: When I started working in online 10 years ago this month (I’d been online for another 10 or more years before that) the one argument I had to keep beating down from old print editors, designers, publishers, and advertisers was about design control.

They all wanted to control the design of content — which sounded reasonable — and HTML thwarted them, especially back then, when browser pagess were all battleship-gray and pixels were the size of baseballs and colors were few and fonts were fewer. They all took to turning everything into an image so they could control the look. The fact that images delayed the download over slow dial-up lines didn’t bother them. Their ego — their control over content — was more important than the audience they were trying to serve. What broke them of that bad habit was the audience clicking away from any slow page; substance — and time — mattered a helluva lot more than style.

Things are better all around today — HTML, screens, fonts, colors, speed have all improved — but still, the most beautiful web page isn’t half as pretty as the prettiest print page. But we’ve learned that’s OK.

The battle is almost — but not completely — over. Some folks still want control, so they produce PDFs. And the public still rejects them. See Vin Crosbie’s roundup of the sales of electronic versions of print newspapers here. See also the considerable kvetching about the use of PDF’s at ChangeThis.

I was going to lay off the site for a bit, because I already took my potshot and because I like ChangeThis creator Seth Godin and don’t want to seem to be harping.

But then I saw this on Godin’s blog and I couldn’t help but react. Seth, to his credit, quotes some of the messages complaining about his PDFetish but then digs in his heels and says:

I refuse to enter the “is PDF bad” debate, but the one thing we all have to agree on is this: OF COURSE it matters what it looks like.

We judge books and blogs and tv shows and even people “by their covers” every single day.

Acknowledging that makes it easier to spread your ideas, and it alerts you to the fact that you might be embracing some ideas (like who to vote for) based on cues that have nothing to do with logical, rational reality. Abe Lincoln would come in fourth in a three way election if it were held today.

A few responses:

First, these are supposed to be manifestos, aren’t they? Not tablecloths. Not lingerie. Manifestos. And in a manifesto, isn’t it the ideas, the arguments, the facts, the words that matter?

They could have printed the Declaration of Independence with elderberry juice on cowhide and it wouldn’t have looked as elegant but it would have been every bit as powerful.

Second, I think the design of some of these PDFs actually distracts from and hurts the message: They picked a serendipitous, happy-go-lucky font for the pullquotes and it doesn’t fit so well with the topic of executing children; it’s downright tasteless.

Third, if you really believe that about Abe Lincoln, then you don’t think much of The People and I don’t understand why you’re even bothering to change their minds with manifestos. That’s both insulting to the citizenry and cynical about society. Whether it is a president or a position paper or a product, I do believe that The People have both the good sense and the good taste to know the difference between the two and to know what matters.

Besides, other than John Kennedy, name one handsome president. I can name lots of handsome losers.

: Now I can’t rant on about design in this space without acknowledging its own butt-ugliness. I would like to pretend that’s purposeful, but it’s not. I grabbed an old Blogger template, made a few adjustments, and left it alone because I am too lazy and too frightened of code and change to bother with it. I do plan to get a clean new design. But whenever I say that, inevitably, someone tells me not to; those folks say they’re tired of slickness and don’t want it to get in the way of what is being said. More design is not always a good thing. I learned that the very, very hard way at the launch of Entertainment Weekly. We had a great design … six weeks before launch. But the head designer kept futzing every day until launch and I didn’t have the experience to know how to stop him and when we came out, we had — I will now confess — a confused mess. We got deserved raspberries and underwent the fastest redesign in magazine history. Too much design is always a bad thing.

: UPDATE: Ken Layne adds in the comments:

PDFs are sort of like the microfiche of the Web. Yes, if you absolutely have to get the information, you’ll use it. But who would crouch over a microfiche machine for reading pleasure?