In Defense of Readers

by Mandy Brown

67 Reader Comments

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  1. Most of the mentioned stuff I’ve been applying for a while, but only know I realize why. You’ve put it into words beautifully!

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  2. I think I love you :)

    Your article warmed my heart, for I am a huge advocate of creating better reading experiences online not just through better writing and better content design but through better design. Several of your points I found very interesting (most specifically about pull quotes in the center of the article. Hadn’t considered that before.) and I didn’t really want the article to end. I wanted it to go on and on.

    You have a beautiful voice, too, and I look forward to reading more of your work. Thank you for this.

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  3. I guess this would be another reason for ad-revenue driven sites to either a) keep all the ads above the fold or b) kill the ads and find another source of revenue. :)

    And Thank you! It’s been a while since I’ve fully engaged on an article on ALA. ;) BTW, would it hurt to perhaps bump up on the site of text on the ALA article pages?

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  4. Your article made me understand why I have been playing with the Firefox-extension Stylish – to make some reading space for myself where the original design seems to do everything to detract you from reading (reading an article at Slate.com, to name but one example, is more like a hurdle race – fine for some, I imagine, but I prefer a relaxed, pensative walk…)

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  5. Thank you for the thought-provoking article. I’m redesigning my main site soon (which is currently very busy) and this is going to be helpful in my planning.

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  6. The future of website monetization is a very centralized (or decentralized and tightly networked) micro-payment format. This would be a browser plugin that keeps track of all the “click here to read this article for 3 cents” clicks that you do in a day, and then processes your card at the end of the night. Then the money is dispersed into the internal accounts of the publishers who’s sites you’ve visited, and at the end of the month, the cumulative amount is put into the publishers bank account. This method requires a lot of publishers to be on board with the same site payment company, or a lot of users to have the same browser plugin, and have the payment companies communicate clicks between each other based on reports sent via the browser plugins.

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  7. Thanks so much for this wonderful article! I’m an editor with a bit of ADD, so I’m always delighting in finding an article that I don’t have to print out before I can finish it. Not being a designer, I wasn’t sure why it was so hard to read longer articles; now I know. And so will others (if I have any say in the matter).

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  8. This article is very insightful and brings up some interesting points (even after just reading ‘Neuro Web Design’ by Susan Weinschenk).

    I find myself switching form and context by using Instapaper.com when I find an interesting read online. It strips all the visual info and just keeps the text. They even solved the ‘thumb-problem’ by scrolling through tilting your iPhone!

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  9. “Sometimes I was merely bored with the whole affair, paid no attention to the hellish noise, and spent hours reading a succession of Penguin Library books which, luckily, I had bought a few days earlier; sometimes I was very conscious of the armed men watching me fifty yards away.”?  Homage to Catalonia

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  10. In that one sentence, Orwell pulled off 20th Century English literature’s most macho use of the semicolon.

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  11. Nice article, and a great perspective on separating sidebar content and other potentially distracting visuals from the longer, main content when appropriate.

    Some clients have been trained that visitors only scan and “don’t read on the web.” I find myself regularly reminding them that given the content they’re looking for, users actually will read. Your points will help in the design phase for these sites.

    Thanks.

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  12. Thanks for a terrific article—it was instructional and detailed without being pedantic. Too often it seems like web designers emphasize their web savvy over basic design know-how, and perhaps forget the earliest days of their formal typographic education. Just as with print, details matter: line length in relationship to leading, clear hierarchies established through emphasis and weight, and the overall density of information on the page. These details mark the difference between a dry Terms & Conditions page and a navigable, accessible legal declaration.

    While books and, to a lesser degree, magazines are a linear medium, the very webbiness of the web means there are more demands on a reader’s attention. Like people moving through a museum, they only lavish attention on the “content” that appears under good light and with enough space around it for emphasis and elbow room. As you point out, readers need affordances and design hooks to get the most from our content. That attractive content only emerges when good copy gains the wings of good design.

