Compared with other design disciplines, graphic design is essentially non-spatial. Architecture, exhibit design, landscape design, product design, even fashion design are all more about space than graphic design is. In fact, “graphic” implies something to do with “written or pictorial representation.” Both these modes are essentially abstract systems, learned equivalents of things that exist in the real, four-dimensional world of speech, touch, movement and space.

Text and pictures (things on paper and screens) don’t seem abstract to us but that is just because they are so ubiquitous. Our ability to “read” images and text has been learned over the eons beginning with the invention of images, numbers and language.

Significantly, graphic design is distinguished among the design disciplines by its roots in language. Writing, and later “typography,” is basically a set of conventions invented to represent spoken language in print. Typography’s simple tools of size, weight, slant, letter form, grouping, and placement allow the typographer to convey hierarchy and sequence and thereby to express the structure, meaning, and feeling of a text. But despite its ingenuity as a system, typography is arid and undernourished compared to the rich inflections, rhythms and nuances of aural speech.

Regardless of its limitations, typography, in combination with images, has been refined for centuries. But the experience of two-dimensional typographic space is very abstract and conventionalized. In Edward Tufte’s fascinating book Envisioning Information, he chronicles the devices designers have used to break out of the spatial “flatland” of print. Renaissance perspective is a good example. Pop-up books is another.

As graphic designers we can eke out spatial hints by employing scale, vertical position, overlap and atmosphere (light or dark, sharp or fuzzy). We can invoke the space captured in pictures. But print’s spatial constraints start with the physical limitations of medium itself: the page has edges; so does the screen.


Interestingly, screen space is categorically different from paper space. Instead of being a panel with defined edges, the screen is like a window or a keyhole, an opening through which we glimpse a theoretically infinite space. Access to screen space is afforded through the ability to manipulate your point of view through the mouse, the scroll bar or touch gestures.

So far, however, the potential of interactive screen-based media to break out of the page-turn idiom of print and evoke the spatial context of real life has been very limited. There was much hype a decade ago about the promise of “virtual” space. While video games offer ever more realistic and immersive 3-d spatial environments, the current state of the Internet itself is almost a step backward from the spatial experience of print.

It is ironic that web designers are said to be “working in the Internet space,” when in fact that world is so non-spatial. Poor resolution, limited “page” size, and infantile typographic controls constrict even the minimal spatial conventions of print typography. Bandwidth constrains the use pictorial space. Panning is computationally demanding and zooming is worse. For all these reasons, a flat, anti-spatial “page” convention persists in most web experiences.


Occasionally I have seen the promise of a convincing spatial “graphic” environment. In the mid 90’s Muriel Cooper, David Small and their colleagues at the Media Lab at MIT demonstrated the beguiling options of a “typographic landscape.” For the first time in my experience, I could envision how the screen could truly provide unfettered access to the infinite space behind it. Using the landscape metaphor, text images and objects could exist in an a vast space governed by the same visual cues we experience in real life. The shape of things could be discerned in the distance. Landmarks could aid navigation and orientation. And the closer you got, the more detail you could see. At any point, text could be oriented in the x, y or z axis. In the nearly two decades since these demonstrations, the computing power and bandwidth needed to pull this off has improved, and 3-D software and gesture based behavior of screens are here to stay, but everyday graphic design applications of fully spatial typography are still hard to find.

Ultimately the promise of interactive, responsive media is that it will simulate more and more of the taken-for-granted, fully 4-dimensional, animate, aural and spatial experience of daily life. Like the development of Renaissance perspective, this will no doubt require learning yet another set of conventions that attempt to simulate “reality.” Ideally, these media will eventually be so compelling and their conventions so familiar, that (like the flatland of print) they will have a reality all their own.

Written 2002; updated 2014