Excerpt from Jessica Helfand, "Design, Democracy and The Dynamics of Choice: Reflections on the Death of Hierarchy." Eye, 6:26 (forthcoming, 1997) 8-9.

In a culture that values the individual, prizes independence and celebrates the dynamics of free choice, it might be easy to conclude that our classic definitions of hierarchy are tantamount to fascism. But if the current trend in media consumption is to praise user-driven interaction above all else, then what value can we place on pre-selected, pre-ordained systems, delivered to the public in pre-conceived formats? It is not enough to say that the newspaper (or for that matter, the magazine) is an antiquated medium: what of the editorial process that supports it, and of the judgments that typically define its tone, its value and--from a design perspective--its material presence in our culture?

In recent years, the trend in newspaper design has been to create multiple points of entry (think datelines and pull-quotes) to facilitate the quick scan and thereby service the time-pressed reader. Such design decisions clearly presuppose the option of entering at any point, itself an "interactive"--and anti-hierarchical--gesture. This is an issue of particular significance on websites, where readers have the option of clicking where (and when) they like. What is striking is that as we grow more accustomed to dwelling in such hyperkinetic digital worlds, our expectations--and indeed, our demands--for information access in print appear to be undergoing a radical shift. And while a good deal has been written about speed and fragmention and their consequent impact on communication design, the flip side of this shift is equally if not more significant: without hierarchy to designate the visual drama of information on a single (and static) surface, the result is a flat wasteland of ill-defined content. And while prescribed hierarchy may be the enemy of the electronic age, it remains a fundamentally critical editorial tool in the design of both printed and electronic matter. Moreover, its value as an instrument of journalistic integrity can not be undersold, let alone eliminated.


Back to top