Reading on the Web

Why make things harder to read than they have to be?

Lately, when I look at my favorite websites, I gather the lingering impression that my eyesight is finally beginning to succumb to the ravages of age. Having worn glasses since before graduating from high school, vision has always been something to question.

But the loss of readability has not affected books, either paper or electronic. Nor has it affected the mail I receive or the other hard copy documents I review. All those are fine.

Reading the Wall Street Journal, I have complained several times about the contrast between typeface and background; I have written them several letters describing my difficulties, to no avail. Using the knowledge of font readability from a good deal of research that I did in selecting the standards for producing architectural specifications, I know whereof I speak.

The knowledge of reproducing contrasting elements comes from many decades of making photographic prints from various sources on several types of media. This work was done, originally, in darkrooms on photographic paper, and more recently in an electronic environment on display screens before going to hard copy in black-and-white and color, or to websites for display.

The principles of contrast/form/color/intensity/readability are constantly with me in my work in architecture and in photography. I am not a newbie.

Somehow, starting in about 2015, something began to go awry: typography started becoming illegible. Eyestrain started becoming a reality after many years of never paying any attention to the things that might aggravate it. Then, recently, I found myself setting the browser magnification at 120%.

This was getting serious.

Okay, the age that I carry is advanced, and the reading that I do is constant, but the glasses that I wear are new, and the prescription hasn't changed in many years.

So, what gives?

As with any other modern, curiosity, all knowledge quests begin with a Google search (I am trying hard to remember to use DuckDuckGo, but old habits prevail). The search string was "using low contrast in page design," and an article in Wired magazine came up. The final paragraph from this article reads:

My plea to designers and software engineers: Ignore the fads and go back to the typographic principles of print - keep your type black, and vary weight and font instead of grayness. You'll be making things better for people who read on smaller, dimmer screens, even if their eyes aren't aging like mine. It may not be trendy, but it's time to consider who is being left out by the web's aesthetic.

It is exactly as I feared: low visibility has become fashionable! They are doing it on purpose!

Who is making this decision? Why?

You say Pink, I say Plum.
Let's call the whole thing off!

Visibility is subjective; the environment where all of us are trying to see is an infinitely variable circumstance and the eyes that are being used are just as variable. Vision and the perception of the things that are viewed are very personal and are not subject to simple analysis. And people's opinions of what they see - Exuberant Pink versus Grandeur Plum - are a matter of visual education and side-by-side comparison rather than sophisticated discernment. Experts who try to tell you differently are full of Pink Plums!

The two color names listed are Sherwin-Williams nomenclature for two very close shades of pink. You would think they are the same if you viewed them each independently. If you throw in varied lighting and different surroundings, there is no hope of telling them apart consistently.

The reason that there are millions of colors of paint is that people see things differently and color combinations are perceived differently; those factors above are ordinary. Colors in our monitors have gotten very good over the last few years, especially since CRTs (Cathode  Ray  Tube) have been replaced by LCD flat screens, but they are still visibly different, as anyone whose computer sports two monitors from two different manufacturers knows. And there are two different systems of classification for colors, one for pigments – paint, clothing  dye, and other items whose color is viewed with reflected light, and the other for lights – computer monitors, TV screens, and other sources which are viewed directly. We frequently mix these two systems, and try to use them together.

This is an area which is fraught with problems in expressing exact, measurable quantities. It is a good thing that we can say too much red, or that's a little too dark whether we are describing a paint swatch or a shade of color from a iPhone.

On the color side, there is a range of colors called "Web Safe" which contains 216 non-dithered, solid colors that render correctly on any modern monitor or web browser. Those Web Safe colors reproduce very nearly the same on all display devices and can be relied upon to do that. This is the color palette that web designers should stick with for basic uses - but they don't.

Instead, Web designers are guilty of selecting zingy colors and using them adjacent to one another to produce three-dimensional visual effects on the two-dimensional screen that they are given; talented ones can make the color selection and shapes used almost come off the screen in their vibrancy. I'm guilty of that, too.