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  13. Wow

    I spent a few minutes browsing reading Mandy’s blog before deciding to comment on this article. Like many, I’d seen comments about the web not lending itself to readability. I’m pleased to say that the rumors of the death of long reading have been greatly exaggerated

    I am very impressed with her ideas and will certainly attempt to incorporate some of them in my layouts.

    Well done.

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  14. We’re working on a new design over at Identity Theory and are especially interested in giving readers “space” to read our (sometimes very long) interviews and essays. Will definitely keep in mind the part about keeping related links and info at the beginning and end and cutting down on pullquotes.

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  15. Articles like these cause my infatuation with ALA.  This idea—that content is ultimately king and design should help, not hinder, the ingestion of content—is the foundation to a ‘good’ website.  Like a calm, clutter-free room, I read best on simple, accessible websites.

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  16. I approve of the urge to design pages to be read.  But I have to nitpick.  Ms. Brown writes:

    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.

    At the risk of sounding pedantic, this statement is ahistorical.  We read alone now, but it has not always been that way.  In the nineteenth century and earlier, reading aloud to one another was a common enough pastime that publishers designed their books to accommodate it.  For example, take the 1792 edition of Anne Radcliffe’s novel “The Romance of the Forest”:http://books.google.com/books?id=bSc1AAAAMAAJ&printsec=titlepage#PPA1,M1—as you can see, at the bottom right corner of each page, the first word from the top left of the subsequent page was printed.  That’s so that the reader would not be forced to cease speaking while turning the page or flicking the eye up to the top of the next page.  Printing transition words like that was common throughout the 18th and into the early 19th century.

    Consider, too, that for much of history literacy was the preserve of the privileged elite.  If anyone else wanted to know the contents of a written document, it had to be read aloud to them.  In that environment, an “aura of solitude” is not possible.

    As I said at the outset, I approve of the article’s thrust, and we don’t read that way very much any more.  It just bugs me to see an otherwise good piece starting with, in essence, the “since the dawn of time” introduction.  Claims of the absolute universality across time of some fact are rarely accurate, and when they are, they’re so mundane as to be not worth pointing out.  Instead, start with an observation about current behavior and go from there.  It’s safer, and generally more interesting.

    And now, if you’ll pardon me, I have an appointment to go wave my cane at passersby whilst yelling at them to get off my lawn.

    Yours in curmudgeonliness …

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  17. I don’t want to nit-pick a nit-picker, but Will Martin’s point seems to me superfluous. People may have been read to in previous times (as they are today) but readers could be alone if they so desired. Listening is not the same as reading, and those words and phrases at the bottom of pages served another purpose too; they ensured that the pages were stitched in the correct order. Sometimes you find them only at the ends of a signature.

    Anyway, that’s as it may be. I just wanted to add my voice to the chorus praising the article and especially to the advice that designers should sometimes read the copy. Too few do these days, in my experience.

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  18. I installed the Firefox extension Stylish, and have written a style that forces all text to Cambria; a serif font that pleases me personally. I’ve set it to auto-apply to some sites that I read, such as this one. I up the font size using text-zoom (full page zoom is not really useful for this sort of thing), sit back, and read.

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  19. Loved everything about this article, especially the fact that it uses its very self to illustrate all the points made.

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  20. Mandy,

    Thanks for a thoughtful, insightful, and practical article.

    I was particularly struck with your suggestion:

    …to relinquish the design sensibility that is inclined to look at text and take the time to actually read it.

    I’ve often found this a challenge when working with graphic designers—even when working with real copy, they rarely actually read it.

    Has anyone had any success in convincing visual people to read, preferably politely? I’d love to hear any tips…

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  21. As an extremely dedicated reader—even if I say so myself—I could really understand what you were talking about people creating “places of solitude” around themselves.

    I’m currently in the middle of a site re-design and have been trying to keep as much white—or rather black—space around my text as possible. Somehow I always seem to end up clogging everything up by adding more and more stuff, which makes me delete a lot of stuff and start again :(.

