The liberation of layouts

I find it quite odd and off-putting that people have started to use blockquotes for purposes other than they’ve traditionally been used. I don’t enjoy seeing myself as a traditionalist here; this said, the sense of oddness stems from the fact that a lot of people seem to have decided together, but implicitly so, that they’re going to use blockquotes differently.

Most of these people are writing on tech blogs and sites – whose use of blockquotes emphasises text instead of quoting it. The difference is that a quotation introduces something – an idea, say – for the first time while emphasis is necessarily repetitive. For example, here is a blockquote from Fifty Two, which uses this component in the ‘old’ way:

And here’s one from the Netlify blog, which uses them in the ‘new’ way:

I’ve spent most of my waking hours in the last nine years reading magazines, journals, feature articles and essays, and they’ve all used blockquotes the ‘old’ way – where the quoted text is something the writer/editor/publisher would like to recall, emphasise, even provoke with. (I use text in this post to mean something other than words, just the way humans are different from people.)

But now a blockquote is just text that’s part of the body but is styled differently, presumably so it’s hard to miss. Is this okay? It’s less than ideal – but the question of ‘okay’ is hard to answer considering we’re all reading on the internet now, and like with so much else, the internet has democratised layout as well, releasing it from the snare of arbitrary rules with such considerable force that it’s also broken the benign bonds that held some good things in place.

The immediate problem is of expectations: as I’m reading and I come upon a blockquote, I no longer know what to expect – something I’ve read already (or will read soon), and can therefore hop over, or something that’s part of the text and to which I should pay attention. A related issue is the typography. Sites with tech content (including blogs) have a common style: left-aligned text, of the same font family, sometimes italicised, in lighter colour and with a thin, muted border on the left (plus padding). But this is hardly the norm. Consider The Quint, a proponent of the new way, for example:

Not only is the text in bold and in a different colour, there are two lines on either side of the paragraph, yet you’re expected as the reader to pay attention to this sentence – which you must admit would’ve been easier if it had been allowed to enter your field of view without being interrupted visually in so many ways.

The second problem is that the differences between blockquotes as different publications use them are no longer uniform or predictable. I’m no longer allowed to expect that different components of the text layout play different, but specific, roles in helping the reader assimilate the text psychologically. A disparate variety ways to highlight important points have only resulted in a distorted reading experience, across the continuum of words that serious readers sweep through, with much stopping, assessing and restarting.

A simple example: The Baffler uses pull-quotes (blocky text pulled to the side) for emphasis and blockquotes for quotation, but The Verge uses both pull-quotes and blockquotes for emphasis – while Vox uses what looks like a blockquote but is really a full sentence as a sub-heading (going by the lack of a period).

The Baffler
The Verge
Vox

Visual diversity across publications is a good thing (as the Neocities project shows), but there ought to be some rules, or at least guidelines, to ensure the readers that all these publications share – and all of them practically share everyone – can approach the text in front of them with similar expectations.