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The work of the Devil

On Twitter, @Fritinancy complains, “White type reversed on light-green background. Legibility #fail.”

Ms. Friedman, as she customarily is, is quite right. I have never understood designers’ infatuation with reverse type, especially—and The Sun has often been guilty of this—white body type on a black background. In addition to getting ink all over your hands, you cannot read the text.

Actually, it’s not only reverse type that indicates a designer’s cavalier disregard for the interests of the reader. As a Christmas or birthday present for my wife, I presented her with a copy of the 2004 edition of the Gourmet magazine cookbook.* The titles of the recipes are all in yellow type on a white background. Yellow on white, God save the mark. The damn thing has been on the shelf for years.

In the pursuit of elegant and striking and novel design, it is too easy to lose sight of the poor schlub who merely wants to be able to read the text. Reverse type is the work of the Devil.


*Yes, I hoped to benefit from the gift personally, in a series of excellent meals. Don’t tell me that your motives in gift-giving have always been disinterested.**

**And don’t tell me that it’s news to you that disinterested originally meant impartial rather than uninterested, and for some people still does. Read a few books.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:37 AM | | Comments (9)


Actually, I'm not sure that 'disinterested' does mean 'impartial' in your example. You certainly couldn't replace it with 'impartial'. Here it seems to mean something like 'without a self-serving motive'. Is there any reasonably succinct replacement for 'disinterested' in this sense?

Oh, be fair. There's a huge difference between white-on-black reverse type, which is OK if used sparingly and thoughtfully for non-body copy, and white-on-light-green reverse type, which is never OK (and not even aesthetically pleasing, making the example puzzling).

Of course, the main idea — that designers should design for readers — is spot on.

For online design disease there's a few easy workarounds:

In Firefox, go to "settings", then "content". For "fonts and colors" go to "advanced", set a font you find pleasant and a minimum size you still find very readable. Uncheck the "allow web sites to use their own fonts" (or words to that effect).

Now you will see every website - from New York Times to Slashdot, to Wired to whatever - in the same, legible font. And no matter what the designer tries to do, the size will never be smaller than the minimum you set for yourself.

For extra readability you can fix text and background colors as well, in a similar manner.

As for the wanton disregard for all of those designers' hard work and creative vision: I have this tiny violin that I will happily play the worlds saddest song on. Just say the word.

I'm afraid that it is news to me that 'disinterested' originally meant impartial. According to Merriam Webster and the OED, the earliest attested sense of 'disinterested' is as the opposite of 'interested'; 'uninterested' is not attested in this sense until over a century later. By the early 20th Century they appear to have settled down into the meanings that John prefers, but only for some speakers — who then complain that not everyone observes the same distinction that they do.

Sorry, John: I'd agree that you're right about contemporary educated usage, but the original sense it ain't.

Reversed-out type can work if you carefully choose fonts and point size, and make sure it comes off the presses right. But I often see it come out with poor results. A variant is light type on a darker background. That usually fails. In my file of bad design ideas is a brochure that was distributed for Washington's Cherry Blossom Festival a few years ago. Several sections of it had light-pink text on a darker, reddish-pink background. It was unreadable.

Hear, hear, John!

And the thing about reverse type: People with visual impairments struggle to make out text. Often contrast is an issue. When reverse text is thrown in the middle of normal (dark on light) text, everyone experiences a visual whipsawing, but it's especially debilitating to people who struggle with contrast.

Janne is right about the FireFox settings, but I'll bet you have trouble applying them to that cookbook. ;-)

Not to mention putting a screen on agate: Surely the work of one of the lesser demons, at least.

Making sure it comes off the presses right isn't always an option: fledgling newspaper designers in particular need to understand that reverse setting that looks OK in a heat-set magazine on coated stock won't necessarily survive when it's on ropey old newsprint thundering through a coldset litho newspaper press where the slightest misregister or ink spread may render it unreadable.

And on the question of visual impairments it's worth mentioning coloured type on a coloured background: blue on yellow, say, or coloured type overprinting a colour pic. Beware! Unless you understand the different kinds of colour blindness, don't even try it. A reader may be able to tell Stop from Go at the traffic lights and still not be able to read red type on a green background - however clear it may appear to the delighted designer.

It's not just because I'm as old as the hills that I have a nostalgic fondness for black type on a white background.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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