Season 3, Episode 9
Linda Secondari, Principal and Creative Director, Studiolo Secondari
Linda Secondari, Principal and Creative Director for Studiolo Secondari returns to Westchester Words to discuss how our attention spans have been distracted by the digital world we live and work in. She also shares recommendations on how to design long-form content in a more visually appealing manner, so it can better engage and maintain a reader's interest.
Listen to: Designing Effective Meetings
Blog posts by Linda
Read the podcast transcript:
[00:06] Nicole Tomassi: Welcome to Westchester Words: Education, Ed Tech and Publishing. I'm Nicole Tomassi and in this episode, I'll be joined by Linda Secondari, who is the creative director and principal of Studiolo Secondari. We'll be exploring how design elements can be used to make long form content more interesting, accessible and easier for the reader to ingest. Linda, it's a pleasure to welcome you back to Westchester Words.
[00:29] Linda Secondari: Oh, thank you so much, Nicole. It's such a pleasure to be here. I enjoyed our last conversation so much.
[00:35] Nicole Tomassi: I did as well and touching on that briefly, you were here about a year ago and it was discussing a different topic, but to start things off, I was wondering if you could share a little bit about yourself and the work that you do.
[00:47] Linda Secondari: I have been a book designer, primarily working in in-house publishing, academic publishing. Most recently, I was the creative director at Oxford University Press, where I managed an international design team of 40-plus designers and art directors. And we produced 3000 books a year. Then six years ago I started Studiolo Secondari, and we design books, we do book packaging, and we also work with publishing clients on branding and digital communications. I also have a consulting wing where I work with publishers or authors on various aspects of operations or ideation and facilitation.
[01:37] Nicole Tomassi: Part of what we're talking about today is making information easier to approach and take in, in a time where information can be accessed pretty much instantaneously and it can be available in multiple formats. But with people being more distracted than ever and having short attention spans, have you noticed the impacts of this?
[01:57] Linda Secondari: Well, I've definitely noticed it's impacted the way I read, and I believe the way everybody reads. We're just more distracted. The sort of constant churn of social media or the web I think has made our minds anticipate something happening. Every 20 to 30 seconds we sort of get this like oh, is an animation going to happen now? Or is something going to fly by or am I going to click on something? And so, when we take that mind that has been sort of rewired for a very engaged, auditory-visual experience, when we take that mind and we put it in front of a book, longform content, especially nonfiction, academic level, policy, dense, longform content, it's just very distracted, like looking at your phone every minute or expecting a notification to happen. And this is true for reading this kind of content online or in an ebook or in a book. We're just more distracted. And the way I believe we need to address this distractibility is to understand that we are all becoming skimmers, which means that we are flipping through our content, looking for different points of entry, which, by points of entry, I mean, a pull quote or a bulleted list or a boxed text, a chapter open, an epigraph, something that looks different, that sort of disrupts the flow of the regular content. We look at it, we read it, and then if that's interesting to us, we'll back up. We'll look at the environment that that exists in and see, oh, that content is something that I want to dive into and then I'll slip on. It's kind of the way people interact with magazines.
[04:08] Nicole Tomassi: I drew that parallel myself because I think about the way the magazines are laid out. There's always a pull quote to kind of grab your attention.
[04:15] Linda Secondari: Exactly. And then there's visual pauses, there's images, illustrations, so that while you're reading. I mean, even The New Yorker, which is an incredibly text-dense publication, from the beginning, they had those little cartoons. They had cartoons, the bigger cartoons with usually text, but they also have those little kind of graphic element cartoons interspersed. Now, I realized that helped them when they were laying it out, but it also created these visual pauses in a moment for you while you're reading this pretty intense article, to be able to stop and say like, oh, that's really cute, and then resume. And we all need those pauses, and we need them more than ever because of the distracted lifestyle that we all have.
[05:05] Nicole Tomassi: My son, he received some books that he ordered. It was some kind of essays, and he was just flipping through the book wall to wall text, and it was very small font. I was tired just looking at it.
