Playing With Words: More on the Page as Tableau

My recent posts on wikis as potential tableaux of the brain raised the question about how the limits of the page constrain our communications, our intelligibility. I wanted to explore this further and also extend it to discuss how the page limits our imagination and artistic and emotional expression.

I’ve kicked around the word ‘tableau’ in these posts but didn’t define it: it means a vivid arrangement or spread. Think of a mural, or a buffet, or even a store layout. The objective is to let you ‘take in’ the entire scene, and at the same time to ‘invite you in’ to explore further.

The page is a tableau, but not a very good one. The words themselves, left unaccompanied to their own devices, usually have to draw you in, which is why the cover art, and the first paragraph of a book, are so important. Some writers have decided the page should be more than a uniform, linear display of as much text as will fit. One of the first was Marshall McLuhan, who understood that the medium is the message. He must have driven his publishers mad with books full of pages like the one above, whose small print (written 40 years before Lakoff) reads:

The past went that-a-way.When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future. Suburbia lives imaginatively in Bonanza-land.

Tom Peters’ ‘wow’ books take a similar approach, though, in my opinion, his layouts are more about getting attention and lack the aesthetics of McLuhan’s work (though, to be fair, McLuhan’s books featured a graphic designer and a ‘producer’ as ‘co-authors’):
Gotta love Hugh MacLeod, though. His profound sayings with accompanying sketches on the back of business cards are a brilliant idea:


The words are still the most important, but now the medium really is the message: the handwritten script drips with a kind of self-loathing offhandedness that Arial and Times New Roman just couldn’t put across. And while the sketches are usually abstract, they add profoundly to the tone of the message.

Betcha you’re having more fun reading this article than my usual posts, right? The graphics, the experimentation with different typefaces and scripts, the playfulness of the tableau, all make the content both richer and more interesting. They add emotion and context, and therefore value. Maybe that’s not fair (especially for those of us who aren’t artists), but it’s real.

There are other ways and reasons for making the page more than words in rows. Peter Senge with his systems thinking approach uses boxes and arrows with his words to convey the relationships between the concepts and content, in ways that words alone cannot:


Mindmaps, concept maps, and social network analyses do the same thing:

Mindmap, using FreeMind.

Concept map, using IHMC’s CMap tool.

Social networking map, from Entopia

And there are also, of course, timeline charts, process diagrams, and tables, which show words in different ‘organized’ ways, and even more sophisticated visualizations that carry tables a dimension further:

Visualization from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Poets have been using tableau layouts for centuries, like ee cummings

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little lame baloonman

whistles far and wee

and eddyandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old baloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and


baloonMan whistles

…and John Hollander


One could even consider conversations as oral word tableaux, with the words of each participant, coming from utterly different ‘places’ (different brains) interleaved in space and time, with so much of their meaning (body language, pheromones, tone of voice etc.) utterly lost in the transcription to the linear written page.

Take a look at these two page layouts, which are mostly text. See how much more the tableau conveys, how much more meaningful and expressive the tableau is, than the words alone could ever hope to be:

Page from an old MacIntosh Design Manual

Page from the new book Crows, by Candace Savage (my review coming shortly)

What am I getting at with all this? Two things, which I’ll present as a list, another form of word tableau:

  1. We as writers need to liberate ourselves from the constraints of the page, which to some extent the scrolling screen has removed (though you’re kind of annoyed having to do so much scrolling to read this article, aren’t you?), and we need to open our imaginations to discover all the extra-verbal ways we can use the Internet medium to convey so much more than mere lines of words can — and, especially, convey emotion (anger, joy, play|ful|ness) to enrich what we write. Those who teach English and ‘creative writing’, are you listening?
  2. We are too constrained by HTML. I appreciate the purpose of HTML — allowing people with different screen sizes, window sizes, fonts and resolutions to all read what we write, to make websites and weblogs legible. But right now if I want you to see my handwriting with scribbled circles and arrows, or an unusual script, or a word tableau that involves wildly different typefaces, sizes, colours, splashed across the screen with figures and halftones cutting across and underlying them like the Instruments page above, I have to use a graphic format instead of a text format, and that is extremely expensive, memory-wise, and the result is often illegible when I have to accommodate those with small-resolution screens by shrinking them to a maximum width of 500px. How can we fix this, so that my scanner becomes my composition device of choice, instead of my WYSIWYG editor?
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11 Responses to Playing With Words: More on the Page as Tableau

