August 12, 2022

Marginal gains

Was struck today by an observation – one of the type that when pointed out, seems so mind-numbingly obvious that it leaves you (me) feeling rather stupid. It’s that the reason good ideas always seem to come from the margins is, well duh, that there’s A LOT of margin out there.

It seems self-evident (now, to me) that of course it should be so. 

There’s only so much space, demanding of our attention, at whatever or wherever the centre might be at the moment. Outside of the super-narrow focus-du-jour is everything and everyone else. 

And it’s such a huge space (or rather field – it’s not really ‘space’ is it? Have you noticed how we use the space word as the default metaphor for ‘everything else’? Sure, appreciating it’s a useful shorthand for inferring non-specifically to massive amounts of ‘stuff’; but at the same time it undermines everyone in ‘the space’ as not much of anything. An absence. A gap. Emptyness) so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise when really innovative stuff pops into view from it.

The margins are where almost everything interesting happens – so it’s a bit worrying when we constantly push things to it, or, as designers, try and compress or empty them. White space might be what we need but don’t waste valuable marketing real-estate in the layout putting stuff in the margins. 

But the edges are sometimes where the most interesting stuff is. 

Scholars and followers of old manuscripts will recognise the value of the edges as where the real cultural clues can be found to what authors (scribes. Illuminators. Now there’s a word to explore) might have been thinking and the ‘marginalia’ often reveal all kinds of cultural revelations – from knights jousting on snails to all kinds of of delightful detail (and occasionally rather gruesome) side notes.

Sometimes I still come across a good margin – Edo Smitshuijzen’s ‘Signage Design Manual’ for example, is full of marginal notes and details – but it seems like the margin is really in danger of falling victim to the viewport. 

But it deserves not to simply be relegated to the footer or footnotes. Sure, hyperlinks are amazing, but not for keeping me on your page.

For most of us who work in the (so called) margins, take heart. It’s where the next most brilliant things are being doodled into life.

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About Richard Hill

Creative director, writer, designer, illustrator based in the UK with global project experience and consulting skills across sectors.

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