by Prof. Jim Lengel, Boston University College of Communication (http://www.bu.edu/jlengel and http://www.lengel.net)
Teachers and students more and more are called upon to publish their works for the computer screen. Whether they are putting them on a Web page, or a word processor, or a Power Point slide, the words they type are destined to be read from a computer screen. What's the best way to make this text easily readable by the audience?
There is an art to making text on a computer easy to read. Much of the text we see on the computer is not nearly as easy to read as it could be. The quality of the display of the text can go a long way to helping students read and understand the material the encounter. Even though the computer screen's low resolution does not allow us to display text as nicely as in a printed book, we can go a long way to making the best of what we have to work with. Here are a few guidelines for displaying text:
- Black text on a plain white background is by far the easiest to read. We may be tempted to use the school colors as the background for our pages, and to display the text in a contrasting white. But most of our audience will find this difficult to read. Our eyes and are minds are used to reading black letters on a white page. This produces the most contrast, and the least strain on the eyes. It also prints much better on paper. Never display text (that you expect the viewer to read) over a background photograph or drawing. This makes the text almost impossible to read.
- People read best with 10 to 12 words per line. A line of text any wider than that causes the reader to have difficulty capturing all the words in a single glance, and makes it hard to keep track of which line is next. Look at a well-printed and well-designed hardcover book, and you will see that it averages 10 to 12 words per line. Young children and old folks might be more comfortable with an average of 8 to 10 words per line. All word processors and Web page editors let you program the page to regulate the number of words per line so that users will find the text easy to read and comprehend.
- Stick to system fonts, plain text, 12-points. Most standard system fonts were designed to display well on a computer screen and to be easy to read. They have the added advantage of ubiquity – everyone's got them on the computer, whether Windows or Macintosh, Netscape or Explorer, old or new. The system fonts include Times, Helvetica, Arial, and Times Roman. Verdana and Georgia are two new font families designed especially for ease of reading from a computer screen. For the body text of a Web page, it's better in some cases to specify no particular font at all, letting the user choose the most appropriate font.
- Use a serif font for body text, sans serif for titles. The serifs are the little feet and caps on the bottoms and tops and ends ofthe letters. Georgia is a serif font. Verdana and Arial are sans-serif (without serifs) fonts. Serif fonts are easier to read in standard narrative text in paragraphs. Sans-serif fonts are easier to read in short and single-word titles and signs. Word processors and Web page editors let you to specify and control font display.
- Don't mix more than two fonts or two sizes on a page. This confuses the user. Stick to one font for titles, and another for body text. Make all titles the same size, and make all body text a consistent smaller size. 12-point type displays well on all computers, and for most people is easy to read from the screen. Use this size for body text whenever possible.
- Avoid words set in all caps. The purpose of supper-case letters is to denote the beginning of a sentence or to indicate a person or place-name by serving as the initial letter. They should not be used for anything else, except for single-word emergency warnings such as DANGER or STOP. People read standard lower-case-lettered words easier because they are used to it. Displaying words in all caps makes readers think THAT YOU ARE YELLING AT THEM!
- Make sure titles contrast with body text. Titles and subtitles make a page of text easier to read, by letting users glance quickly through the material to find the topic they are interested in. This random-access style of reading is far more prevalent on the Web than in newspapers or books, and so more subtitles should be designed into the text that's displayed on the screen. To stand out, the tiles and subtitles should be larger (bigger point size) and heavier (boldface) than the body text on the page. You may also use a contrasting font for the titles – if you used Georgia for the body text, use Verdana for the titles. Leave some extra space around the titles, to make them easier to find at a glance.
- Separate paragraphs with line space or indents, but not both. Look at a well-printed book, and see how the publisher separates the paragraphs. Some use a blank line between the paragraphs, while others indent the first line of a paragraph. Either method will work on a Web page, but it is not wise to use both a line space and an indent.
- Leave plenty of white space around the text. The human eye needs room to roam while it is reading. It likes white apace above, below, and especially to the left and right of the column of text. It abhors text that is penned in by the edge of the window, surrounded by boxes, or nudged by graphics. A 10-word-wide column of text with substantial white margins will be easiest to read.
- Build your page around a single axis. Our minds seek order and organization. We like things to line up. We read easier if the page is formatted around an axis, an invisible line to which the text, images, and graphics align. The axis can be near the left, at the center, or to the right, but the page should have only one.
- The simpler the better. Chaos and clutter are the opposites of order and organization. A simple page with a few visual and text elements will be easier to read than a page with a plethora of items competing for the viewer's attention. Keep the number of items on the page as small as possible. Divide the contents into two pages if necessary. One way to make sure that the user pays attention to your text is to keep other distracting items away from it, off the page.
You can find more ideas on designing easy-to-use online publications in The Web Wizard's Guide to Web Design, published by Addison-Wesley, from which this article is adapted.
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