[05:16] Linda Secondari: Right. That comes from the reading experience that we now have on our phones and online and in emails and websites. It's colorful, it's dynamic, it might be animated. There's lots of points of entry. It's very skimmable. And so, because we're all so distracted and our attention spans are shortening, I think I read something recently that said the average adult's attention span is something like 24 seconds. Wow, that's not a lot of time. And so, my feeling is that publishers and people who are creating what I call longform content that's beyond just a brief essay or an email, dense content with a lot of information, they really need to think about their reader. Their readers are more likely to be skimmers and skippers. Like you were saying, your son was presented with books that were just dense wall to wall text, and he's flipping through. What he's looking for, is he's looking for points of entry. He's looking for something that's going to give him a sense of what that copy around that point of entry is about and whether or not he's interested in diving in. When he finds a point of entry that's engaging him, he'll probably then loop back and read a few paragraphs before and read down and then maybe flip back a few pages and oh, this chapter. This chapter is interesting to me. But if you don't have that wayfinding for readers, they're just sort of, like, butting up against this wall. And psychologically, the page, kind of the traditional text page that as a book designer I've spent my life designing is becoming less and less inviting to us without these different wayfinding and points of entry. Not that we're never going to read something cover to cover, but we need to have that psychology, the way our brains are really being modified by our environment. We have to have that in mind in a way that perhaps ten years ago we didn't. The web has utilized these tools to the point where we're all just so familiar with them that we kind of expect them. I've seen little kids reading books and if there's a picture or something, they kind of like press it even though it's a book, they expect it's going to turn into an animation or maybe it's going to talk to them or something. And I think we all are developing that desire to have that wired brain.
[08:00] Nicole Tomassi: Yeah.
[08:01] Linda Secondari: And I'm a great believer in reading print. I like to be able to disengage, I like to not be distracted because I do think we are all reading while distracted. And if you can put your phone in a different room and actually sit in a chair with a book and a cup of tea, I mean, that's a beautiful experience and I love that. And I think that works really well for fiction, for poetry. But most of the clients that I have are writing policy,thought pieces, nonfiction. We need to understand that our readers are different than they used to be and our expectations for our readers need to change.
[08:43] Nicole Tomassi: With that in mind, and given the short attention span and how it can be a challenge with what I would call information rich content like policy papers and nonfiction content, what are some elements of design that you use to make that content more visually appealing or give those entry points to someone who's skimming it?
[09:04] Linda Secondari: As a designer, I have very little control over it has to do with the way the content is written, but I can certainly help the content along. So, incorporating visuals and graphics, wayfinding chapters, paragraphs, bulleted lists, all that kind of information, they really jump because that's what skimmers will land on. They'll find that element and then they'll decide if that information seems interesting to them, then they'll probably loop back and read more, going so far as to even bolding the beginning of new paragraphs or obviously making sure that the font is absolutely really easy to read. Identifying places to give a visual pause. So, for the person who is reading through very long content, giving them a moment either with a graphic element or ideally an illustration, just to give them a pause before they resume with the reading. It's really about establishing these different points of entry. Color can be used as a way to help differentiate different kinds of content. A lot of this kind of needs to happen upstream, headlines, pull quotes, subheadings, bulleted lists, making sure that the content is written in an easy to understand way. Those are things that I as a designer, I can't do that, I can't put that in the content. I can work with the editor when I see content that doesn't have that and say, like, look, do you think we can get some pull quotes? A pull quote is a great way to engage a reader because it's bigger. It's usually designed in a different way. It's one of these wayfinding methods that you see it and then you're like, oh, what's that from? Because I'm interested in that. But someone has to find the pull quote. Certainly, I’ve been in positions where as a designer I've done that, but generally I think an editor or the author should be the one who's determining what information should be highlighted in that way.
[11:16] Nicole Tomassi: Do you find that authors and editors of this mainly academic, or I'm just calling it information rich, I don't even know if that's the appropriate term. But using it, do you find that they are using that sort of mindset and thinking of it in terms of what makes a good pull-out quote, or is that something that you find that they have to learn as well?
