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Lamenting E-Mail's Lack of Identity,
A Designer Tries to Re-Personalize Net Letters

June 5, 1997

An e-mail message from Roger Black arrives with legible characters -- but with very little of the visual character that reflects his singular style.

Black, the graphic-design guru best known for his celebrated makeovers of Newsweek, Rolling Stone and the Sunday magazine of The New York Times, acknowledged the problem.

"When you print out e-mail messages, they're hideous-- you can barely read them," Black said during a telephone conversation last week from his New York office.

Despite the obvious visual virtues of the World Wide Web, simple text-based e-mail continues to be the Internet's "killer app." Indeed, its immense popularity has proven fatal from time to time for America Online and other systems overwhelmed by the high volume of traffic.

Yet what an e-mail message gains in immediacy, it generally gives up in terms of appearance.

With a piece of conventionally posted "snail mail," the elegant letterhead, traditional typeface and smartly scribbled signature (not to mention the Bugs Bunny stamp) combine to make a clear statement about the sender.

These expressions of identity, Black concurred, vanish in the realm of e-mail, where a message is read in a visual environment, typically gray, that is determined by the receiver, not the sender.

"In the old days -- the days of the typewriter -- you could always tell a letter from an important person," he said. "There were a number of other signals besides the format, like whether the paper was engraved. There was also something about the way the margins of the letter were done."

"That quality of the presentation has been lost in the e-mail world," Black asserted.

Black began turning his talents toward cyberspace in 1994 with the founding of the Interactive Bureau, a digital design house with clients that include the @Home Network and the National Park Service.

Black's new book,
Web Sites That Work

More recently, he has published Web Sites That Work, a softcover primer for multimedia developers that often calls upon the classic principles of design and typography to make its points.

Black offered ways that e-mail correspondents can jazz up their pages that go beyond the use of emoticons ("pathetic little happy faces," he called them) and ASCII-based illustrations, built with standard typographical characters, of dogs and other cute objects.

To lend his missives a distinctive look that resembles a typewritten page, Black slaps liberally at the tab key to narrow margins and stagger the array of lines. He also strives to keep his paragraphs short and then places spaces between them.

And, he said, sometimes he starts a message with a series of strokes of the return key so that there is "just a little bit of air at the top under all that Windows gibberish."

Black learned these techniques while operating a teletype machine as a summer intern at the Houston Post in 1967. "The real precursor of e-mail is teletype," he opined.

"I spent a lot of time trying to communicate with [news bureaus at] NASA and city hall and Galveston," he said.

"There was a woman in Galveston who would format her messages," Black recalled. "First, she would type five spaces in for every line and then she would hit the carriage return twice, so she would have a narrow-column, double-spaced message. You always knew it was from her."

"This takes a little bit of work, but you can do this in e-mail now," he said, suggesting that e-mail authors copy 5 or 10 spaces into memory and paste them at the start of every line.

Black also affixes a unique "sig" file to the end of his e-mail messages: his travel schedule for the coming month.

"That really annoys a lot of people," he said gleefully, "because they think I'm having a delightful time in the spas of Europe only to discover that I'm dragging from one meeting to another."

For interoffice e-mail, where correspondents are assured that their readers have the same software, more creativity is possible -- with bold or italic typefaces, for example.

Once those messages pass through a few mail gateways, though, cryptographers must be summoned to decode a document.

"Sometimes it will come with some HTML-like tags," Black said, describing an all-too-common occurrence.

"It'll say 'bold,' which is really annoying," he said. "Sometimes it's stripped completely away. It all seems to depend on how it's bapped around on various POP servers."

"There are all these different bits of software that are producing e-mail, and the lingua franca is ASCII," he continued. "Even that is funky because if you go from the PC to the Mac and use any foreign accents, they will sometimes come out as other things."


Roger Black spends most of his surfing hours examining the sites with which he is involved. With a little prodding, though, he will name a few non-Black sites that brighten his day. R/GA Digital Studios, a multimedia design firm in Manhattan, has a Web site with an animated, ever-changing grid. "Their interface is very different," Black said. "There's a little Java applet that downloads. I like it." For typographic resources, he said, "FontShop is a pretty good site that I've referred to." He also cited LettError. "That's a bunch of mad Dutch type designers," he said. "They've been in on this electronic stuff from the beginning and have a very interesting point of view." And, despite his avowed aversion to golden hues -- black, white and red are his preferred colors -- Black conceded that he is keen on the curiously yellow CNET site. "That's a content thing," Black said.

But Black stopped short of calling for a new universal protocol for e-mail that would enable greater graphic artistry, favoring first some repair work on the existing standard.

"It seems like if we're going to use ASCII as the lingua franca, we should start with ASCII," he declared. "At the very least, we should be able to send e-mail from the PC to the Mac or to an internal UNIX system and have it read the same."

Black affirmed the multimedia potential of the HTML-compatible e-mail software that accompanies the new generation of Web browsers. "In the next year, we're going to see a much greater shift toward formatted e-mail that people are producing in HTML," he said.

George Meng, a product manager for Microsoft Corp., explained that the Outlook Express e-mail client bundled with his company's forthcoming version of Internet Explorer would allow messages to contain custom-designed letterhead, scanned versions of handwritten signatures, colored pages and other multimedia niceties.

"Whatever you've seen and experienced out on the Web, you can now incorporate as part of e-mail," Meng said.

Black remains unconvinced that HTML-encoded e-mail will become the lingua nuova of cross-platform messaging. Instead, he wondered about the potential of reading file attachments in a common format like Adobe Systems Inc.'s PDF.

"I think it's more likely that we will emerge with something like that in terms of general acceptance than HTML formatting," he said. "HTML is still beyond what most normal human beings want to know."

Regardless of the technique, adding graphic-design content to e-mail messages will not necessarily result in eye-pleasing pages.

In his book, Black criticizes the overly busy designs of many Web sites. Meng agreed that an injudicious use of the HTML capabilities in e-mail could ravage some retinas.

"The experience I compare it to is when fonts first became available and everybody's communication started looking like a ransom note. You have that danger," Meng said.

Black, however, was confident that common sense would prevail.

"I'm not one of those designers who's afraid of the great unwashed getting their hands on fonts and layout tools," he said. "I believe that the general level of graphic communication has been improved by desktop publishing."

There are limits to what graphics can express, though, Black said. As ever, content remains king.

"Never mind all this graphics stuff we're talking about. What about the language? Maybe that's the key to making e-mail work," he said excitedly. "The basic idea of communicating by writing is re-entering human life."

He said he enjoys the telegraphic feel of e-mail messages, with their informal sensibility, truncated phrases and occasional typographical errors. "There's an urgency in the style that's refreshing," he said.

Black believes that it is up to the writer to combine characters in a way that will express the author's character.

"If you're looking to inject your e-mail with personality, a little bit of simple formatting helps," he said. "Ultimately, it may be the actual writing where the personality comes in."

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Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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