    Really liked the footer in your “working library”.

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  22. @“Jonathan”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/indefenseofreaders?page=2#20

    This is an important question, and I think there are two ways to approach it. The first is that, as someone in a leadership position, you have to demonstrate that reading is important to you; you show how valuable a behavior is by participating in it yourself.

    That said, while you can require that designers read, you can’t force them to care. The better method is to hire designers who care about reading in the first place. Based on the warm responses I’ve received from this article, it seems there are quite a few of them out there.

    After nearly a decade in the publishing business, I’ve developed a habit of asking prospective hires what book they read most recently. There’s no reason this question can’t be asked of designers as well as editors or writers. If they answer with a book you also find interesting—or which they convince you is interesting—then you’re on the right track; if they answer with three or more books that you find interesting, then it’s likely you’ve found who you’re looking for.

     

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  23. Great article, Mandy. I’m writing uo a brief for a news site and this is the exact type of info I was looking for.

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  24. I’m one of those solitary readers who the teacher had to say at least 3 times: “the class is over… go home”.

    With the web and the increasing amount of small interruptions happening in our lives it is reassuring to see that some people still care about those quiet circles we manage to create when holding a book.  It is even more interesting to think that the web can be made that way when needed. 

    thank you for this insightful article and thanks “A List Apart” for leaving me alone while reading it.


    Jean-Marc

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  25. A year or so ago I designed a site (it is incomplete – just the first authors have essay linked) which uses a style switcher that first appeared in A List Apart.

    http://www.personal.psu.edu/jxm22/browseread/

    What do you and the other readers think of being able to change focus from scanning to read (and back) using a script?

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  26. Seldom do I read articles on Web design that feature such limpid insights as yours. Web discussions more typically focus on making that medium more buzzing, more booming, more visually dense.

    Had the aforementioned George Orwell (one of my alltime writing-and-thinking heroes) been able to read your graceful, assumption-challenging prose, I think his face would have lit up.

    Thank you for your thoughts and voice!

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  27. @“Jerrold”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/indefenseofreaders?page=3#25

    I think this is an idea worth pursuing in cases where a compromise must be reached between the needs of a rich-content experience and the needs of the reading experience. But, it should be handled in a progressive-enhancement kind of way, such that it’s a nice add-on for the power-users, but not the only way to read comfortably.

    That said, generally speaking, I think it’s rarely necessary, and I wouldn’t encourage it as a substitute to a design strategy that values the reading experience. It’s a bit like telling someone who enters your noisy, crowded library that you have free ear plugs for anyone who needs them. It’s a backhanded way of valuing reading, and I think it will show.

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  28. Your article is most timely. The main way that far too many websites show their disdain for readers is by posting text riddled with garden path sentences and poor spelling. Often, even a single error-free paragraph is too much for them. And commenters who focus on the language rather than the ideas are often hounded away. Considering the vast budgets devoted to designs and re-designs, surely more sites could spend a bit more on writers who take pride in their care and copy-editors/proofreaders to support them.

    Come to think of it, this problem is now shared with books. I’m just coming to the end of The Dreaming Void, which is a fascinating book; but it’s clear that the copy-editor, if there was one, got tired after the first 100 pages and gave up.

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  29. I simply loved it. I read the first couple of paragraphs and paused. I bookmarked it in case I have to do something else, and emailed it to my close friends and relatives who love reading.

    I think this article is not only for readers but also for writers and blog designers. That is where most of my reading takes place nowadays.

    I thought I was losing the habit of sitting for hours reading without interruption. I can’t blame the web entirely. I have the habit of marking up text, taking notes. While a browser makes that very easy to do (so the interruptions are shorter), it is still a distraction.

