers, but the online version has some elements that try, but don’t truly express the concept.

"[Editor’s Note: In the print version of this article additional commentary from the author appears alongside the main text. (Subscribers may scroll down this page for a link to an Adobe PDF version of the article.) In the version below, click the phrases within the colored boxes to read the commentary.]"


The text of the article is occasionally highlighted in colors — think of the highlighter function in Microsoft Word — which signifies that the reader should look to the side of the main text for the appropriately colored box which contains a side note. Each color denotes a different type of sidenote. A footnote may be yellow, an editorial note blue, etc.

Wallace is a master of digression, a writer similar to Thomas Pynchon in his love with spiralling detours down the path of minutia, paths which can either lead the reader to despair of ever picking up the main narrative, or delight them if their taste in detail and complexity follow the author’s. In Infinite Jest, Wallace’s sprawling novel about tennis and Alcoholics Anonymous, he resorts to footnotes, a serious irritation to a reader who must flip to the end-notes to follow along. Thankfully, Wallace just keeps advancing the footnote counter through the entire novel, rather than following the academic practice of resetting the counter every chapter which forces the reader to seek the chapter’s section of footnotes, and then to that chapter’s specific note.

The practice of running footnotes right at the foot of the main text is more convenient, but nevertheless forces the reader to drop the narrative, move to the tiny type, and then return to where they left off.

What the Atlantic Monthly accomplishes is a very elegant solution to page design — one of the more innovative advances in print I’ve seen in some time and the best solution for hypertext concepts I have seen in print.  The "ergonomics" work well, the notes are easier to access due to their formatting adjacent to the main point, and there are no tiny superscript numbers cluttering the text. The colored highlights break the text snake of the mainbar like highway signs, making departure and return simple.

There are a lot of solutions to the problem of accomodating digressionary content. Hover balloons, IntelliText advertising, or good old fashioned hyperlinks can all accomplish the job online. The Atlantic has presented a print solution which could, if adapted, be a very elegant model for online design. 

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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