Back to black

Grey scalesI had noticed of late that several websites are more difficult to read, that they opted to use a lighter grey text instead of a more robust black. But it didn’t dawn on me that it wasn’t my aging eyes: this was a trend. That is, until I read an article on Backchannel called “How the Web Became Unreadable.”

It’s a good read for anyone interested in typography, design and layout – and not just the Web, but print as well. It makes several good points about contrast including providing some important technical details about how contrast is measured.

I’ve written in the past about how contrast is important in design (here, and here for example). But apparently there’s a design trend of late away from contrast towards murkiness. In his article, author Kevin Marks notes:

There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.

Others have noticed this too, even before Marks. In 2015, Katie Sherman wrote on Neilsen Norman Group’s site:

A low-contrast design aesthetic is haunting the web, taking legibility and discoverability with it. It’s straining our eyes, making us all feel older, and a little less capable. Lured by the trend of minimalism, sites are abandoning their high-contrast traditions and switching to the Dark Side (or should I say, the Medium-Gray Side). For sites willing to sacrifice readability for design prowess, low-contrast text has become a predictable choice, with predictable, persistent usability flaws.

This trend surprises and distresses me because it seems a singularly user-hostile trend; anti-ergonomic against the whole point of the internet. Apparently it’s part of a minimalist design trend. Now I don’t mind clean, uncluttered web pages, but I balk at making them unreadable. Pale grey reduces accessibility and legibility.

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Designing Type

Designing TypeKaren Cheng’s 2005  book, Designing Type, is the third of the recent books on typography I have received*. Of the three, it is the most technical, appealing to the typophile and design geek more than the average reader. But it’s also a reference for layout and graphic artists looking to choose a specific font for a work.

If your goal is to actually design a typeface, she helps appreciate the subtleties of design that differentiate and separate typefaces and letterforms. But it’s not a book about design.

Most books on type and typography focus on the result: working for the combination of readability and legibility that create an emotional, psychological and intellectual effect on the viewer. Cheng takes us on an almost microscopic tour of type, zooming in on the minute parts.

There is a prevailing theory that type should be ‘invisible’ in that the reader doesn’t see the face, simply benefits from its effect. And, I suppose, for the average reader that makes sense. Designers usually don’t want the narrative to be interrupted by a closer examination of the font. Writers don’t want readers to lose track of the plot or theme in order to puzzle over the lack or presence of serifs. But a lot of work and time goes into creating a typeface that accomplishes that goal.

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Reading Letters: Designing for Legibility

Reading Letters
The human brain is truly a remarkable machine.* We can see a bunch of lines and in that same brain turn them into an M and know it’s not a V or an N or a K or W. Yet M isn’t a ‘thing’ – it’s an abstract representation of a sound that itself has no concrete meaning outside the Mmmmm of meditation.

When you mentally assemble a bunch of other lines and sticks and squiggles, those sounds form a larger abstraction: a word: MOON. Now we have substance. And that can be used to create even larger collections of abstractions – sentences – that together we ascribe a greater meaning to: THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOON.

That’s a perfectly clear sentence. Nonsensical, yes, but within a tiny fraction of a second, your brain built all the bits and squiggles into a structured concept that made some sort of sense. You can read it; every word is clear and expresses something you can picture. That’s a remarkable feat of cognition that borders on magical.

But change just one letter, replace, say an O with an R and THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MORN seems much stranger, more nonsensical. Harder to imagine. THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOOT or THE MOAN even more so. Familiarity helped us build the first; the unfamiliar – just one letter changed – made us stop and think about it. But how is it that MOON, MORN and MOOT are clear to us, even when the sentence isn’t logical, but assemblies like REET, CABIT, DRAMFIBBLE aren’t?

What about acrasial, brabeum, crocitation? Nidifice, ovablastic, patration? Saburrate, tecnolatry, yelve? Those are actually all real words, once in use, but long since fallen from use, forgotten and mostly lost to the language.

You can read these words, you can pronounce them. They obey the rules of our language construction – unlike, say pkbrynzg or tlmrifvy – but they still don’t make sense. Your brain has no familiarity, no mental foothold that lets you make sense of them because they don’t conform.

But a lost word like snobographer you can break into bits – snob and grapher – and probably work out that it means someone who writes about snobs, even if you’ve never seen the word previously. It has familiar bits.

Sophie Beier‘s 2012 book, Reading letters: Designing for Legibility is almost the polar opposite of Sarah Hyndman’s book, reviewed last week. She looks at those little sticks and lines and squiggles and explores all the science and art behind how we make abstract symbols into meaning.

