The New Yorker's online edition has recently been through a big redesign, focussing heavily on readability, as you'd expect. It's very gratifying to note their chosen article layout almost perfectly matches the recommendations of some interesting research we published four years ago.
We undertook a pretty comprehensive piece of research into screen readability as relates to common fonts used on the web. Called ‘TextPrefs’, the data from over 6,000 people was gathered using a specially-developed web application that asked people to adjust several important parameters relating to fonts and readability.
The Times New Roman they are a changin’…
Web fonts were not exactly mainstream when we carried out the survey, so we concentrated on popular fonts that were very widely installed on multiple operating systems. However, they covered a range of serif and sans fonts, so the lessons are pretty easily mapped to a broader spectrum of fonts.
For example, the New Yorker doesn’t use Times for body text, but their chosen font (Adobe Caslon Pro) bears a great deal in common with it. Caslon is certainly more refined, and it’s slightly thicker serifs are easier on the eye in my opinion.
One of the findings in our survey was that Times should ideally be set at a column width of 600px at 15pt, with a line-height value of 1.3 (i.e. about 20pt).
The New Yorker is set at about 640px wide column, in 15 pt serif text, with a slightly higher line-height value at 23pt, but this is probably due to their font's longer-than-usual descenders and ascenders.
Bigger isn’t always better
Much of this is down to what constitutes an acceptable ‘scan angle’. No-one wants to be turning their head back and forth like spectators at a tennis match. Early ‘responsive’ websites all too often made everything BIGGER without considering that people were still only sitting the same distance from their high resolution computer screens.
Column width is fundamentally important in terms of readability (and was, in fact, the issue that triggered the survey in the first place) and The New Yorker recognises this of course, with many decades of experience as a publisher of words. So they have effectively kept to a ‘fixed’ column width (except where mobiles and tablets are concerned).
Even in today's brave new world of unlimited web fonts and 'responsive' web design the findings still hold true: there are definite preferences when it comes to column widths, fonts and line heights.
Given how long ago we carried out this research I have to admit it was with some self-satisfaction that we realised just how relevant it still was. After all, when over 6,000 people tell you what they think you go against that desire at your peril.