Why I dislike reading online: a print publication designer grumbles
First, I turn 53 this month. So do my eyes.
Then, too, I design and lay out illustrated books for a living. Textual balance, ease of use, and readability--including sufficient contrast from brightness of page to variety of thicknesses in the strokes of each letterform--are all extremely important to me. I dislike reading endless lengths of minimally formatted text and scrolling through undifferentiated paragraphs with no rhythm or pacing.
I believe that the Internet developed as an interactive tool that was required to do too many things fast (and well), so readability was not given a high priority. As a result, most legibility basics (e.g., the aforementioned contrast, or care given to typographic choices) need to be reconsidered for electronic text. When I read a book, for example, I don't shine my reading lamp into my eyes, so it stands to reason that I won't be happy if light emanates out toward me from behind the text I'm reading.
There is also the issue of scrolling up and down as opposed to reading left to right and then turning a page. To date, presenting text on a screen has followed the basic "universal" assumption that real estate on a monitor is always at a premium. This makes scrolling the most logical and efficient means of progressing through text. So, even though a vast number of the world's readers have fallen in line behind this essential compromise, I think it's time to look at the bigger picture. Five and a half centuries of reading practices really needn't crumble in the face of the two or three decades over which online content has developed.
For one's eyes, turning a page provides a brief, natural, and essential break from the concentration required to read. Like blinking, this unremarkable activity has the capacity to offer our hardworking eyes the frequent and necessary pauses they need. Many of the newspapers that have developed online "readers" have recognized this, and they seem to have had the most success in negotiating with the realities of the monitor in creating more reader-friendly environments.
Of the many technological advances in digital publishing over the last decade, the advent of the portable document format (pdf) has brought about a major shift in how print publications are edited, designed, and produced. The potential savings in time and costs (shipping and paper) and the jump in efficiency were immediately apparent. Almost as quickly, the pdf became the new standard for proofing print publications.
I am aware that only a tiny fraction of the constant stream of innovations in information technology directly affects my work (and perhaps my interests), and that my use of such advances barely scratches the surface. My appreciation of Adobe's latest innovations is likely always to be analogous to the Indian story of the blind men and the elephant
. I welcome anyone to fill me in on how I can become a pdf "power-user" and resolve the issues addressed in the following critique:
The pdf encapsulates the digital image, layout, page, or manuscript, and thus essentially mimics the "permanence" of the printed page. It is also the most comfortable way I have found to read content on a monitor. For that reason, I think this format has the potential to become the most effective means of bridging the gap (or chasm?) between publishing content digitally and actually reading it onscreen.
Presently, we create pdfs for our clients so they can review layouts of individual chapters from the illustrated books we produce for them. We reduce their length like this because electronic files containing an entire book are too large, and the redraw rate too slow, even when file size is significantly reduced and art compressed.
Adobe Acrobat functions primarily as an "artifact" display, despite its useful editing and proofing tools. Its GUI for sequential documents has always been ungainly. In my opinion, pdfs should be the display of choice for electronic books, particularly illustrated ones. Retooling Acrobat (or developing new spinoff applications) in partnership with e-book developers with the goal of recreating the experience of reading a print publication is the best bet for this nascent industry. But, then, perhaps their primary goal is making reading more fully interactive--which may only offer the reader more distractions--rather than efficient or comfortable?