Screen text

Reprint of old essay “Why this page is black,” below. Oth­er rel­e­vant links:

Original view of this essay, circa 2000

White text on a blue back­ground” (like Word­Per­fect) (good for low-bright­ness envi­ron­ments)

Results of a text and back­ground col­or test

Read­abil­i­ty Of Web­sites With Var­i­ous Fore­ground / Back­ground Col­or Com­bi­na­tions, Font Types And Word Styles” (1997)

Com­put­er- & screen-based inter­faces: Uni­ver­sal design fil­ter”>Interface Design and Opti­miza­tion of Read­ing of Con­tin­u­ous Text


Why this page is black

or, how to read lots of text on dis­play screens with­out get­ting
reti­na burn.

[First pub­lished 27 Jan 2000. Most recent update on $Date: 2002/11/22 15:10:52 $.]

Back in the 1990s, they used to say that black back­grounds were for Web sites that want­ed to be “cool.” But that’s not why I did it (and I haven’t been cool since at least 1994); these pages are black because I’ve found that it’s eas­i­er to read light text on dark screens than it is to read dark text on light screens!

When it comes to paper ephemera, the oppo­site tends to be true — black text print­ed on a white piece of paper is eas­i­er to read than white text on black-print­ed paper. It’s also cheap­er — with the old paper pub­lish­ing, black = ink = mon­ey.

But the dis­play screens we use with com­put­ers today are dif­fer­ent from print­ed paper in this and many oth­er ways. On print­ed paper, it’s eas­i­er to read a type­face that has ser­ifs, which are the gild­ed edges of the main strokes of the char­ac­ters. (Times Roman is the clas­sic ser­ifed font.) This is why newsprint is always in a ser­ifed font — news­pa­pers must be designed for read­abil­i­ty. It so hap­pens that with the CRT dis­play screens used with com­put­ers (and tele­vi­sions and tele­types), a sans serif font — such as “Hel­veti­ca” or “Ariel” — tends to be eas­i­er to read.

That some stud­ies found this to be true does not mean that these should be the stan­dard pref­er­ences for all etext; nor it does it mean that Web pub­lish­ers (myself includ­ed) should force their per­son­al font and col­or pref­er­ences on their read­ers — unlike books and oth­er print­ed mat­ter, there is no price penal­ty for choice of col­or or font, or for chang­ing them post-pub­li­ca­tion.

But select­ing col­or and font is real­ly a client-side, front-end func­tion. (In oth­er words, it’s a job for the Web brows­er.) Which is good, because these prop­er­ties ought to be con­trol­lable by the read­er, one of the major improve­ments of etext over paper out­put. (Need a large-print ver­sion? Want it in your favorite font or col­ors? Should it be just 6 points larg­er? You’ve got it.)

And it’s a ter­ri­ble shame that, with more than a half-decade of Netscape Nav­i­gator behind us (and that’s in real, not Inter­net years), there are only a hand­ful of work­able, active­ly devel­oped Web browsers to choose from and none of them are real­ly opti­mized for read­ing text. I think that’s why they still call them Web “browsers” — nobody’s ever made a Web read­er.

A pub­lish­er ought to be able to spec­i­fy his “envi­sioned” or “sug­gest­ed” col­ors for a doc­u­ment, but this should be some­thing that the Web reader/browser can eas­i­ly over­ride. Web read­ing tools should be able to set a “palette over­ride” so that the user can set his own text col­ors for back­ground, fore­ground and the var­i­ous link col­ors, and then view the entire WWW in that cho­sen col­or palette! And it should work so that a sim­ple key­stroke tog­gles the pub­lish­er’s envi­sioned col­ors with the read­er’s col­ors, and per­haps an algo­rithm to deter­mine some­thing “in between” accord­ing to some heuris­tic rule, so the read­er could meet the author/publisher halfway, in a sense…

My cur­rent favorite all-around com­bi­na­tion is what I’m using on this site, which is bluish-white text (#CCCCFF) on a black back­ground (#000000). There are plen­ty of oth­er com­bi­na­tions that work. White text on blue is good — so good that the design­ers of Word­Per­fect and of the Apple IIgs both picked it as their default.

I also like black text on a bluish-white back­ground, which I used in my music-review zine Review Addict. I tend to cycle the col­ors I use on my per­son­al start-page; right now, it’s black text on an aqua/turquoise back­ground (#CCEEEE). I used to like to read text-only Citadel BBSes with either red or Navy blue text on a white back­ground, and I still favor the Navy blue-on-white — this is the scheme I used for linart, a resource for artists who use Lin­ux.

The stand­by of black text on white back­ground is used by a lot of top etext design­ers — most notably by”>Philip Green­spun — and a lot of peo­ple still pre­fer it. Until recent­ly, my emacs text editor was still (un)configured so that most buffers used those col­ors. How­ev­er, I want to get away from this default and the “HTML files are pages, like pieces of paper” kind of think­ing — and its lim­it­ing of the pos­si­bil­i­ties — that it tends to encour­age. Because read­ing text with the com­put­er is unbound­ed — the pos­si­bil­i­ties are wide open, wait­ing for you to think them up. Or as Paul Muter”>wrote: “At present [1996], we do not know how to opti­mize read­ing via elec­tron­ic equip­ment.” That we still call vari­able-length files dis­played on these screens “pages” shows that we still have a long way to go in mak­ing these dis­tinc­tions.

If I change the col­ors on this site (and I undoubt­ed­ly will, some­day), it will prob­a­bly be to no col­or — per­haps a stylesheet with my most-recent­ly-pre­ferred-col­ors, but an emp­ty <body> tag. That way, the read­ers will always have total con­trol of the text, which is how it prob­a­bly ought to be. (In fact, I decid­ed to pub­lish the ebook edi­tion of The Lin­ux Cook­book with­out spec­i­fy­ing col­or.)

Dr. Lau­ren Scharff is one of the rel­a­tive­ly few peo­ple active­ly research­ing the read­abil­i­ty of graph­i­cal user inter­faces. Her con­clu­sion so far (in the Netscape/IE world of late-1990s “browsers”) is that there’s no easy answer for Web site read­abil­i­ty. But I think that we’ll see the pref­er­ences soon turn­ing toward the read­er, and let­ting the read­er choose the fonts and col­ors dynam­i­cal­ly and on-the-fly, and eas­i­ly, so that this “page” may be black — or white, or red, or green — depend­ing on how you, the read­er, feel it should be.


Related links

First published on March 2nd, 2009 at 4:06 pm (EST) and last modified on June 9th, 2010 at 2:55 pm (EST).

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