Designing for Readability

I recently stumbled upon some cool stuff which isn't on DuckDuckGo and had a little time on my hands so I thought it would be a great time to finally update my blog. So then I loaded it up and saw how ugly both the styling and the code behind it were, must be time for a rewrite! [1]

Over the last few years since I last touched this blog post I have been growing more and more grey hairs by switching to vim for all my text editing and adopting plain text for basically everything due to it's portability and readability (especially LaTeX). So decided I wanted my blog to also plain text masterpiece with the design goals

I need to be able to read it

I have some difficulty reading a lot of typography, especially anything that's slabs of sans-serif text with weird contrast.

You need to be able to read it

Meaning it should be able to be viewed however the user wishes and just work, whether that be using firefox configured to use the opendyslexic font, in a terminal via curl, on a 3DS outside in direct sunlight, etc.

The source code needs to be readable

If I was going to write and edit posts directly in HTML, it needs to be logically laid out and look nice in any text editor with the content being the focus. Ideally the layout of the source code should closely resemble the layout of the resulting content.

So the solution here is to write everything in plain static HTML. Although there's 2 slight problems with that

  1. The HTML tag system can be very verbose, visually cluttering the source
  2. The default styling that modern browsers use is terribly unreadable

Content structure

I tried to keep the document structure as sane as possible, so things like using h1 for the title, h2 for the section headers and h3 for subsection headers. The only thing I did which might be seen as weird is not use in text hyperlinks and instead use references. I've decided that to keep things consistent, hyperlinks can only be used for site navigation (also because anchor tags are long and ugly). To add to that, I've decided to follow the Gopher and Gemini protocols in requiring that each hyperlink has it's own line for the reasons stated on the Gemini faq page: [2]

It encourages including only the most important or relevant links, organising links into related lists, and giving each link a maximally descriptive label without having to worry about whether or not that label fits naturally into the flow of your main text.

Fixing the default styling

I didn't want to have to use CSS, as ideally, how the content is displayed should be up to the user but default HTML is so unreadable I had to fix it.

First up pure black on pure white is blindingly bright so I adopted the colors used by the PaperColor vim theme. [3] (EDIT: I've strayed a little from the PaperColor themeing colors however the point still stands) I find light themes easier to read in general but they also have the advantage of being readable in a bright environment with lots of glare.

Secondly long, left justified lines of text is a nightmare to read, so first I set the maximum line width to 72 characters, because that's what Python's style guide, PEP8, recommends for blocks of text [4] and added some margins to center the text on the page.

Next, Mozilla recommends that line spacing is set to at least 1.5. [4]

	I use a lot of code samples in this blog and so to visually separate
	them from the rest of the content, they have a grey background and
	monospaced font

Yes that does mean that the contrast for code blocks aren't great but I personally don't find monospaced font on a white background anywhere near as offensive as serif or sans-serif font on a white background.

Finally I bumped the font sizing up to 1.2em as firefox (and I think most other browsers) default to a font size of 16px which isn't bad, but personally I find the ~18px size which 1.2em gives you a to be a bit more readable. Using em rather then a fixed px value means that the page will still respect the browsers font size setting if the user requires a larger or smaller font size. Also there's some CSS in there to fix oversized images as images don't respect the body max-width.

Everything else is left as default. Most importantly, the site will use whatever fonts the browser is configured to use meaning if the user prefers or requires certain fonts, that's what'll be used.

Abusing SGML

So my main goal for keeping the source code readable is to focus on how the content is presented and not have the HTML tags clutter the content. So I indented all the text and made it so that each tag was on it's own line. This way it's easy to ignore the html tags when reading the content. I also wanted to keep boilerplate code to a minimum as I'm not using a templating engine and it doesn't much value to the content.

Luckily HTML is an implementation of the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) and the SGML standard states that opening and closing tags which can be inferred aren't required in the document. An example of this is that in this page source, there aren't any head or body tags, yet a head and body section is still created by the browser when the HTML is being parsed. This is particularly handy because I didn't want more then a single line separating consecutive paragraphs for readability and I also didn't want to have to have more then one tag per line. Hence why there's no closing paragraph tags in the source.

For an example

	<!doctype html>
	<html lang="en">
	<meta charset="utf-8" name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0">
	<link rel="stylesheet" href="../style.css">
	<title>Cloud Bread</title>
		Cloud Bread
		Cloud bread brooklyn kinfolk, plaid ramps celiac tumeric chia
		authentic food truck. Ethical austin hashtag hexagon butcher,
		succulents tumeric tousled. Migas organic iceland disrupt
		shaman taiyaki master cleanse chambray, vice 8-bit ennui
		pitchfork kitsch hell of. Helvetica cornhole normcore
		portland. [1]
		Kickstarter gochujang aesthetic etsy lomo cloud bread put a
		bird on it. Enamel pin yr ethical, williamsburg letterpress
		squid craft beer vinyl gochujang offal snackwave jean shorts.
		Keffiyeh gastropub iceland four dollar toast prism organic.
		Blog Cronut
		Blog cronut snackwave, vinyl iPhone 8-bit meh trust fund
		unicorn sustainable cliche pitchfork. Keytar plaid snackwave
		palo santo lo-fi tumblr, raw denim everyday carry pug austin
		helvetica chillwave lumbersexual photo booth fingerstache.
		Published YYYY-MM-DD <br>
		Hayley Hughes &copy; CC BY-ND 4.0 
		<a href="../index.html">&lt;&lt; home</a>

Filler text courtesy of

Whilst it may not look like it at first glance when compared to the more conventional ways of writing HTML, this page is fully HTML 5 compatible and passes the W3C HTML Checker, [6] implementing many recommended best practices such as setting the charset and lang.


I hope I have inspired others to also take a closer look at the readability and accessibility of the content they create. Little things such as using a serif font or increasing the line heights can make a huge difference when it comes to making your content more accessible for everyone.