    Thank you for writing this article. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Dorai

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  30. Do I think more work needs to be done to give people a more readable experience on the average site? Yes, absolutely. But Jerrold’s approach – barebones though it is – has a lot of merit.
    Alternate views of the same content for different purposes is not a “power user” kind of thing at all. (Unless printing out an Op-Ed piece from nytimes.com is only for those in the know.)
    Recently, I was looking into javascripts dealing with multi-column layout. Came upon a userscript for FireFox (requires the Greasemonkey plugin) that recognizes the printer-friendly pages of several news sites – NyTimes, among them – and converts the format into a three-column layout that page-flips rather than scrolls. Also provides justified, hyphenated text and you can choose the font.
    Bottom line: Multi-column plus justified plus hyphenated plus a screen readable font like Cambria plus no-scroll makes for a much, much more readable experience. Period.
    And there is no reason on earth that the nytimes.com could not provide that same layout in every browser without resort to a third party script that only works for FireFox.
    And ironically, this is the same approach they’ve taken, basically, with the NyTimes Reader.
    If you’ve got Javascript enabled, and the authors take the pains, who needs the Reader?

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  31. One more thought regarding Jerrold’s approach of toggling between a “web page” experience and a “book onscreen” experience:
    Your comment mentions –
    “cases where a compromise must be reached between the needs of a rich-content experience and the needs of the reading experience.”
    But this is ALWAYS the case, not a special one. Readability can only be achieved by drawing on what works best from the world of books and magazines (400 years of trial-and-error is not to be dismissed) and what’s best about the world of networked screens. (And the screens and user-agents are improving all the time.)
    The right blend will be found, I’m sure. And it’s nice to see the topic of Readability getting some play at AlistApart.

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  32. @ “Richard”:http://alistapart.com/comments/indefenseofreaders?page=4#31 said—

    Your comment mentions — “cases where a compromise must be reached between the needs of a rich-content experience and the needs of the reading experience.”? But this is ALWAYS the case, not a special one.

    But why is it always the case? Because of some inherent nature of the medium which requires it? Or because we have become accustomed to an idea of the web that reflexively values quantity over quality? I suspect the conflict herein is a tautology of our own making. In which case, we’re free to tear it down.

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  33. Look, I’m just a small-town boy from Brooklyn, what do I know?
    But here’s a few things:

    Hyperlinks. Enormously useful but when styled so that they are easily identifiable as links, they distract from the flow of reading. There is no equivalent on paper.
    How do we meld the two without a stylistic switch of some kind?

    Also, there is the inherent difference between a backlit LCD screen and a piece of paper. Screens today can’t match the resolution – in text, anyway – of print. (But color is free!) Sub-pixel font rendering like Cleartype helps a lot, but it’s still not quite the same.
    What techniques can we bring to bear to make that difference as slight as possible? (Of course with an E-Paper screen, there is hardly a difference at all. And one may be appearing on a laptop near you, very soon.)

    Yesterday I got delivery of an out-of-print paperback with real tiny text. And my eyesight, for various reasons, just isn’t up to reading text that small for long periods without discomfort. And so, for the first time in my life, I got angry at a book.
    If the text was in HTML, I thought to myself, I could style it, change the font size, paginate, do whatever I wanted to do – and, in this case, I would gladly put up with the deficiencies in resolution, whatever, to be able to read it onscreen.

    We can no longer assume that books “will always be around”.
    I, for one, don’t believe they will.

    The web empowers each and every one of us to become writer, publisher, typesetter, and even illustrator, all rolled into one.
    A real challenge, that.

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  34. I’ve just scanned (apologies for not reading) the comments to see if anyone has mentioned that the interesting and thoughtful points made were contradicted by the post’s layout.

    I really enjoyed the article, but the massive paragraphs made the experience feel like the visual equivalent of wading through custard.

    Yes, I often read long articles online, becoming immersed in them. But I still need lots of white space, short paragraphs and sub headings to keep track of where I am and to stop my eyes going funny…

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  35. Here is another site I use for a class that suggests what appears to me the best way to style some of the widely available fonts on the web.

    https://www.courses.psu.edu/art/art101_jxm22/typefaces.html

    I would be delight to know what others think.

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  36. So ironic!

