Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

Reading the White Pages


You have not found the searchable telephone directory for the city of Toronto, obviously. You can try looking up numbers at Canada411.

In conventional wisdom, the phone book is a quintessential symbol of boredom. We’ve all heard the joke that runs along the lines of “Ooh! That Denzel Washington! He’s so dreamy I’d pay to watch him read the phone book!” Graphic designers – and their clients – abet that reputation: Only expensive, “important” books are considered worthy of good design.

But in a country where 99% of households have a telephone, the everyday White Pages are the most widely-distributed books in the land. Since nearly everyone uses it – except for the impatient, who spring for directory assistance, and some disabled people – phone books need to be taken more seriously as graphic-design statements. And I don’t mean making it pretty. Indeed, Bell’s new Toronto White Pages offer a lesson in how an ill-conceived set of design “improvements” can make a telephone book illogical and difficult to use.

The first obstacle in discussing the graphic design of the White Pages is getting that concept into the heads of Bell nabobs. Over and over again, as I telephoned through the vast labyrinth that is Bell and its Yellow Pages subsidiary Tele-Direct, whenever I stated that I was researching a story on the graphic design of the White Pages I was invariably asked, “You mean the covers?” Bell minions seemed unable to understand that the inside pages of a phone book have to be designed; to them, only the covers matter, and only then as marketing vehicles.

Just as an example, this year’s hoplessly misguided, self-aggrandizing cover features the new New Age-y Bell logo and a wordy bilingual description of what the logo means. Any logo that requires explanation is a failure, and what’s it doing on the cover of the phone book? Bell is, after all, a widely despised monopoly, so why stuff its logo in our faces every time we look up a number?

Once the precept of this story sank in with the Bell crowd, I had to contend with the fact that Bell’s phone-book designers do not talk to the media. Too busy, I was told. I would have to funnel my questions through a PR apparatchik who knows nothing about typography. Very strange. At any rate, the 1995 Toronto White Pages incorporate a New York-style change: Surnames are not repeated endlessly down columns. Instead, the first instance of a surname is shown (in capitals), with all the given names associated with that surname in an indented list below (in upper- and lowercase). It’s much more sensible, but good sense is not what prompted Bell to use “surname suppression”: Without it, a Bell PR person told me, the Toronto White Pages might have ballooned into a two-volume doorstop.

But surname suppression is another example of Bell’s uncanny ability to blow a good idea. Say you’re looking for a Brian Jones. You follow all the As and Bs down the Jones column until you hit Jones, B.W. The next listing you see, unaccountably, is Jones-Ball, N. Then the Joneses start up again with Jones, Barbara; keep looking and you eventually hit Jones, Brian. In other words, Bell defeats the purpose of surname suppression by mixing in every variant of a surname in strict, mindless alphabetical order. Obviously all the Joneses should come first in one uninterrupted sequence, followed by the Jones-Aardvarks, the Jones-Josephsons, and the Jones-Zwickys.

The all-caps approach is also suspect. Looking for an Angus Macdonald but not an Angus MacDonald? You can’t tell them apart. How about a van Dijk or a ffolliott, whose surnames begin with a mandatory lowercase letter? Uh-uh-uh. Bell provided no explanation for its wonky alphabetizing and all-caps rule.

Another shibboleth of phone-book design is the exact layout of a listing. It’s surname first, then given name or initial, then street address, then an ellipsis (...), then the number. That’s how phone books have been designed for as long as I’ve been alive, and it’s not the best way. Ever get lost following the ellipses to the actual number? Ever phoned the wrong Brian Jones by mistake? A better way – phone numbers to the left of the listing, with no intervening ellipses. (Some Dutch phone books used that design for years. They’ve now reverted to our style.)

Those faults would be more readily tolerated if the rest of the book weren’t such a disaster. True, Bell’s decision to split residential and business listings into different sections works well and makes sense. But the introductory sections, which give area codes and promote overpriced services like call waiting, are a catechism of how not to use desktop publishing. Try reading one of those pages, with 18.5 centimetres of small Helvetica type spread over onionskin pages, ugly boxes and rules surrounding the section headings, and absurdly ill-drawn and ill-conceived little icons intended to exemplify Bell’s overpriced calling features. A box with a face, legs and arms lies in a bubble bathtub staring at a phone. What does that symbolize? (Call answer, the Bell voicemail service.) Same box pulls a telephone in a little wagon. What’s that for? (Call forwarding.)

When pressed, a Bell spokesperson explained that these icons were popular in the “focus groups” Bell convened to test various phone-book features. They’re even more useful, I was told, for people who don’t read English. But when I asked if Bell’s research showed that such people understood exactly what the icons meant – e.g., if the box in the bathtub clearly signified call answer – the spokesperson claimed not to know. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised.

And besides, let’s not put our faith in focus groups. There are often good reasons to ignore what people say they like or want. Yes, I am indeed saying that with-it graphic designers can have a better grasp on what readers need than readers themselves. Of course, there is no evidence that any outpost of the Bell empire knows a with-it designer from a hole in the ground.

Bell should acknowledge that, despite its years of experience churning out phone books, its attempts to modernize the Toronto directory are fatally flawed. The book needs a complete overhaul from stem to stern. Bell needs to hire consultants who really know what they’re doing and have long experience in making tons of information immediately comprehensible – someone like “wayfinding” pioneer Paul Arthur, right here in Toronto. He’s in the phone book, I’m sure.

Originally published 1995 ¶ Updated here 2001.12.14, 2007.03.19

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