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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Bad Designs

Bad designI’m not a graphic designer. I was not formally educated in that art. However, over the years, my jobs in editing and writing for books, newspapers, magazines and publishers have required me to learn the rudiments of layout, typography and design.

I am the first to admit my design talent is merely adequate. Despite that, I did absorb enough to be able to recognize egregiously bad design.

And this week, I found what may be the best example of the most egregiously bad design and layout I’ve ever encountered: the Town of Collingwood’s advertising section on pages D6-D8 of the Enterprise Bulletin, April 24, 2015.

Whoever assembled these ads has – incredibly, it seems – even less talent than I have in layout and design.

First, the size: the ads sprawl across two-and-three quarters pages when they could easily have fit in a page-and-a-half.  Since we taxpayers pay for those ads, this wasteful layout is costing us money. There is no excuse for this.

Second, the type: about 99 percent of the text is set in the same sans-serif typeface – Arial or Helvetica – body and headlines, making it incredibly boring and dull to look at. Couldn’t someone had clicked the font menu and selected a serif typeface just once?

Serif fonts  improve ease of reading; they have been used since Roman times. The serifs help guide the eye along the line – and the longer the line, the more they prove useful. But even if you use sans-serif for the body, it is good design to use a different typeface for the headlines. This wasn’t done: instead the pages have a monolithic sameness.

As the Creative Market site notes,

Perhaps the single most important part of graphic and web design is typography. Like color, texture, and shapes, the fonts you use tell readers you’re a serious online news magazine, a playful food blog or a vintage tea tins shop. Words are important, but the style of the words is equally essential.

So what do the fonts of the town’s ad pages tell readers? Boring, dull, unimaginative, stiff, stodgy, amateurish? All of these?

The type size, too, is unnecessarily large for body type – 12 or perhaps even 14 point. At the most, it should be 10-11 point and probably could be smaller. This oversized text is the major cause of the sprawl, too.

But the headline size has not been scaled to match the large body size, so the headlines look grotesquely small. And to compound it, the small headlines are all centred, looking orphaned amidst all that extra space.

And why are some headlines in black, some in blue, and others a mix of blue and black?

All of the body copy is justified – again adding to the boring similarity of every ad. Fully justified text like this has been proven harder to read in large blocks than ragged right text. And the full justification creates awkward gaps between words in the longer lines.

Then there’s the excess leading (the space between lines) and the embarrassingly wide distance between paragraphs (did someone hit return twice? That’s a bad habit from the typewriter era). Thick horizontal lines of whitespace mar the appearance and force the reader’s eyes to drift too far to find the next paragraph.

I won’t even begin with the issue of kerning in the headlines, except to note that there doesn’t seem to have been any effort made in that department.

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