The Transformation of the Underline

One of the beautiful things about working at the forefront of technology is seeing the world being shaped by your profession. Sometimes these changes are big and obvious; Continually evolving mobile internet behavior for example. You can literally watch the mobile phone evolve from a communication tool to a swiss army knife. Other changes are gradual, almost unnoticeable. Take the simple underline, since the beginning of the web the underline has been a key player. By designating what text is a link, one could argue the underline is largely a part of what makes “the web” — the web.

Before hypertext, underlines were used for emphasis and designating titles. Now an underline in an offline setting carries a different connotation than it once did. As noted earlier, this happened slowly. It began with a simple “Usability 101” style recommendation, “reserve underlines for links.” Perfectly rational advice seeing that one of the first things learnt about the web is the clickability of underlined text.

This rule was once limited to websites, however the mental model of underlined text has changed. Web usage is so frequent and so ubiquitous that even the offline perception of underlined text is “hyperlink.” So much so that myself (and others I have surveyed) take pause at reading underlined text even on a poster, flier or billboard. We are so used to associating underlines with links it takes mental effort to regard them as anything but.

Luckily there are much better ways to emphasize text. If you have proper heading structure you shouldn’t need a third option after bold and italic. One might argue that information hierarchy is a skill only designers possess, but such a claim sells people short. If you are smart enough to put together a professional document you should be fully capable of presenting it in a legible fashion. Imagine a world where every e-mail, document, whitepaper and report has a crystal clear information hierarchy…

This is just one example of slow changes as a result of the web. I am curious to know, have you encounter similar changes in behavior (either in yourself or others) that you can attribute to new technologies?