Posted on by & filed under book design, ebooks.

There’s a lot of discussion lately about optimal digital reading environments. I could go on at length, but here are a few of the thoughts that keep rattling around.

Optimal text size for human reading is 11 point type. I don’t know what the studies are actually measuring here — comprehension? speed? — and I should find out. I have a science background and I like data.

But everyone knows that data is fuzzy and there are statistical outliers. I’m sure 11 point type is optimal across all (adult, visually-unimpaired) humans in laboratory conditions. If you are going to typeset a printed book, you probably can’t go wrong with 11 point type. It’s the correct size for most of the people who fall into that big hump in the normal distribution.

I studied reading disabilities in graduate school. There are individuals who rely on large amounts of context in their reading. There are others who benefit by hiding everything but the couple words they are processing at the time.

I’m a context person. I wish the font size on my Kindle could go even smaller. I like a lot of words on the page.

Except when I’m reading on my iPhone in bed. Then I like taking off my glasses (I’m really near-sighted) and holding the phone right up to my face. I also like dialing the font size way down in that case too, but it becomes pixelated quickly at that distance.

Then sometimes I’m one of these ubiquitous use cases catching up on my reading in line for coffee. I’m holding the phone away from my face. I make the font bigger now so I can read it. I don’t want it so big that the person standing in line near me can read it, and I don’t want to keep turning the page, but it should be readable for me at a distance of about 2 feet.

When I’m reading a long article on the web, I really like the Readability bookmarklet:


If I don’t have time to read it online, I bounce the article to my iPhone using Instapaper, which reformats in a similar way: big margins, white background, black text, no images.

When I’m reading or writing code, though, it literally is difficult for me to understand unless it looks like this. I’m sure this would be a horrible experience for someone else:


That’s my Emacs development environment, which I’ve been customizing since 1992. The reason I’m comfortable with that color scheme is because that’s how I learned to write software, using a screen like this:


Here, context and history trumps all. I’ve tried using more modern development environments with nicer fonts and white backgrounds and I’m simply not as productive.

Mostly, the way I like to read is the way that best suits me at the moment. As a book designer, you can provide me with a good default digital reading experience and use design to reflect the book’s content and the publisher’s brand. What you can’t do is predict the context of my reading environment and my personal history.

The surge in ebook adoption since reflowable formats have become widely available demonstrates to me that customers collectively feel the same way.


10 Responses to “How do you like to read?”

  1. Kamen

    You’re definitely hitting the nail on the head here with the context-specific reading requirements. In my case, I distinguish “functional” reading (RSS, newsgroups, etc.) from “literary” reading. For the latter, unfortunately, I’ve grown a public transport dependency. I either commute, or I never read any “proper” books, at all. (So, yes, I’m still waiting for the Mother of All Portable E-book Readers). Then there’s also academic research, but that’s also somehow “functional”, reading up on specific topics for research, not necessarily for pleasure.

    Everything else takes place in a browser, or, if so inclined, in an environment similar to your development set-up: inside Emacs.

    The last picture you show reminds me of a different kind of “reading”, which I still enjoy a lot. We’re talking Interactive Fiction here, which I still strongly associate with text-only monochrome CRT terminals (in my case, it was an orange one, not green). But that’s another story.

  2. Jill Ellern

    Many years ago, at an EBook conference I saw a demo of a piece of software from a company called liveInk ( They now have a piece of software that cuts up a line of text to make it easier to read. Very interesting.

  3. sokolov

    public transportation, often standing up, one-handed, jostled by my neighbor: wildly variable lighting conditions. Sometimes walking down the street. Probably the main implication is I don’t want to have to use two hands to turn the page, and I want it to be easy to find the place where I was when my attention got wrenched away by the bus that almost hit me.

  4. Kamen


    Yes, indeed, Gargoyle seems to pay special attention to typography in Interactive Fiction – but that only makes me think about typography, page design, and e-book readers. I’m a bit of a (La)TeX nerd, so I am still suspicious of the ability of CSS to handle complex typographical situations. But I want to believe.


    You’re very right – with e-book readers, we need that state where the interface itself “disappears”, i.e., becomes so intuitive that we don’t even think about it. The button-ornamented interface of the Kindle 2 makes me itch. Apple achieved this with the iPod – but they did it through a radical reduction of features and design streamlining. I really don’t want to be thinking about the “book” – I need to be inside the text.

  5. Giles

    I guess I’m an outlier, but starting out long sighted and entering middle age … I like to be able to set large fonts. 11pt doesn’t cut it. :(

    Haven’t tried Bookworm yet (really want a local reader, not one which requires an Internet connection) but using Stanza and’s readers on a 15″ MacBook Pro, Stanza is set to display two columns and use 14pt; eReader is set to use two columns and 20pt! (That may be left over from when my eyesight deteriorated suddenly and I could only see a screen for a couple or hours per day … happily repaired with a new prescription.)

    Oh — and I really dislike Stanza’s high contrast default black-on-white, but haven’t spent enough time to find a suitable background colour.

    My browser’s default font is 16pt.

    My take away is that there are three variables that can’t be eliminated and must be accounted for: the device, the person, and the situation (sunlight v. Starbucks queue v. reading in bed not disturbing a partner v. …)

    Oh — I also hate scrolling. I want to move by *pages* when I’m reading (at least for novels). And the more intuitive/invisble this is the better: having to find a mouse or keep a hand over a couple of keys … blech. Gotta be a better way. (eReader’s button press on a laptop trackpad works OK, plus it allows keystrokes …)


    Giles (also an emacs fan from way back, but I switched years ago to black-on-white rather than white-on-black or green-on-black as we had in the “good” old days)