[11:40] Linda Secondari: As with all things, there are some people, I think, who are on the leading edge of this and understanding it and incorporating it into their editorial methodology. But there's also a lot of very traditionally trained editors and authors who've been doing this for a long time. And necessarily it's understandable that they're not doing this now. This isn't as I said, this is a new approach. It's a response to what technology is doing to our attention spans, quite frankly. And I think that publishers, authors, editors who begin to incorporate these methodologies will discover that their work is being read more, discussed more. But it is outside of the scope of what was traditionally expected with open access.
[12:29] Nicole Tomassi: And this is probably more on for journals and such, but a lot of content is going to open access or to a format where it's being published digitally either at the same time or before print. Is it starting to move that way where people are thinking about that web design layout, where you have the ability to make things visually appealing?
[12:51] Linda Secondari: I do think that depends on the content area. So, when you're talking STM, where open access has been in place for a lot longer, the digital medium might be the primary mode of consumption. I think in those areas that this is being considered more and in that area of publishing, it really does lend itself very much to this approach to the content because you tend to have more kind of like graphs and data sets and images of whatever it is you're talking about. Bulleted lists, tables. It's less discursive, perhaps, but I think in other areas, aspects of policy and academic publishing history, linguistics, culture, not necessarily we're not in that yet, but I think we can get there and it's really we're publishing this content so that it will be consumed. And if we want it to be consumed, it needs to meet the reader halfway.
[14:01] Nicole Tomassi: I'm wondering if you could walk us through an instance where you modified content using these design elements and a more design-forward approach for a publisher and tell us a little bit about what that experience was like from a design perspective as well as what the client took away from it.
[14:19] Linda Secondari: I worked with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, otherwise known as the OECD, to revitalize their print publishing program, the design. So, they were very much on the leading edge of this. The goal was to make their content more snackable is how they referred to it. So, the OECD publishes reports on economic data sets of OECD countries. There's a narrative supporting the data. They do really innovative work, but their publications were really rather dry looking. And so, in order to highlight, really, the strength of the OECD, I took a deep dive into all of the different kind of publications that they produce. I met with the editorial team to talk about their workflow and how content was moved through the process to final publication. And I deployed a lot of these ideas that you and I have been talking about. So, one of the things I felt that was important was for them to sort of visually represent the benefits of what they were talking about and the end results of some of these strategic initiatives. So, I established a style for photography that was you know, really colorful, and the approach was macro and micro because that was very much the OECD. They create these large development strategies, but then they impact people. The idea was we would have these drone shots of container ships and pipelines or building sites, dams and things like that, and then we would have portraits of the people who were being positively impacted by these investments. And that, that immediately for the skimmer who's like flipping through the publication, that immediately would bring home the region where this is happening, what the topic was, all of that would be made immediate and human. They were already on the editorial side working on these snackable bits. So, they had a lot of what I would describe as kind of boxed text, and that is text that's in a box, and it's being highlighted for a certain reason. It can be any kind of text. It could be a numbered list of all the benefits of a certain initiative, or it could be some highlighted analysis, a summary. It could be a table. And so, we identified these boxed texts as an opportunity to use color to establish even sort of social media tags that if people wanted to sort of grab in a digital environment box text and post it in social media, how they would tag it. And we really had that in mind, this idea that these little morsels were so interesting that readers would want to engage with it and share it in a digital environment. We also identified pull quotes as another great point of entry. So those are some of the different techniques that I worked with OECD to make their content more skimmable, more engaging.
[18:04] Nicole Tomassi: Did they find that it brought more people to their content and more engagement, or it's still too early to measure?
[18:12] Linda Secondari: The organization itself was very excited about these different approaches. I think the implementation on their end, because I did this as sort of a consultant, I wasn't the implementer. They were doing that internally. I think the implementation on their end has been a little bit delayed, although I do see them using aspects of what we've talked about. They haven't done a full implementation yet. From what I can see on social media, what they are doing is very exciting.
