Unreadable?

Joe Clark has an article in the debut issue of Scroll magazine on the “unreadability” of the web. In it, he expresses dismay for the ways in which the web has shortened our attention spans and set expectations for content that is short, pithy, and ultimately mindless.

We realize now that long documents do not work on the web. We should never have thought otherwise. But all those short documents we’re reading instead are poisoning our ability to read long documents.

Clark, Unreadable, Scroll Magazine, issue 1

Clark makes a couple of points as to why the web is unsuitable for long: screen resolutions that remain poor substitutes for ink on paper; the inability to “curl up” with a screen; and the very nature of hypertext, with its constant invitation to distraction. All good points, and why many of us in the book business do not foresee an end to the printing press in the near term.

But perhaps more disturbingly, Clark suggests that the hours we spend reading short on the web are inhibiting our abilities to read long even when we’re away from the screen. Our brains are being “rewired” for short, such that when we do curl up with a book, we no longer have the fortitude to get through it. We’re less patient, more distracted, attuned to the efficiency of a text instead of its intellectual rigor. “This is your brain on RSS,” he asks. “Any questions?”

Ironically, the design of Clark’s piece in Scroll unintentionally echos many of his points. The entire magazine is set with a line length that is far too long for comfortable reading, in a typeface that, while lovely, is not at all suitable for reading long. The magazine is printed on a bright white coated stock, in essence replicating some of the inherent problems (i.e., glare and too much contrast) of reading on the screen. And the pages are littered with pull quotes that distract the eye, much like sidebars and hyperlinks do on the web. Clark’s article is no more readable in print than it would have been on the screen.

And here’s what’s missing from this conversation: the design of a text has a lot to do with how we read it, whether we look to “get in, get it over with, and get out” or decide to settle in for the long haul. Many of the design decisions on the web that inhibit reading long have nothing to do with our reading styles, and everything to do with the business decisions of the publishers: the annoying habit of splitting long articles into multiple pages to increase page views; the stream of advertising and related content in the sidebar; the spate of clique-like social media links which seem to always appear at the top of an article, inspiring you to share it before you’ve read it; and most egregiously, an inattention to the typographic details that make reading easier and more pleasurable.

I’m as guilty as the next person in flipping through site after site as quickly as I can, skimming articles while I post to twitter or IM a colleague or delete the last six emails received. But I have not—yet, at least—lost the ability to read long; in fact, at the end of the day, I’m often eager for the relative slowness and calm that a book can provide. Some of this is because the physical cues of a book—the soft paper, the warmth of the text on the page, the way it fits into my hands—suggest a different mode of reading. But I don’t believe we’ve yet attempted—yet alone exhausted—methods for triggering these same feelings on the web.

This site—which was inspired by book design and falls somewhere between restrained and aggressively minimal on the design scale—tilts in the direction of reading long as best it can. There’s no navigation bar, few hyperlinks, and the sidebar is so meek it almost apologizes for its intrusion.1 As perhaps it should. If we design distraction into the web, we aren’t exactly in the best position to complain when distraction consumes us. But must we design this way? Or has the time come for designers to recognize that speed and efficiency are not the sole parameters with which to judge the screen?

  1. This post originally appeared within a different design.