  1. Devin says:

    How can we fix our dependency on cold and impersonal mediums such as computers and books and replace them with the far richer conversations occurring in person?That’s the real question.

  2. Don Dwiggins says:

    I’m reminded of the poem in Alice in Wonderland that was in the shape of a cat, and “tailed off” with the words “I’ll be the judge and I’ll be the jury, said cunning old Fury, and try the whole case and condemn you to death.”As to something better than HTML, SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) might have potential. There’s beginning to be tools for creating SVG “documents”, and commonly available browsers will start supporting it natively.

  3. Actually, I think computer programmers could do a much better job making a richer medium. I have never seen the semi-transparency of paper legitimately implemented; or the ability to doodle, or texture, or many other things.I agree with Dave that writers should do better; but programmers such as myself should provide better tools.

  4. Name Withheld says:

    Dave, drawing or write your thoughts on paper for a while. Then use your scanner and post… No one is mandating that you use ASCII, HTML. Use what works!

  5. Brent says:

    This is one of the best posts of yours I’ve read. Original concepts and thought-provoking in unexpected ways. You’ve made me yearn for better tools of electronic expression.I have to say that I’m not convinced of the wiki as a metaphor for the brain. When the telephone exhange was the latest technology, that was proposed as a model of the brain; Turing’s computing machinery changed the metaphor to computers; and now wikis. You are right on target noting the value of the free-form non-causal interactions that wikis promote, but there is much that is not captured by wikis as a metaphor (learning, bias, higher-order interaction). Also, you can’t avoid the linearity required of reading a page, even on a wiki (or on your post): left to right locally, top to bottom globally. Not, I would expect, how one would describe the flow of thoughts.I don’t mean to be negative. Yours is a thoughtful post and intelligent blog.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Amen, Devin & Robert. Don, any good sources for reading on SVG (I’m interested for PKM reasons as well)? NW — I’d do that, except my scanned JPGs would not ‘fit’ on the screen, and the cost of them on the blog server would bankrupt me. Brent: I’m not saying the wiki is a metaphor for the whole brain, just a useful ‘holder’ for the WYK-TYCWD (what you know that you can write down) subset of it.

  7. Chris Ball says:

    In response to Devin, I would say this: How can we take cold and impersonal media such as computers and books and imbue them with the richness of conversations occurring in person? Because like them or not, these media have a lot to offer (they’re portable, reproducible, etc.) Now THAT is a real question.

  8. medaille says:

    I think the big limitation with the internet and knowledge management (to the best of my knowledge as it is limited on the subject) lies in the lack of a ability to parse information and classify it in useful manners. The popularity of google is very telling because google is still incredibly limited in what it provides the user. What I would like to see is a algorithm that can read a document and determine what it’s about, who it would interest, and what it’s related to. I would like search engines that will provide me with new interesting information that I am not aware that I am missing out on.

  9. Jon Husband says:

    bit by bit (so to speak) .. Michel Cartier is breaking ground, imo, on the ways concepts and knowledge can be displayed on computer screens .. the Constellation W3 site should be up soon, and has many interlinkings of explanatory texts, data points, schematics, concept and knowledge maps, helping us to visualize and connect many dots, and thus build understanding and meaning.

  10. Bill Harris says: provides more examples of ways people have used computers to lay out information on a page (or Web page). Check out the Dynamic Documents section.

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