Why then, do those same talented web designers insist on reducing the legibility of the information that is being conveyed? It seems like a no-brainer to do the opposite. If the text accompanying all of that visual hoopla is unimportant, then why bother with it?

The truth is that the text is the reason for the whole exercise of designing a website, except where the center of interest is a video or some other attention-gathering element. An advertiser will use motion and activity to capture the eye so that the viewer is led into an environment where a product may be introduced or demonstrated.  Verbiage of all types will be used as reinforcement for the images. That advertiser is interested in getting the characteristics of his product into the mind of the viewer, quickly, cleanly, and lastingly.

If the text is under-poweringly rendered in a low contrast mode, the whole effort is wasted. Why then would anyone use low-contrast text and graphics in that environment. Eyestrain? Pink Plums!

A reason given is that black text on a white background can strain the eyes. The person making this point in this manner will be used to hearing derisive laughter being claimed to be something other than at his expense.

One of the culprits is Ian Storm Taylor, who declares "Never Use Black." He makes his point, properly, for many circumstances, and from a design standpoint, he is correct. But he makes a fundamental mistake - he is not in control of the environment in which his work is viewed.

Even if we were to violate his dictum and were to make the text that we produce on our contrast controlled work screens, the screen that you, the reader, finally view our opus probably will be surrounded by ambient light of many colors from many open sources. There is no predicting that.

A designer of a website should should take that into consideration. That is what designers do, and the most successful designs do it neatly and unobtrusively, keeping the users experience at the fore of his concerns.

The user is, after all, his client's bread and butter.  If his client's message doesn't get through, sales will stall, and with it, fewer future commissions.  Eventually, the marketplace will punish the trendy lack of consideration; in the meantime, I'm getting a headache.

Thomas Anderson is a multi-state registered architect and an ex-Air Force electronic technician, who is a keen observer of the human condition.  Read other articles by Thomas Anderson or other articles on Business.
Reader Comments

.... low visibility has become fashionable and it's employed deliberately but;

Who is making this decision -- and why ...?

Has had me hangin', too. I've owned computers - usually too many at any given time - since the mid 1970s and have been pretty much continuously "on line" to some degree or another, pretty much ever since but more-so from 1981. And in that time have asked myself the "Who in the Heck" question, I'm guessing, around 10,000 times.

What is it with geeks, I wonder, that causes them to always want to change the darned site they've likely just inherited from whomever designed and (eventually, thank G-d) perfected it -- and EVERY DARNED TIME -- to change it for the worse?

And then there's that passage of time eye thing you also mentioned. Gonna have to talk to Whomever about that! (But not too soon, I pray and trust)

Great piece. Thank you.

July 8, 2018 10:10 PM

There is a similar issue with people who are video editors. A long-form video--an interview perhaps, will use multiple camera angles, cameras in motion, zooms, effects, cutaways, motion graphics, etc. that, used judiciously and in the context of the subject matter, can be quite appropriate and supportive of the message. However, editors sometimes aren't really paying attention to the message, and they are bored, and assume that their audience is as bored as they are, and needs a little entertainment. So they spice it up with "design." So with web designers. In an attempt to proclaim their design chops, they forget human interface principles, start adding flashy elements, awful stock photos of people engaged in a supposed activity, and yes, abandon basic typographic principles that they might or might not have learned in school, and create something--that while being visually pretty--has little to do with essential communication.

However, the responsibility might not all be theirs as the editor should be pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, and design has overpowered what is being communicated. But the designer is supposed to be the expert and should maybe possibly know better.

Also, I suspect that many web designers are using WordPress and other themes/templates (of which there are thousands), things designed in the abstract, without context, designed to be plugged into any use.

And so readability becomes secondary.

July 8, 2018 10:35 PM

Do you have cataracts---I did, got new lenses, and can now see for miles---need glasses to read, but the eyes do seem to get or see more dimly with age, and if you stare at the screen for long periods, it gets worse.

March 18, 2019 12:30 AM
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