Is reading online all that hard?

Paul Tough has this oddball lèse-majesté approach to the Internet – it’s good enough for him to start up his own epistolary site, Open Letters, where semi-famous writers, and, hypothetically, anyone else, can submit first-person diaries.

But Open Letters is a site that doesn’t work like most of the content sites you visit – dig those weird, inaccessible imagemaps of four quadrants of text. Worse, Open Letters keeps getting sniped at by its own creator.


The former Saturday Night editorial wunderkind epitomized the very best Canada has to offer by being lured back from New York, Canada apparently unequipped with suitable alternatives. He gripes in other online publications that it’s so hard to read online that his own site is suffering. “The ideal place to publish such ephemera, of course, is the Web, but Tough had some reservations. ’It’s hard to read long things on a website,’ he says. He often found himself printing out longer pieces instead of reading them onscreen.”

Well, duh. Reading onscreen is difficult, particularly on crappy monitors (typical Windows clones, anyone?) and when using pretty much any font except Georgia or Verdana. But Tough took this to such an extreme that he seems to be perpetuating an urban myth for the Web intelligentsia. There’s an undercurrent of sophistication: Everybody knows the Web is hard to read the way everybody knows that Wired magazine is an unreadable mishmash of neon colours, despite having been toned down a good five years ago.

So now, on hiatus for the summer anyway, is a mere teaser to a PDF and print version.

[The PDF] allows for photographs, typography and graphics, and is less prone to being corrupted by Internet gobbledygook. Ultimately Tough wants this version to be e-delivered to paying subscribers, who ideally will print it out and read it the old-fashioned way.

Man. Talk about commitment to the Web!

We wanted to show that Paul Tough a thing or two. We wanted to band together some experts in Web typography and Web design, like the kids at and the Zeldman, to adapt an Open Letter five or six different ways, proving you can come up with Web type that people will sit there and read.

Except that Gen at WebType couldn’t figure out what poor Paul Tough was going on about.

Take this quote from the “Explain this PDF subscription idea” section:

”It will actually look like a magazine: it will have a cover, and a table of contents, and page numbers and headlines and different fonts and margins: all of those elements of page design that make reading a pleasure – all of which are hard if not impossible to deliver on the Web.”

Right. The only thing that is impossible to achieve on the Web is the “cover” bit, but only if they are talking about an actual paper cover. The rest has been done for ages and is in fact used on Open Letters. They use GIFs for headlines and titles and tables for the margins. There’s no CSS for some reason, but for such a simple site it wouldn’t be hard at all to use it for setting typefaces and leading.

I actually like the site quite a bit – even the Courier text, which gives it a kind of typewritery, old-fashioned feel – so I don’t see what they are complaining about. The navigation is a bit shit though, and they seem to have stolen the illustrations from Douglas Coupland’s Life After God.

The more I look at the source code the more I think that Craig Taylor, the designer, knows what he’s doing.

I also like the fact that he hasn’t specified the font size. At least in IE 5.0, Courier works well in all size settings – it doesn’t go bold in larger sizes the way Verdana does, and it is actually quite readable in smaller sizes.

You’ve also got a nice 400 px column that should work in resolutions down to about 800x600 and the illustrations (also by Craig) are nice, if seemingly unrelated to the text at times. Links and titles are clearly separated from the body text by being bright orange and bold red, respectively.

I still think that the navigation is too confusing – “Today’s Letter from the Editor” is a different one depending on what page you access it from, for example – but we can’t really change that. I’d love to see an example of how the typography can be substantially improved, but I’m afraid I can’t come up with anything myself at the moment. I would also like to reply to those bone-headed statements on their “Delivery” page, but it would really be a lot easier if their own typography was shit.

The Web is not print, but maybe it’s not such a readability disaster after all.

Just don’t ask us to read eight-point black MS Sans Serif text on a 14-inch clone monitor. (We change all Windows displays to 10-point Verdana immediately upon sitting down – and never change them back.)

Posted on 2000-09-05