Saturday, February 11, 2006

Low light and small type

My family and I went to a concert on New Year’s Eve in Cleveland. The professionally-produced program consisted of a three-panel letterfold on ultra-glossy paper. The program of course contained artist biographical information, rendered completely unreadable by a combination of factors.

Like many theatres, the interior of this one was dimly lit and cavernous. Combine the low lighting with the 6-point, san serif type and none of the biographical information was legible. My post-lasik eyes couldn’t read the type. Not enough contrast, size or leading. At least it was set in two columns (at about 65 characters per line, the mazimum recommendation for readability).

Seeing things like this doesn’t exactly drive me crazy, but it does make me wonder what the designer was thinking. Were they simply handed the copy and told to make it fit? Did they lack the nerve to suggest to the client that a fourth panel was necessary? Or were they simply uneducated with respect to the art and science of typography: legibility, line length, leading and letterform weight? (not a complete list!).

I realize that type size is directly related to the amount of copy and the space it occupies (or is allowed to occupy) on the page. Those design criteria inform the choice of type a designer must make in an instance like this: narrow-width letterforms, taller x-height, and line length.

Online it’s not so easy — type sizes of 11 pixels or more are preferred — but many web developers and designers choose type that is relative (such as point size on screen) and effectively reads as 8 or 9 point type. Online type size and line length are crucial (and consider how far the user’s eyes are away from the screen). Just because your audience opens their web browser to the full 1024+ screen width doesn’t mean a web site should fill that width.

If it’s difficult to read a page that wide in a book, it will be difficult on a computer screen.

The baby boomers started turning 60 late in 2005. Time to start really designing for their eyes.

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