Design & Readability

One of the things I see in contemporary design is a departure from the norm of having a pleasing layout (placement of design elements) combined with readability. I’m speaking of print design specifically.

It’s normal—I suppose—in looking at cooking instructions on an 8-ounce can of sauce, and having difficulty reading that in what appears to be 4-point condensed type. Food companies feel like they have to cram information like that onto labels to be explicit in detail. Problem for them is that government institutions and consumer protection agencies have encroached on the labels’ real estate to where only about 15% of the label is available these days for the information you really need to prepare the food in question.

But in other areas of print, we don’t have that kind of restriction. Printed magazines—if they’re perfect-bound (single pages tipped into a center binding with glue)—have the least restriction with regard to fitting ads and article copy within the confines of the publication. Unlike saddle-stitched binding, there are no multiples of signatures to adhere to, and if the need is to add an additional page to complete the run, all the better for paragraph and type spacing. Readability won’t have to suffer.

Above are two pages from Wired Magazine, a publication to which I’ve recently subscribed. The magazine is a normal size for most that you might see among those sold in newsstands or bookstores at around 8″ x 11″. One of the reasons I decided to subscribe is the kind of articles they have in the mag, most notably dealing with science and technology, computers and communications, and maybe some environmental and political concerns. Very up-to-date articles for anyone who may want to be made aware of the world in which we now live.

Sounds cool, right? And the mag excels in those areas. But it is not—I repeat not—designed well. It suffers from what I might call timid or regressive layout, almost as though the designer has put down rules by which he or she has to squeeze the copy into tiny areas left over after dicing up the space for no apparent reason. The above examples are from the current issue, but what I’ve noticed is that the type used in the articles changes in point size from issue to issue, apparently due to some kind of self-imposed space restrictions, forced by graphic elements such as the black panel at the top of these pages. And those space restrictions are not about the number of pages, but instead about the so-called grid system they use—and even that changes with each issue.

Whichever way they decide to dice up the layout, they have what appears to be an 8-point condensed text font for most of the magazine. In the example at left, the “features” page near the front of the issue (common among many magazines instead of just the contents page) exhibits the worst kind of non-readability: a thin sans-serif font at about 7- or 8-point, reversed out of a number 3 warm grey background. I couldn’t read this without a magnifying glass while wearing a pair of readers. There is no reason to design anything like this. Plus, placing the subject of the photo dead center leaves a minimal amount of space for copy—if you don’t want the type to touch the subject—but notice that the copy does so anyway and overlaps it slightly near the bottom. Notice the position of the small word “features” at the top, the way it butts up against the edge of the black. There’s no consistency, almost as if there are no rules no matter where you look.

Then in the example at right, the designer has pushed the larger shot left and puts the shots of contributing writers into circles, which is OK, but then squeezes the info about each into narrow columns, forcing the copy down to what appears to be 5-point type. Notice the white gutter running down the near middle of the page, the small title of the page (Do-It-Yourself) floundering in a relatively large space, and the ultra-condensed serif drop-cap “F”: each item living in its own space with no relation to each other.

I could show you many more pages from the previous issue that exhibit further irrational design curiosities, one spread of which has an entire full-length sidebar using 4-point type.

I like the articles, which are very informative. Good writing all around. I’m just glad I get the digital version of these articles on my iPad, where I don’t have to use a magnifying glass to read them. And I’m also glad that whoever they’ve hired to design the digital articles is not the same idiot who does the print version of the magazine.


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