Line length

Irene Anne Eckstrand IAE at CU.NIH.GOV
Tue Jun 11 14:43:49 EST 1991

Attached (and slightly edited) are some comments made by Dan
Wheeler about constructing messages for electronic communications.

irene eckstrand
iae at

I have some professional background in visual cognition and a
strong amateur interest in graphic design.  There is a consensus
about some of the issues involved in page layout.

First, on line length.  Long lines DO make text harder to read.
When the eye moves back to the beginning of the line, you are more
likely to lose your place if the line is too long.  Designers can
compensate for long lines by increasing the spacing between
lines.  But the major method for dealing with wide pages is to
use multiple columns.  Neither spacing nor multiple column
formatting are usable tools given the current state of email

Second, on white space.  (It is white space on a printed page.
On my screen it is blue space.)  Large blocks of solid type are
difficult to read.  There should be margins around the text.  It
helps to leave blank lines between paragraphs.  It is NOT a waste
of paper or screen space to leave some of it blank.

Third, on all caps.  Material in ALL CAPS is more difficult to
read.  The variations in letter shapes and word shapes are
greater in the lower case alphabet, making them easier to
recognize.  The convention of regarding all caps as "shouting" in
electronic communications is a good one from the point of view of
readability and design.

Finally, graphic designers always design for the reproduction
system that is going to be used to distribute the work.  I assume
that most communications are going to be displayed on a
screen showing at most 25 row of 80 characters and printed on
fixed-pitch printers at either 10 or 12 characters per inch.
This will change, but for now I regard these as the
characteristics for which my electronic work should be designed.
The people with systems capable of displaying proportionally
spaced fonts with high resolution are also those people who can
reformat text easily to make it look any way they want.

So specifically, here is what I do:

1)      I use a line length of 65 characters.  This leaves what
        I regard as reasonable margins on an 80-character screen.
        This also gives 1 inch margins when printed on a 10 pitch
        printer with an 8.5 inch wide piece of paper.  I regard
        anything over 72 characters as too long for the output
        devices in most common use.

2)      I leave white space.  I put blank lines between
        paragraphs and use indentation where appropriate.  For
        instance, these paragraphs could have been done as
        numbered, but not indented.  But using indentation adds
        white space, creates variation in appearance, and serves
        to direct attention to these points.

3)      I write in shorter paragraphs when I write for email
        distribution.  The reader ought to be able to see at
        least a full paragraph at once.  I try not to write
        paragraphs that are longer than about 2/3 of a screen.
        When I write something for paper distribution, I feel
        free to write much longer paragraphs.

                          Peace,  Dan

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