In defense of readers

This essay originally appeared in Issue 278 of A List Apart.

The best readers are obstinate. They possess a nearly inexhaustible persistence that drives them to read, regardless of the circumstances they find themselves in. I’ve seen a reader absorbed in Don Quixote while seated at a noisy bar; I’ve witnessed the quintessential New York reader walk the streets with a book in hand; of late I’ve seen many a reader devour books on their iPhone (including one who confessed to reading the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy while scrolling with his thumb). And millions of us read newspapers, magazines, and blogs on our screens every day—claims that no one reads anymore notwithstanding.

What each of these readers has in common is an ability to create solitude under circumstances that would seem to prohibit it. Reading is a necessarily solitary experience; like dying, everyone reads alone, but over the centuries readers have learned how to cultivate that solitude, how to grow it in the least hospitable environments. An experienced reader can lose herself in a good text with anything short of a war going on (and, sometimes, even then), the horticultural equivalent of growing orchids in a desert.

Despite the ubiquity of reading on the web, readers remain a neglected audience. Much of our talk about web design revolves around a sense of movement: users are thought to be finding, searching, skimming, looking. We measure how frequently they click but not how long they stay on the page. We concern ourselves with their travel and participation, how they move from page to page, who they talk to when they get there, but forget the needs of those whose purpose is to be still. Readers flourish when they have space, some distance from the hubbub of the crowds, and as web designers, there is yet much we can do to help them carve out that space.

From looking to reading

It is almost impossible to look and read at the same time: they are different actions.

Unger, While You’re Reading, page 38

Think of your first encounter with a book. You look at the cover to get a sense of it, then perhaps flip to the back or the flaps to skim the publisher’s copy. Opening the book, you might glance at the title page, or quickly run your eyes over the table of contents. Maybe you peek into the back to check the page count, or casually assess the weight of the book in your hand. If it’s a hardcover, you might take the dust jacket off, lest it get in the way.

Most readers engage in at least one and usually several of these behaviors; they’re a kind of pre-reading ritual, part of the culture of books. And yet they serve an important purpose as well, in that they ease the transition between looking and reading. They help the reader establish interest, and they serve as an invitation to reading, setting the stage for the act that follows. Similar behaviors can be found on the web. When you arrive on an article page (like this one, for example), you might glance at the logo to see where you are, or skim the navigation to get a sense of what else is here. You’ll likely look at the article title, or the photo or illustration that accompanies it. If there’s a pull quote or summary, you may skim through it, just as you would have skimmed the flap copy of a book. You may even read the first paragraph, listening to see if the voice of the text resonates or draws you in. If at any point during these pre-reading activities you conclude the article is not for you, you’ll abandon it and go somewhere else. But, if the interest is there, it’s likely that you’ll begin to read.

All of this can occur over the course of a few seconds, but these seconds are the only preparation a reader gets, the only assistance for shifting from looking to reading, from skimming along to concentrating. It is during these few seconds that a reader decides to fix her attention on the text and commit to reading, no small commitment in a medium that takes its name from the cursory act of browsing.

There are many dogged readers who will make this commitment whether or not the design of the page makes it easy on them, but as designers, there are a number of ways we can assist readers in the transition. Consider all of the elements that accompany an article and organize those that are most useful for gauging interest at the top. Summaries or pull quotes, as well as illustrations, allow the reader to quickly assess what the article is about. Categories and links to related content provide context. The name and affiliation of the author communicate the authority of a text. All of these elements combine to create an entryway into reading.

It is likely that the first paragraph (or first few paragraphs, depending on the length of the text) is read differently than those that follow. We often read more slowly at the beginning of a text, as we become familiar with the voice of the writer and decide whether or not we want to continue. Typographic signals, such as using a drop cap, or setting the first paragraph in larger text or a different typeface, can amplify this behavior and make the transition into reading more comfortable. In a sense, this first paragraph must speak louder than those that follow, in order to bring the reader in.

Now leave me alone

Once a reader has commanded the aura of solitude around them, they become nearly impenetrable. A reader who is thoroughly engrossed in reading may not hear you if you call her name. Call her name again, however, and she will look up, annoyed. The key is not to halt all activity around a reader, but to give her her space. (Remember the girl reading Quixote at the bar? You want to order your drink without bumping into her.)

In practice, this means you need to limit distractions to the full extent possible. Pull quotes, so effective near the top of an article, become a nuisance further down; many readers will find themselves unconsciously drawn to them, even when they want to focus on the text. Attention to the basic typographic details, line length, a readable typeface, the right balance between font size and line height, appropriate contrast between the text and background, can make the difference between a reader who makes it to the end of the article versus one who tires and gives up.

Designers can be readers too

There are, of course, readers who shun the screen, those who print out long articles, or, gasp!, purchase printed books and magazines instead. We often attribute their resistance to those elements over which we have no control: the physical discomfort of sitting at a desk (versus curling up with a book); the as-yet-impossible task of producing a screen that is more comfortable than paper; the attention-deficit nature of so much browsing online that makes the transition to reading seem unattainable. But there are in fact other issues at play here, and we are capable of exerting a great deal of control over them: whether or not the design of the page embraces the reading experience, or merely grudgingly squeezes it in among the looking and searching and skimming.

As a designer, the only way to ensure that the page makes for good reading is to read it yourself; to relinquish the design sensibility that is inclined to look at text and take the time to actually read it. It’s not an easy task, but then, neither is reading on the web, and making the effort may help you empathize with the reader’s plight. The web is still a noisy, crowded place, but it’s also limitless, and surely we can find space enough for reading, a space where the text speaks to the reader and the reader does not strain to hear.

Related books

While You’re Reading

Gerard Unger

Directed at the layman instead of the serious typographer, Unger’s book is a breezy overview of the science of reading.