Brave new world

XVII.4 July + August 2010
Page: 55
Digital Citation

Adding by leaving out

Liz Danzico

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We tend to think of the pause as awkward. In speech, pregnant pauses connote uncomfortable silence; we veil silence with fillers. As professional communicators, we're trained to deliver smooth speech, censoring out "um" and "ah." Public-speaking groups, such as the well-known Toastmasters, fine every member who utters an "uh" or "um" during a speech. This distaste for the pause—and the inverse, seeking an always-on state—is a battle we face at school, at work, and in industry at large.

I propose that we're too impatient with the pause, and as a result, we're missing out on a great deal. What would happen if, as communicators and designers, we became more comfortable with the pause? Because it turns out we can add by leaving out. The pause has power.

back to top  The Presence of Pauses

The oldest recording of American umming comes from Thomas Edison, who in 1888 presented the perfected phonograph when he recorded and played back his voice. The transcript contains verbal pauses: "And then to, uh, Bombay," and his sign-off, "Uh, goodbye, Edison." A technical perfectionist, Edison wrote, "We shall know now for the first time what a conversation really is. The phonograph, in one sense, knows more than we do ourselves" [1]. The relay of this first conversation was, in fact, demonstrating what is natural—the pause. Why edit it out? Even the verbal filler has historical power.

Stammers are not uncommon. The average English speaker makes as many as seven to 22 "ums" and "ahs" per day. Because we have a tendency to want to hold the floor as communicators, we'll use a number of fillers—"ums" and stammers—to avoid pauses in conversation. These sounds, in fact, deny an audience the chance to process what's been said. When too much information is given, it's called interference, and it prevents audiences from retaining information. With pauses in speech come increased comprehension and retention. Pauses can increase relevancy and enhance the content surrounding text. "White space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background," wrote Jan Tschichold in 1930 [2]. Like Tschichold's white space, silence is often an active element in our discourse. It can indicate that productive thinking is in progress.

Discourse is not the only space where the presence of pauses is powerful. In public space, pauses in the urban landscape can be important characters, contributing to new meaning. Walter Benjamin reminds us "architecture is experienced habitually in the state of distraction" [3]. Thus, when a routine structure that has always been present on your daily walk suddenly becomes an empty lot, your definition of space and flow changes—there is a pause. The surrounding environment takes a new form; you may see the surrounding structures for the first time. Like a pause in discourse, a pause in the urban landscape lends meaning to its surroundings, creating opportunity for new value to emerge. Negative or non-spaces formed by the creation of others play an important role in a passive by-product of creation. There is presence in absence.

When the Army Corps of Engineers "de-watered" the American Niagara Falls in 1969 due to fears that erosion was destabilizing them, a temporary walkway was installed near the edge of the dry falls [4]. This pause in the otherwise watery landscape gave way to tourists, who began to explore an otherwise inhospitable territory. A pause in routine begat new meaning and value. "Recognition," Dewey says, "is perception arrested," and here gave new meaning to a place transformed for a brief time [5].

The value of pause need not be so intangible; its use in retail as an orientation and transition device has been proven successful in grounding customers. In his book, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill demonstrated why "landing strips," the transition zones inside of retail environments, were invaluable in getting customers to pause. Referring to customers entering retail environments, he noted, "These people are not truly in the store yet. You can see them, but it'll be a few seconds more before they're actually here. If you watch long enough, you'll be able to predict where shoppers slow down to make the transition from being outside to being inside" [6]. The transition zones were blind spots; knowing that, retailers could plan appropriately, allowing for a pause before the commerce experience began.

back to top  The Sound of Silence

While verbal fillers may not add value to our discourse, in music, the sequence of fillers and pauses must be harder to detect—it should play hard to get with the brain. Music excites us only when it makes the brain work to detect its order. The longer the pattern our brains expect is absent, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns. It is this tension in music that is the source of music's feeling. "Music is only interesting when it confronts us with tension, and the source of tension is music," says Jonah Lehrer [7].

Chopin must have known that the structure of his music's story, much like the story designers want to tell with their products and services, is dependent on listening. So in his "Polonaise-Fantasie," he wove in what classical musician Jeremy Denk calls "enforced listening moments." Because the structure is inherently dependent on the listener paying attention to the story, Chopin assures that listeners do just that. By writing in long, arresting notes—such as an F-sharp major held so long that it's disconcerting, or a pause in an otherwise complex piece—the composer forces the listener to attention. These intentional pauses woven into the experience (here music, but elsewhere they could be websites, products, service experiences, architecture) make people "act, stop, listen" as Denk describes them [8].

