EDITORIAL: Find a Vaccine, Fast

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During an engaging keynote presentation at the recent 17th Annual Catalog Conference and Exhibition in San Francisco, Los Angeles Times columnist Jaclyn Easton used Web-page screen shots several times to underscore points about online selling.

"Now you probably can't read this, but ...," she said each time. Folks, these screen shots dwarfed Easton and were 15 feet high if they were an inch. And granted, the reproduction quality wasn't great. But blur was not the problem.

The problem? A disease that seemingly has infected Web site designers across the country. Call it Seriphobia, a condition whose less-obvious symptoms include acute self-indulgence and myopia, a lunkheaded inability to learn from anyone older than 40, and an irrational compulsion to reinvent failure all the while claiming to blaze trails.

The major symptom, of course, is the exclusive use of sans serif type on the vast majority of Web sites.

Okay marketers, here's a test: Have your interactive folks design one Web page. Any reasonably text-heavy page will do. Don't tell the designers anything, and the page will most certainly come back laid out exclusively in sans serif type. Now, have them design a second page using the same information and put serifs at least on the body copy type, if not on all of it. Same page, different type.

Print both versions and paste them on a wall. Have the designers stand in front of the pages and begin walking backward. Which page becomes unreadable first? And how far back can we get and still read the serif version? The difference is painfully obvious.

And if the designers counter by saying, "Well, people aren't 10 feet away when they read a Web page," please pick up the nearest big-city phone book and start delivering two-handed wallops to the backs of their heads.

Then explain as patiently as possible that the goal is not to make a page that people CAN read. The goal is to design a page that delivers information imperceptibly. A Web site is a medium, not an end. Any time a Web page's design calls attention to itself, the designer has failed.

And please hold the e-mail about how BlahBlahBlah.com is all sans serif and gets 800 gazillion page views per day. Just because the leader by some superficial measure engages in self-indulgent foolishness doesn't make the practice any less foolish.

In fact, even some of the best traditional firms seem to toss marketing know-how aside once online. Case in point: telephone and telephone accessories cataloger Hello Direct. This well-respected company's print book is a primer on how to effortlessly communicate selling propositions. Benefit, benefit, benefit headlines delivered with lots of serifs.

Whoever designed that book understands that like a Web site, a catalog is a medium, not an end. Now, check out the Web site at HelloDirect.com and voila! No serifs anywhere! Just like millions of other sites. What's happening?

Here's what: The people who design these Web sites think no one with an old-school marketing mentality can tell them anything about their craft. After all, this is the new media revolution.

Meanwhile, the VPs who have to manage these mainly Gen X slack brains have to butt heads with them so often that sans serif type seems a small price to pay just to get the damn job done.

But every compromise costs money, and the market is getting more punishing by the day.

And don't mistake this for a rant solely about sans serif type. The type is just the most obvious symptom of an overindulgent business culture.

Seriphobia is most certainly affecting Internet marketing efforts in far more subtle and serious ways. How else do we explain $100-plus customer acquisition rates, little or no repeat ordering, and astronomical shopping-cart-abandon rates?

It's time for the adults to take control of their Web sites and stop letting the Net-savvy designers snow them into thinking they know something the old schoolers don't. When it comes to anything of marketing substance, they don't.

And someone please tell these Web site designers that if they want to exercise creativity, take a jewelry class.

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