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The screen mimics the sky, not the earth

October 20th, 2008

Like a forest or a garden or a field, an honest page of letters can absorbe – and will repay – as much attention as it it given. Much type now, however, is composed not for the page but for the screen of a computer. That screen can be alive with flowing color, but the best computer monitors have dismal resolution. When the text is crudely rendered, the eye goes looking for distraction, which the screen is all too able to provide.

The screen mimics the sky, not the earth. It bombards the eye with light instead of waiting to repay the gift of vision. It is not simultaneously restful and lively, like a field full of flowers, or the face of a thinking human being, or a well-made typographic page. And we read the screen the way we read the sky: in quick sweeps, guessing at the weather from the changing shapes of clouds, of like astronomers, in magnified small bits, examining details. We look to it for clues and revelations more than wisdom. This makes it an attractive place for the open storage of pulverized information – names, dates, library call numbers, for instance – but not so good a place for thoughtful text.

Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style v.3.1 [p.192-193]

By far, the best description of why reading on a computer screen is hard that I ever came across. And not only because beautifully poetic, but also because of the concise way he describes not only the usual argument (low resolution accentuates distraction) but also a relatively unheard one: the negative psychosomatic impact of back-lighting on critical thinking.

This second argument is new and interesting, but I can’t stop wondering if it’s innate or a learned behavior.

Either way, read this book if you ever cared about how to make the stuff you write easier to read.