For all the simplicity designers intend in their work, for all the intentional moments they craft, what enforced listening moments are they creating? What rhythms are they designing?

back to top  Pauses Abound

Each of these instances, for its participant, adds meaning to the surrounding content, giving momentum to what comes afterward. Designer Joshua Porter of Bokardo might refer to the stages before and after the pause as phases in a service "usage lifecycle" [9]

  • Unaware: Most people are in this stage, completely unaware of your product.
  • Interested: These people are interested in your product but are not yet users.
  • First-time Use: These people are using your software for the first time, a crucial moment in their progression.
  • Regular Use: These people are those who use your software regularly and perhaps pay for the privilege.
  • Passionate Use: These people are the ultimate goal: passionate users who spread their passion and build a community around your software.

The hurdle between "unaware" and "interested" may be considered a pause, as it's the designer's goal at this stage to make people aware of a product or service (e.g., getting people over the sign-up stage in Web-based software).

Ommwriter from Herraiz Soto & Co. is a recent example of a product that embraces a pause wholly as a metaphor. It is a simple text processor that aims to deepen the relationship between writing and paper by pausing all other interactions on the desktop. By stopping other media, the company's goal is to heighten concentration.

back to top  Beyond Practice

The value of the pause doesn't stop with practice; it refers to the way we interact with our environment as well. Strolling in nature, as compared with urban environments, improves cognitive functions, through what's called Attention Restoration Theory. When we stroll in urban environments, much of our attention remains directed toward stimuli such as avoiding traffic and advertising—yet it's less restorative. Nature, filled with interesting stimuli (e.g., sunsets), allows for directed-attention mechanisms that encourage us to replenish. Taking time to walk in the woods is good for us [10].

Interactions, both public and private, can be enhanced by a bit of a pause:


The drumroll

The halftime show

The landing strip

The pause button

The semicolon

The window

Interstitial ads

Syncopated beats

Hadrian's Villa

A moment of silence

If we start considering the pauses all around us, both designed and unplanned, we begin to see the patterns, in that they both increase meaning and enforce attention.

Designers seek to contribute through meaningful additions. Great contributions, it's often thought, are meant to be seen and heard, rather than not. Yet what if designers were more comfortable with the presence of absence? It is through pause that value is sometimes found. In a culture where we're racing to fill each moment with content and connectivity, we might consider what we can leave behind. And instead of racing forward, we pause for a moment.

back to top  References

1. Erard, M. Um: Slips, Stumbles and Verbal Blunders and What They Mean. Pantheon Books, 2007.

2. Burke, C. "Faith in Asymmetry." Eye Magazine, Autumn 2007.

3. McCullough, M. Digital Ground. The MIT Press. 2005.

4. Holmes, R. "Absent Rivers, Ephemeral Parks," Mammoth. March 2010.

5. Dewey, John. "Having an Experience," Art as Experience. The Berkeley Publishing Group, published by the Penguin Group. 1934.

6. Underhill, P. Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

7. Lehrer, J. Proust Was a Neuroscientist. New York: Mariner Books, 2008.

8. Denk, J. "Chopin's for Dummies," Think Denk. 30 November 2009.

9. Porter, J. "Designing for the Social Web: The Usage Lifecycle," Bokardo. 14 May 2008.

10. Berman, M.G., Jonides, J., Kaplan, S. "The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature," Psychological Science 19, 2 (2008).

back to top  Author

Liz Danzico is equal parts designer, educator, and editor. She is chair and cofounder of the MFA in Interaction Design Program at the School of Visual Arts and an independent consultant in New York, on the editorial board for Rosenfeld Media, and on the board of Design Ignites Change. In the past, Danzico directed experience strategy for AIGA and the information architecture teams at Barnes & and Razorfish New York. She lectures widely and writes at

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

UF1"The watchdogs," a sample of a newspaper blackout poem by Austin Kleon, who blacks out words in order to compose his poetry. Instead of starting with a blank page, he uses a marker to eliminate the words he doesn't need.

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