Monday, March 21, 2005

Neddie Gets Cranky on Yo' Asses

Your Neddie has taken something of a solemn vow not to talk about work in his blog, and he doesn't intend to start now, but something has been weighing on his mind lately, and he needs to get it off his chest.

He will stop talking about himself in the third person starrrrttttttiinnnnnggg... NOW.

By training and inclination I'm in the Information Design racket. Always have been, even before there was such a silly term as Information Design. Starting in 1984 and never stopping once to catch my breath, I've been a copy editor, a book editor, a book designer, a publications manager for a computer firm, a technical proposal manager, a web-graphics designer, and now, finally (!) a user-interface designer.

The Prime Directive of Information Design: Do nothing to stand in the way. Another way to say it: Your job is to take a bundle of amorphous information (a manuscript, a business goal statement, a set of product requirements, a napkin-drawing of a loony idea from an SVP on the wrong end of a three-martini-lunch), and mold it in a way that 1) does nothing to change what the author meant to say, and 2) is immediately comprehensible to the intended audience.

So it follows from all this that I'm more than a little cranky about some things that most folks aren't even aware of. Signs on doors that say Push when the entire design of the door shrieks Pull. I fly into towering rages when I see an elderly person being made to feel stupid by a poorly designed computer interface. And you don't even want to know everything that I think is wrong with the credit-card-swiping machines at the grocery store.

There are many ways that someone like me can "stand in the way" between author and audience. Poor editing, poor layout, lack of sympathy for the subject matter, or for the specific needs of the audience, all of these can hinder. It's a given: The best design isn't noticed at all; only bad design calls attention to itself. The same for punctuation, for layout, for color palettes, everything. Don't distract.

Now ask yourself this question: Why are books the size they are?

Ever notice it? Sure, there are exceptions -- I'm not talking about gigantic coffee-table books or dictionaries or family Bibles or those silly little novelty books on the checkout rack at Borders; I mean that from the average mass-market paperback to trade paperback to hardcover, any book with running, single-column type whose pages one reads sequentially will be between about 4" x 7" on the small side, to about 6" x 10" on the large.

Is this because of some limitation imposed by machinery, or some printer's convention? It is not.

It's because that size works.

Why is this so? For two reasons:
  • The book can be held comfortably in the hand, obviously.
  • But also, pages that size make for line measures (line widths) that are comfortable to read.
It's not some big mystery: books are easy to read because, well, books are literally easy on the eyes. This is from a Bible I've had by my side since 1984: Words Into Type (Third Edition, Prentice Hall, 1974):
Much work has been done to discover the relationships of measure and type size that lead to accuracy and ease in reading. A study ... using a standard 10-point Times Roman type, concluded that measures between 21 and 33 picas (about 3.5" and 5.5") are most legible to the average reader. The optimum measures varied according to the subject matter of the book. For literary material, a measure of about 21 to 24 picas (3.5" to 4") was found to be the most readable, while in scientific and other material where the tendency is to skim rather than read word-for-word, the optimum measure was found to be closer to 30 picas (5").
Now why am I waxing cranky about this stuff? (That's waxing cranky, not waxing my crank -- you people!) Because you, my dear friends out in BlogLand, are, quite literally, giving me a blinding headache.

It's alarming how many blog templates -- not just here at but at many other off-the-shelf blog sites as well -- encourage you to think it's perfectly OK to publish your blog text into a line measure that's two and three and even four times the width found in the average book.

It isn't!

Think about how firmly you've planted hostile design between your reader and the information you're trying to convey: Your poor reader, who might or might not be 44 years old and myopic (not that age matters; this affects readers of all ages) has to start at the beginning of one of your whistlingly vast lines, trudge aaaaallll the way over to the other goddamned side of a 1024 x 768 browser window -- 200, 250, 300 characters! -- and then trudge aaaaaaaalllll the way back to the other margin, only to be unable to find the next line because he's lost it on the way, and has to hunt for it.

Trust me, you'd return a book that made your eyes bleed.

Computer screens scroll for a reason.

We don't need to go too far into the question of a text-based communication medium being bludgeoned into a display medium meant for television -- that's a rant for another day. And that day's a-comin'.....

PS: Look at this page. Everything about this page is restful. My headache went away immediately upon seeing it. Tiny, tiny type is perfectly readable -- you don't need that 12-point fucking Arial white-on-black shit. LESS IS MORE. Eyes not quite up to the small type? Hit the Stylesheet Switcher. Just beautiful.

1 comment:

Pheidole said...

Praise be, a man after my own heart. Style matters. Period.