Readability and a Lifelong Lesson for Beginning Book Designers

by Joel Friedlander on January 25, 2010 · 6 comments

ReadabilityDespite the explosive growth of audio and video on the internet, content on the web is still largely text. And reading online can be a difficult experience.

I don’t know about you, but some of the sites I read online—blogs, content sites, news sites, article sites—are really difficult. Small san serif type in grey on an endless white background gets very tiring after a few minutes.

How about forums, where the lines are allowed to run and run and run the full width of your screen. It’s fatiguing.

On top of that is the built-in conflict between the screens we use—the widescreens we use, more and more—and the traditional text block. From a lifetime of reading we’re used to tall columns of type with a convenient number of words on a line, and a comfy amount of space between the lines.

We have Conventions, Don’t We?

Forms that match the conventions we’re used to are easy for us to read. The more you depart from the convention, the more difficult you make it for the reader. The habits are so entrenched that the design of books has barely changed in over 500 years.

Add to all these problems the commercial nature of our online life. Most blogs and websites are fully monetized now, and people try to make money through advertising. Lots of blogs and websites look like spreads from print magazines.

The result is a lot of clutter, with opt-in boxes, “Welcome”s to new visitors, page navigation, videos, special offers, posts of the day, banner ads and text link ads all competing for the reader’s attention. (And yes, I’m watching my Twitter widget cascade text mindlessly as I write this.)

Readability, from the mad scientists in the lab at Arc90

On their site, Arc90 describes itself as “an R&D shop, a strategic consulting firm, a Web design/ development company, and a product company.” They addressed the problem of readability directly:

Reading anything on the Internet has become a full-on nightmare. As media outlets attempt to eke out as much advertising revenue as possible, we’re left trying to put blinders on to mask away all the insanity that surrounds the content we’re trying to read. It’s almost like listening to talk radio, except the commercials play during the program in the background.

Their answer was to release Readability, a browser add-on that lets you eliminate everything on a web page but the text, which is rendered in a pleasing serif typeface suitable for actual human reading. It eliminates any effect of design, headshots, videos, hit counters, or floating sign-up boxes, and leaves you alone with the content: pure text.

Will It Pass a Real-Life Test?

toolbarOkay, I admit it: I love text, I love typography. I’ve worked in the advertising business, I’ve done commercial graphics, but books—temples of text—make my heart beat faster. What’s a fella to do?

I decided to try Readability on the site of super-blogger Yaro Starak, who also runs Blog Mastermind. After visiting the Readability website, I was able to drag their little “bookmarklet” whatever that means, to my Firefox toolbar. Here’s what Yaro’s site looks like today:

Yaro Starak

Click to enlarge

Yaro’s blog, true to his profession, is fully monetized and accessorized. Yaro, an experienced webmaster, studies tracking models and heat maps to make his site more and more effective.

I hit the little Readability button, and this is what my screen looked like after a moment’s thought:

Yaro after

Click to enlarge

Notice that the translator has picked up all the local formatting of heads, subheads, bold, italics, as well as all the links. The text is intact, and everything else is history.

Here’s the lesson I promised you

Well, I’m making an assumption here. I find the page of plain text much more readable than the original, and I’m assuming that you do, too. Maybe that’s wrong.

But when I read the second version the text takes on much more weight—there’s nothing else there. I feel like I’m getting the author’s thought better, more directly.

The lesson is about decoration. The primary problem I see in book interiors done by new DIY authors is the desire to decorate the pages, as if the type itself isn’t enough. (If you get used to type that’s typeset well, you may need to upgrade from a word processor to typesetting software.

Have an Intention for Added Elements

Besides text and page numbers—and running heads in nonfiction books—all other page elements are unnecessary. Sidebars, pull quotes, designs bleeding off the outside margins, decorative typography on every page, aggressively-decorated folios.

Books are so varied that you can’t say these elements don’t have their place, because they do. But when we use them we have to have a pretty good reason. Know why you are interrupting the flow of the reader’s attention, and what you hope to gain from it.

This is also why the more we learn about typography the better we will be able to create text that suits its purpose, and makes reading a delight.

What do you think?

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    { 6 comments… read them below or add one }

    Bill Giovannetti June 18, 2011 at 5:36 am

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
    Is there a generational difference in these expectations? Do younger readers expect a more graphic-intensive experience? I am designing my book right now, and inserting 2-3 images or charts per chapter. I don’t want to do it, but my audience is young adults, and the book is non-fiction.

    You’ve provided great resources for a self-publisher. Thank you.


    betty ming liu January 25, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    Words of wisdom! And I appreciate the feedback — and the reminder that writers ask a lot of readers. Thanks. :-)


    Joel January 25, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    Betty, thanks. My suggestions about decoration are really aimed at books, not blogs. Your blog is delightful because of the creative energy you directly put into it. It’s unique and idiosyncratic, unlike anyone else’s blog. When you add graphics, photos, (drop caps!) and other embellishments, you do take a toll on readability, but what you gain is much greater, since a blog is by definition a short piece. I think you have a good balance. Just keep in mind the work you are asking the reader to do and make sure the payoff is there.


    betty ming liu January 25, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Hmmm, this is really interesting. And now I’m a little worried because, as you know, I love to decorate…Can a case be made for “clutter” as being actually more readable for the TV/Internet generation?

    Since I’m thinking about how to apply your lesson here, I’d appreciate any specific suggestions you have for me. Thanks, Joel!


    Joel January 25, 2010 at 11:08 am

    Jane, I have the feeling you’re going to like Readability, it’s really easy to use. Thanks so much for stopping by!


    Jane January 25, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Superb point about the plain text having greater weight because nothing’s coming between your eyes and the writer’s thoughts. I have the same response to black-and-white vs. color photographs.

    I also am a huge “just the text, ma’am” person. Off now to check out the Readability site!


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