A long-overdue polemic by Kevin Marks in Backchannel: How the Web Became Unreadable. Excerpt:
It’s been getting harder for me to read things on my phone and my laptop. I’ve caught myself squinting and holding the screen closer to my face. I’ve worried that my eyesight is starting to go.
These hurdles have made me grumpier over time, but what pushed me over the edge was when Google’s App Engine console — a page that, as a developer, I use daily — changed its text from legible to illegible. Text that was once crisp and dark was suddenly lightened to a pallid gray. Though age has indeed taken its toll on my eyesight, it turns out that I was suffering from a design trend.
There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.
Typography may not seem like a crucial design element, but it is. One of the reasons the web has become the default way that we access information is that it makes that information broadly available to everyone. “The power of the Web is in its universality,” wrote Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web consortium. “Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
But if the web is relayed through text that’s difficult to read, it curtails that open access by excluding large swaths of people, such as the elderly, the visually impaired, or those retrieving websites through low-quality screens. And, as we rely on computers not only to retrieve information but also to access and build services that are crucial to our lives, making sure that everyone can see what’s happening becomes increasingly important.
We should be able to build a baseline structure of text in a way that works for most users, regardless of their eyesight. So, as a physicist by training, I started looking for something measurable.
It wasn’t hard to isolate the biggest obstacle to legible text: contrast, the difference between the foreground and background colors on a page. In 2008, the Web Accessibility Initiative, a group that works to produce guidelines for web developers, introduced a widely accepted ratio for creating easy-to-read webpages.
To translate contrast, it uses a numerical model. If the text and background of a website are the same color, the ratio is 1:1. For black text on white background (or vice versa), the ratio is 21:1. The Initiative set 4.5:1 as the minimum ratio for clear type, while recommending a contrast of at least 7:1, to aid readers with impaired vision. The recommendation was designed as a suggested minimum contrast to designate the boundaries of legibility. Still, designers tend to treat it as as a starting point.
For example: Apple’s typography guidelines suggest that developers aim for a 7:1 contrast ratio. But what ratio, you might ask, is the text used to state the guideline? It’s 5.5:1.
Google’s guidelines suggest an identical preferred ratio of 7:1. But then they recommend 54 percent opacity for display and caption type, a style guideline that translates to a ratio of 4.6:1.
The typography choices of companies like Apple and Google set the default design of the web. And these two drivers of design are already dancing on the boundaries of legibility.