[18:41] Nicole Tomassi: I'm seeing a parallel here with plain language, which is becoming more commonplace in certain areas of publishing and in certain parts of the world, particularly in the UK and in the EU, it's becoming actually more legislated, where it's a required component of content that's being published. I had been speaking with Deborah Bosley, who's the founder of the Plain Language Group, about this topic on the podcast last summer, and she also affirmed that design is an important element in helping make that content easier for readers to understand. And I'm wondering if you're finding those parallels as well.
[19:17] Linda Secondari: Yes. So, I have been following Deborah Bosley closely because I do think that what she's doing is a great complement to the approach in terms of the design that I'm trying to develop and enact. I'm not seeing a lot of organizations adopting plain language as of yet, but I really do believe, as you say, legislatively, this is, in Europe at least, becoming a requirement. Publishing is global these days, so we're all going to be impacted. And I think, actually, that we should do similar in this country, at least for publicly available content. I do think it's it's necessary to enact ideas of plain language. I know that the military has requirements of plain language in all of their manuals. They define it differently. They don't call it plain language, but I support that.
[20:25] Nicole Tomassi: I think we could all get behind making sure that government stuff is less complicated to understand.
[20:31] Linda Secondari: Absolutely.
[20:31] Nicole Tomassi: Let's start with the IRS.
[20:36] Linda Secondari: Absolutely.
[20:37] Nicole Tomassi: As I had mentioned at the beginning of the episode, Linda, when you were here on the podcast last year, you were sharing tips about how you can make meetings more effective by design and with the end result being that people would ultimately have fewer meetings. So I'm curious, have you teamed the meeting beast?
[20:54] Linda Secondari: I'm pretty good, I've got to say. I definitely question every meeting that I set up and often question meetings that I'm invited to. It's an ongoing struggle though, I don't think we can ever just sit back and say like, oh, that's done, because it's a dance. You're not having meetings with yourself, although that's an entirely other that's another episode. Time management, I guess, is sort of like having meetings with yourself, but you're always working with the person who you either want to meet with or wants to meet with you. So, it's really more of a methodology, having a rubric. It's an ongoing process, but yes, I do think I do pretty well.
[21:41] Nicole Tomassi: Well, that's excellent. I'm glad to hear it. And if listeners are interested in learning more either through the podcast episode, which was called Designing Effective Meetings, or the information that Linda is sharing on her website, we will be dropping links to that on our website. So, Linda, before we wrap things up, is there anything else you think listeners should know about using design more effectively within long form or information rich content?
[22:07] Linda Secondari: Yes.My plea is for those readers who are in the sort of content creation end of the spectrum, authors and editors to be open to these ideas and to be open to working with designers to adapt content to conform to this new approach. I know sometimes it's uncomfortable, it's like leaning into some discomfort, but anyone who's done yoga knows that if you lean into the discomfort, you often get so much benefit from it in the end and everything's new and different until you've done it a few times and then it becomes normal. So, I think we need to partner to help make content more accessible so that our readers are actually engaging with the words and the research that we've all worked so hard to present to them.
[23:01] Nicole Tomassi: I think that's a great note to end on, Linda. It was wonderful to have you back here on Westchester Words, and I appreciate you sharing how design is used to make content more interesting and engaging for readers and to help them learn and retain the information that's being shared by the authors of that content. If listeners are interested in learning more about the work that Linda does, visit her website at: www.studiolosecondari.com.
[23:29] Nicole Tomassi: Thank you for listening to this episode of Westchester Words. If you're looking for previous episodes or want to read additional content that has been shared by some of our guests, please visit our websites westchesterpublishingservices.com and westchestereducationservices.com. For an international perspective, check out our sister podcast, Westchester Words UK and International, available on the Westchester Education UK website, westchestereducation.co.uk or wherever you stream podcasts. We love hearing from our listeners and welcome your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell us what you enjoy hearing on our podcast or suggest topics that we can cover in future episodes. Speaking of future episodes, I look forward to having you join us for the next episode of Westchester Words when we'll be having another engaging conversation about a topic of interest to the education, ed tech and publishing communities. Until then, stay safe, be well and stay tuned.