Readability - CD/web site?

Subject: Readability - CD/web site?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, "Nelson, Julie" <JOHNST -at- acehardware -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 03 May 2006 09:08:05 -0400

Julie Nelson wondered: <<My team is developing a marketing CD for our retail computer system. We're in the initial stages of developing the layout for the main navigation/home page. So far, we've developed 2 different layouts. One has a white background, black text, navigation buttons with a red border at the top, a few images & the very top of the page has the company & computer system logos with a black background behind it. The other layout has a black background, white text, the same company & computer system logos with a black background & a few images. It might just be my eyesight, but it's more challenging for me to read the white text on a black background than black text on a white background (or maybe this is just what my eyes are used to).>>

My experience is the same as yours: black text on a white background works better. Indeed, reversed type is sufficiently uncommon in materials designed to be read (as opposed to "designed to be pretty") that unfamiliarity alone makes reversed type a poor choice. However, note that "unfamiliarity" is the key word: in the bad old pre-Mac days of using dumb computer terminals, I found white on black much easier than the alternatives (amber and green text) and had no complaints about its efficiency.

One powerful argument against white text on a black background or any other form of reversed type in large quantities: Anyone who has to print out the information will hate you with a fiery passion. Several pages of black background will drain your inkjet and poison you with ink fumes, or will clog your laser printer with dropped toner. Yes, there are ways around this, but most users won't know them. (I say that based on anecdotal evidence from a great many years spent sorting through the output tray on a departmental laser printer trying to find my own printout.)

<<Do you know of any readability studies available on the web that reference what background color/font color/font size & type is easiest to read on a CD or web site.>>

Nothing I can put my hands on without a fair bit of digging, but a Google using appropriate keywords (legibility, contrast, text color, reversed type, etc.) should turn up a range of information. Of course, you need to filter that information; peer-reviewed articles in journals are more reliable than speaker notes, and university Web sites are more reliable than Usent postings.

My gestalt for what I have read is that (as noted above) familiarity is the biggest issue so long as you preserve strong contrast between the type and its background and choose an appropriate font (serif and sans both work fine at an appropriate text size). Perhaps more importantly, readers vary in their abilities and preferences.

My take on typographic design for the screen is that onscreen text should be adjustable by the reader so they can choose their own font, size, and foreground and background colors. Why not build this utility into your software? It should be trivial to offer the reader a choice of several CSS styles if you're using HTML, or several different versions of the same file if you're using fixed-format material such as PDF.

<<I'm guessing I could find something on Jakob Nielsen's site.>>

Wouldn't surprise me, but you'd be ill-advised to accept his pronouncements uncritically. There's gold to be found there, but also much pyrite and glitter paint.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Readability - CD/web site: From: Nelson, Julie

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