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  37. @Jerrold:
    Re: your font sample page. Missing are the Microsoft “Cleartype” or “C” fonts that ship with Vista or MS Office 2007 and are by far the most screen-readable available. (MS has made the investment, others haven’t. It’s that simple. Creating good font sets – especially for the screen – is both a time AND knowledge intensive thing.)
    By now, the installed base of these fonts is pretty big and I’m seeing them used on more and more sites.
    The quality of the serif fonts is especially apparent. Those are Cambria and Constantia (Constantia is very similar to Georgia but better in a lot of little ways).
    For monospace, Consolas beats the heck out of Courier or Courier New.
    The san-serifs are Calibri and Candara.

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  38. Hi,

    This is probably the first time I have seen someone talk about reading experience on the web so wonderfully. Reading is more associated with the printed media that people completely forget to acknowledge the presence of online readers!

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  39. Certainly the “C” fonts could be added to the list – when I developed this site a year and half ago they weren’t widely available on the computers where I teach. (They aren’t, of course, Microsoft’s first effort to make screen readable fonts – Georgia, Verdana and Tahoma were developed by Matthew Carter in for MS the ‘90s for that purpose.)

    But the specific font used is just half the story -  what I am more interested in is how we can use CSS to control font size, line length, line height, word spacing and letter spacing to make whatever font we are using as easy to read as possible in extended text.

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  40. I never knew I am a good reader until I developed my interest in reading web design articles on internet. Now I just love reading about anything interesting.

    As you said it’s limitless, I keep an eye regularly to follow some of the selected witters whom I love to read as they touch my heart – like you :-)

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  41. A brilliant article and something that we should think about more often.  It raises some points that make perfect sense and are blatantly obvious to me as a reader and yet somehow hadn’t occurred to me as a designer.  Thanks.

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  42. Refreshing and relevant article. As designer’s we tend to forget that there is a wovld of readers who rely ever more on the internet as a reading source. I am referring here to the disabled community in particularly for whom web accessibility is a big issue.

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  43. Every web designer should read this article! Sometimes I wonder if some web designers know anything at all about typography – line lengths are often far too long, type too small etc.

    I rarely ‘skim’ even when reading online. If the copy is supposed to be read, then the designer has a duty to make sure that experience is as easy as possible, regardless of the medium the reader reads from.

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  44. Yeah, some of these things are obvious, but I know I personally need to spend more time allowing my users to read, rather than get them to the next thing. I’ve never enjoyed reading on screen. It is now my goal to make this a possible experience. thanks

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  45. I’ve made a french translation of this very good article. Thanks Mandy !
    http://lafeuille.homo-numericus.net/2009/02/la-defense-des-lecteurs.html

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  46. A good read, and very valid points about font-size, spacing and whitespace.

    Distractions around a body of text that you wish a user to read would not assist at them in continuing to read.

    A small note: I noticed that your writing scope is aimed at a woman? :) (her, she).
    No problem with it, haha.

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  47. I loved this article. As a web designer, I’m always working in Flash, thinking about eveything like the design, the layout, the content, graphics, everything but what could be done to make reading the content on my sites better. I’m definitely going to remember this one!

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  48. Thankyou for such a well-written and engaging article, its the best I’ve seen on ALA for months I think. Interesting ideas on how to design for readers as well, I’ll have to try them out.

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  49. Excellent article, will certainly be using your suggestions.  Thanks.

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  50. Nothing fuels the imagination in my experience like the printed word.

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  51. Hi,
    I am designing a web-portal for the third age(65+) and am trying to make the article reading as easy as possible.
    Once the user clicked on an link to the article the article is set on top with a dark background making the user concentrate solely on the article. if he wants of course he can close the page and continue to other areas of the site.
    The web site is in hebrew, but here is a design sketch showing my point:
    http://www.dmdesign.co.il/commino/html/Commino_article[v6].html

    Would be happy to know what you think about this method.
    Thanks,

    Dan

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  52. Thanks Mandy, its a great article and I hope it will initiate further articles at ALA on “reading on the web”.

