A few weeks ago, I happened to listen to a radio programme on how punctuation came to exist. This remarkably interesting half hour revealed to me how something that we now see as finished, complete, and solid is in fact the result of invention, evolution, and technical advance.

While the timescale of punctuation design has been much longer than that of digital design (more than 2,000 years longer) it demonstrates how good design changes and adapts to changing people and times.

Kommas, kolons, and periodos

In Ancient Greece, there was no segmentation between words or sentences – not even gaps between one word and the next. This made reading out loud quite difficult as the reader had to work out from the context where the gaps and pauses should be.

The need here was to help people easily identify where to leave a short pause (a komma), a longer pause (a kolon), or where the end of a thought was (a periodos). Aristophanes of Byzantium, who worked in the library at Alexandria invented a system of dots that indicated how long a pause to leave. These dots at the time did not have names, but we can recognise them in the punctuation we use today.

This was punctuation not for grammar – there were no grammatical rules implied – but to aid in performance of written work.

Independent ideas and printing

Many hundreds of years later (in the 12th Century) and completely independently, an Italian scholar called Boncompagno da Signa invented another punctuation scheme. In it, he had only two symbols: a forward slash (/) for a short pause, and a horizontal line (–) for a long pause.

The horizontal line is probably the source of the dash we use today, but the forward slash ended up as the comma we’re familiar with. The evolution of this slash happened due to technology – printing – and a man called Aldus Manutius, who printed large runs of cheap books. He typeset the forward slash towards the baseline and gave it a slight curve, providing and then popularising the style we recognise today.

Punctuation for pauses, or grammar?

By the 17th and 18th Century, there was a debate about how punctuation should be used. Should the variety of symbols available be used – as in Ancient Greece – to communicate pauses and indicate how text should be read? Or should it act as signposts to indicate clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and so on – as part of clear grammar?

The application of punctuation in grammatical use helps to clarify the meaning of written text – indicating what goes with what, and the meaning of things – a very different purpose than that of helping someone read out loud.

Ongoing evolution

Although punctuation seems to be fixed now, with dedicated rules for how to use it (and lots of very angry people on the internet when it’s used “incorrectly”), it’s still evolving. People are inventing new marks to indicate more finessed concepts in written language (the interrobang, the irony mark) and others are taking on new meanings through modern use (the slash, the hashtag).

As we find new problems to solve and new technological challenges, punctuation will evolve and change again.

Good digital design is evolutionary

Punctuation might seem to us to be complex and fully formed, with a specific purpose, but that’s not how it started out. In the same way, when we see digital products it can seem that their designs are born fully-formed and complete.

Instead, the best digital design is the result of identifying the problems that need to be solved, and then evolving over time to meet the most important, changing, human needs. It also adapts to the changing technical landscape it exists in – taking advantage of new opportunities and emerging standards.

So – like punctuation – digital design is never absolutely right or wrong; it shouldn’t be “done” and left preserved in aspic, but be “done for now” – always seeking to change, adapt, and improve.

(An index of the punctuation used in this blog post)