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.