The Importance Of Readability
For the designer’s purpose, readability refers to the ease with which a body of text can be consumed, and it correlates closely to the reader’s eye strain 3. This should not be confused with legibility 4, which refers to the degree to which individual glyphs in text can be discerned. The techniques for creating a great reading experience are complementary to those for creating a great user experience (UX), and vice versa. They also both share the same symptoms of failure. Poor readability on a website can lead to confusion, frustration and ultimately abandonment, while a great reading experience is invisible, supportive and engaging.
As with UX design, every website design would benefit from some measure of concern for readability. For example, text-heavy websites—such as blogs, newspapers and magazines—should uphold readability as a priority, while websites for events and e-commerce might just need to tweak line heights and font sizes. Whatever level of importance you place on readability, you should undertake a continual process of refinement towards an effortless reading experience.
Techniques For Improving Readability
The foundation of great reading experiences on the Web lies in the study of book design. After all, books are where readable typography was honed. Personally, I hold The Form of the Book by Jan Tschichold as the ultimate resource for good taste in book design, and I am certainly 5 not alone.
Many of the techniques we’ll cover here have been adapted for the Web page from lessons introduced in this book. Sadly, the book has been out of print for about 20 years (at least in the US), and a copy can cost around $150 on Amazon’s marketplace. I have created a digest of it 6, but if you want to read the full text, you could always try your local library or university (which is how I finally got my hands on it).
Command Your Margins
Margins give the eye room to maneuver. They provide a buffer between the main content and ancillary elements—such as related links and ads—allowing the reader to focus on the text. Beyond this purely functional purpose, margins can also bring deeper harmony to the layout.
Margins comprise negative space; they afford the designer an opportunity to build a relationship between a body of text (the figure) and its surroundings (the ground). As Tschichold tells us, “Harmony between page size and the type area is achieved when both have the same proportions.” Now, the proportions of a page in a book are much different than those of most digital displays (especially ones in landscape orientation), so to adapt this concept to the Web, we can work towards a harmony between our text and its immediate visual container.
Choose Readable Fonts
Font selection is a micro concern, but it has a tremendous impact on the macro appearance. In Detail in Typography, Jost Hochuli best outlines this interdependence: “In typography, details can never be considered in isolation.”
The font for the body copy should be chosen for its on-screen readability, before any concern for style. The headings and pull quotes are perfect opportunities to flex your typographic creativity, but leave the long runs of copy to dependably readable workhorses such as Georgia, Arial and Myriad, which were all designed for optimal reading on a back-lit screen.
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