Internet Fonts Are Becoming Less Readable

The web is for everyone, if by everyone you only mean people with 20-20 vision.

If you find yourself squinting when you read tweets, news stories and search results, you’re not alone.

Kevin Marks, a software engineer, was so worried about the impact of faint fonts on his eyesight that he started keeping tabs on sites’ designs.

In an extensive survey, Marks found that thinner, light grey or blue typefaces had largely replaced bold, dark text on white backgrounds.

“There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter,” Marks writes in a Backchannel blog.

It might sound like a trivial issue, but as Marks notes, the web was always designed to be for everyone, no matter how poor your eyesight.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, wrote: “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”

Sam Edwards via Getty Images

In his mission to chronicle the trend towards lighter fonts, Marks turned to Apple’s typography guidelines – a sort of style bible for app developers.

In line with the Web Accessibility Initiative, it advises developers aim for a contrast ratio of at least 7:1 to aid visually-impaired readers, and a minimum 4.5:1 (21:1 is black on white, 1:1 is white on white).

But the text which delivers this imperative is itself 5.5:1 - far from the standard established for people with poor eyesight.

Marks finds that LCD technology is partly to blame for the trend, because higher resolutions have allowed developers to use lighter, thinner fonts.

But he disagrees with developers over which fonts are actually easiest to read.

Many told him that some studies indicate that pure black on white can actually strain the eyes.

Even the Typography Handbook, a popular guide to web design, warns against too much contrast on these grounds.

But Marks says that the problem lies in the gaps between how colour is coded, the image a screen displays and how different people see it.

In other words, developers use greys rather than blacks to make sure the text doesn’t put a strain on people’s vision, forgetting that the screen already dulls the contrast between hard black and bright white.

Marks writes: “Ignore the fads and go back to the typographic principles of print — keep your type black, and vary weight and font instead of grayness.

“You’ll be making things better for people who read on smaller, dimmer screens, even if their eyes aren’t aging like mine.”