Text and the Screen

May 29, 2011

I’m reading The Elements of Typographic Style at the moment. It’s beautifully written and I’m learning how the rules author Robert Bringhurst lays out can be used on the web. But not all the rules translate to the web. Particularly when you accept the idea that the web in not fixed. In chapter 2.1.2, Bringhurst writes about a comfortable measure:

Anything from 45 to 75 characters is widely regarded as a satisfactory length of line for a single-column set in a serifed text face in a text size. The 66 character line (counting both letters and spaces) is widely regarded as ideal.

Bringhurst is talking about setting type on a fixed page. This doesn’t work with a liquid layout as the columns would get stretched at large screen sizes leaving the measure of single-columns too long. This got me thinking about the idea that the use of media queries could play a role in the resizing of text as the page widens. I think this technique could work well.

I also thought about the use of multi-columns to split the content into two columns that could be easily digestible. Bringhurst informs us on choosing a comfortable measure for two columns:

For multi-column work, a better average is 40 to 50 characters.

We could easily apply this to modern web browsers.

Then I read a piece written by Khoi Vinh. He argues the notion that columns on the web don’t work:

All of this, I would say, makes columnized text inferior to the alternative: a single column of text, scrolling from top to bottom on a page that’s as tall as is necessary to accommodate the entirety of the text. Scrolling text allows users to advance at exactly their own pace — a paragraph at a time or even a line at a time. It also lets them shoot down to the bottom of an article — or even its middle — in an instant, without the multiple clicks or repeated swipes required in paginated layouts. This is the way most digital media works and for good reason.

I completely agree.

The web is a different monster than printed media. Users are accustomed to scrolling text on the web. The native iPad apps that page horizontally feel strange to me when because I’m not allowed to scroll down when reading an article. I think the idea and experience is novel but awkward.

I’m not sure how this will play out but I do know, just as Luke Wroblewski says, I’m betting on the web as a platform.

Latest Thoughts

Thanks for stopping by!