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CRAP Design

The Non-Designer's Design BookCRAP: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. An unfortunate acronym from the four basic principles of graphic design first expounded in Robin Williams’ delightful little book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book. It’s now in its fourth edition, adding 24 pages since the last edition, almost 50 since the 2nd and more than 100 since the first).

Of all my books on graphic design, this has been my favourite for several years, ever since I bought the first edition in the late 1990s. It condenses so much information, so many ideas, so many nuances into clear, understandable principles.

Plus, it’s well-illustrated, with many visual examples of good and bad design.

Every chapter and many sections offer some quiz, test, or challenge for readers to work on. None of which are terribly difficult and some of which are subjective, so there’s no right or wrong answer. But it’s a good exercise because sometimes the answers reveal things we missed in our initial exploration.

Since Williams came up with the CRAP list, it has been expanded and enhanced by others online. The principles have been included in courses, infographics and videos, too. They apply not only to printed publications, but digital ones as well, as this site shows.  You can find many more online, and I recommend you do so. But go back to the original to see how and where it started.

Other principles are often expounded on by subsequent authors: whitespace, balance, flow, scale, focal point, hierarchy, unity, movement, variety, emphasis, gradation, proportion and grouping for example – but you can tackle these once you’re understood the essence of CRAP.

I can recommend this book to everyone who does any sort of design, from PowerPoint slides to rack cards to brochures and even town newsletters. If you aren’t a graphic designer – and I am not – then it will give you the basics to help understand what design is all about. If you are, it’s a good reminder of the core principles.

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The Gauche in the Machine

Newsletter, front pageRudibus ex machina: criticizing Collingwood’s latest newsletter feels a bit like punching a puppy. Or commenting on the sloppy grammar of local bloggers. Both are far too easy, like catching fish in a barrel, and I feel guilty when I even think of doing it.

But since your tax dollars are at work, it needs to be done. Someone needs to stand up and say this is not the standard  we expect from a $55 million-a-year corporation. This might be a good runner-up in a high school contest, but it is not a professional product appropriate for municipal communications.*

This piece, I’ve been told, was not produced by the town’s communications director, but rather by the clerk’s office. It was not seen – or approved by, let alone edited – by the mayor or council before it went out. Since the clerk’s office reports to the CAO, the ultimate responsibility for this piece of dreck lies with the CAO. That’s where the buck stops; that’s where we expect accountability. But where was it?

Let’s get the basics over first: it’s not a newsletter. There is nothing in it about the town’s finances, budget preparations, parks, facilities, economic development, library – nothing about ANY department. Nothing newsworthy at all. A full third of it is about the self-described “strategic plan” (which is neither) – information that’s already months old!

It has as much in common with news as a grocery store flyer. It’s an ad sheet. It does little more than regurgitate content from the town’s atrocious advertising in the EB.*

Who does it serve? What is the target audience? Is there a theme, or a focus? Where is the news?

In terms of design, content, layout, graphics, it’s awful. Bloody awful.

Not the sort of awful that King Charles used when he called Christopher Wren’s design for St. Paul’s cathedral “amusing, awful and artificial.” By awful, he meant awe-inspiring; something that inspired reverential wonder, or even fear. Which I certainly don’t mean, and refer readers to the more current definition: shite.

Newsletter, front pageIt’s not as drab as the previous newsletter, and certainly more colourful, but in terms of artistic design, it’s equally cringe-worthy. Awful, in its modern sense, will suffice. But like the last publication. it’s not a newsletter; just an ad sheet.

As far as I am aware, the Town of Collingwood won’t spring for real page layout software like InDesign or CorelDraw, so the newsletter is likely still created in Microsoft Publisher (or worse: Word). Which is to layout and design what a crayon sidewalk scrawl is to a Shakespeare play. You get what you pay for.

But even lumbered by the inefficiencies and inanities of Publisher, a reasonably good design could still be beaten out by a competent designer who adhered to some basic design rules and style. None of which were apparently considered when this was being cobbled together. ( I cannot say it was crafted…)

What rules, you ask? Well, the first one is white space. It has none. This thing is as dense as a brick. Even the margins and spaces between columns are so small that the text runs into itself horizontally. The eye has no idea where to go, what is important, where to look. It’s like reading street pavement. Ever notice the individual bricks on the main street sidewalks? Tightly fitted together so you see a pattern, but not the individual bricks.

They’re like the words in this publication.

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