    Some of you may find some interest in a thread at Typophile forum, and might want to join in at the discussion there: http://www.typophile.com/node/54631

    John Myrstad

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  53. Re: Dan Stramer’s post-
    Jakob Nielsen has reported on the popularity and effectiveness of this technique:
    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/application-design.html
    I think this page-on-top-of-a-page idea is worth a try.
    (BTW – The font-size in your demo looks a little small for the 65+ age group you’re targeting.)
    Re: John Myrstad at Typophile’s post –
    Bill Hill of Microsoft is interested, as am I, in exploring techniques taken from the world of print, but used onscreen and within the browser.
    His post about font-embedding on the IE blog, which included a link to his experimental site that uses columns with justifed text in a magazine-like layout, sparked an old media vs. new media kerfluffle for some reason. (And analyzed on the thread at Typophile.)
    Hill’s original post is here:
    http://blogs.msdn.com/ie/archive/2008/07/21/font-embedding-on-the-web.aspx
    Worth checking out for anybody interested in readability on the web.

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  54. I think people miss the point of the text on a sight and also ignore the fact that people do read it. Of course first impressions of a site is taken in by the use of flash and images, but honestly people need to take care when writing content to really push their website. Text is just as important as the initial first impression.

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  55. I applaud your article and it raises issues that more people need to become aware of: that reading is a delicate activity that requires attention, and we as designers need to pay more attention to how we read on screens. Here’s my contribution to this effort, The Redub Reader, an app which is designed to make it easier to read long texts on screen.

    http://reader.redub.org/dev

    I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

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  56. @Irwin Chen
    Really interesting approach. Bookmarked!
    Too much to say here.
    Don’t like the typography but the page-flip bars certainly are attractive and smooth.
    What about copyright issues – how are you handling that?
    In addition to the word count, I would give a page count up-front also.
    Nice effort – I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting to see how it evolves.

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  57. love that last nugget… you’ve got to read it yourself. How true and how necessary. Thanks.

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  58. Unfortunately, a vast majority of web users are simply used to scrolling down the web page, without paying much attention to the content. I agree that the focus should be put on the content of the web site, but the main question is as to how to capture the interest of the reader. The quality of the texts, when it comes to web pages, might not be enough.

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  59. This was an absolutely fantastic article. Thnak you for caring about the reading experience on the Web.

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  60. This is very informative and useful post. But I would like to say that the web has made reading flexible.

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  61. books will become obselete
    this is why even the newspapers are sending digital copies of their articles…instead of delivering to a home

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  62. Today, more than never, content has to be complete in the internet. Complete means entire. There are too many content in the world and more coming each second. We can’t waste the attention of our visitors. In advertisement, after gotten by a message, the person go after the other informations about the product. When this person access a website he wants to get the entire information. Even if many of our visitor wont read that text, that text has to be there for those who will. How the information is displayed, how easy to find, how easy to find later.

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  63. readers, like myself, are still adjusting to on-screen reading. I still feel more comfortable with a hardcopy in my hands instead of staring at a screen.  However, recently I bought a new LCD 24” monitor, so staring at the screen is not as bad any more. It makes reading some of the websites more bearable.

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  64. What a fantastic article!

    This has given me some definite pause for thought about how I build web pages for clients, specifically the manner in which we determine the use for a particular page.

    Thanks for the great insight!

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  65. “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.”

    My boyfriend can’t understand why he can’t talk to me while I’m engrossed in a book. He gets a weird look on his face if I make the impatient noise and look pointedly at him if he’s rambling on about something that requires my attention if I have a book in my hand. This one sentence sums us readers up perfectly!

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  66. I am an avid reader, so I can say that reading is not just an activity or a hobby. It is a “˜passion’  that engrosses you so well that you even forget that whether you are reading in your room or at a noisy bar or street. Keeping reading, it not only entertains you but makes you intelligent too!

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  67. Thank you for caring about the reader’s experience, though typography is not my thing.

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