An online review of Trees, maps, and theorems in June 2009
by Tom Johnson serves to illustrate what is in my experience
a widespread misconception about the nature of noise. Tom,
who was mostly interested in visual design and page layout,
points out that “the last line of each paragraph ends perfectly
justified”, considering it an “almost OCD quality of the book”.
I then replied to Tom that, If he was going to tax me publicly
with (hopefully subclinical) obsessive-compulsive disorders,
he might as well go all the way and point out the optimization
of line breaks, too: I typically strive to keep on the same line
what is related syntactically, giving preference to line breaks
at natural breaks in the discourse, such as punctuation marks.
Tom responded he did not notice this feature and concluded
there was therefore no need to expend energy striving for it.
The point is, readers are not supposed to notice it— at least,
not consciously; if they did, the very feature would be noise.
Noise is whatever distracts the audience from the message(s)
being conveyed. Whenever readers start to think consciously
of how a piece of text is organized, expressed, or displayed,
they are being distracted, even if what they notice is positive.
In this sense, exclaiming “My, what a well-phrased sentence”
is hardly better than thinking “Yuck, what a complicated way
to write”: in both cases, the readers' attention goes to form,
not content. The reaction you should elicit from your readers
is, at most, a half-conscious feeling that “This is fascinating”
as they spontaneously read on. Good writing, in other words,
goes unnoticed as such—and yes, it is a frustration to writers.
The same goes for convincing speaking, effective page layout,
and so many other things in life. Seemingly invisible features,
and most aspects of page layout clearly fall in this category,
contribute largely to the effectiveness of the communication.
(Incidentally, Tom's reaction is even more surprising because
he went on to write, “I scan down a paragraph rather quickly
and often take it in as a whole”, and it is precisely to facilitate
this process that I go to the trouble of optimizing line breaks.)
Excellence—especially visual excellence—is all about details.
Before helping us apply a fresh coat of paint here and there
in the house my wife and I had just bought, my father-in-law
commented on the superb quality of the original paint job.
I must say I had no idea what he meant until he pointed out
that the white of the ceiling was extending a few millimeters
on the wall. “Ceilings are never perfectly flat”, he explained;
“if you just paint the ceiling one color and the wall another,
like most people do, their intersection will not look straight.
But when you extend the ceiling color just a little on the wall,
you can separate the two colors as a perfectly straight line.
Thus, your ceiling look perfectly flat.” As I was contemplating
what looked like a perfectly flat ceiling indeed and realizing
I could not discern this clever trick from where I was standing,
he added, “Not easy to do, though—but a hallmark of quality.”
I certainly argue that it is a nice touch: it is expending energy
for something that—hopefully—no one would notice as such,
but that makes a difference in the overall impression conveyed.
Fashion design icon Coco Chanel captured the concept of noise
elegantly when she said, “Dress shabbily, they notice the dress.
Dress impeccably, they notice the woman.” So, ladies, if people
compliment you on your new dress (or new hairdo or jewelry),
consider it an insult. They took notice of the dress, not of you.
A true compliment on your appearance (to quote Eric Clapton)
would simply be something like “You look wonderful tonight.”