Consider the following blocks of text.
Each says the same thing, lifted from an article about the Alabama Senate race. One, we suspect, you found easier to read. Namely, the lower one.
Why? For some specific reasons. The first is what’s called leading, the space between the lines of text vertically. (Pronounced like “led,” the term is a reference to a time when lead was used to space out the lines of text in a printing press.) The second block also includes a paragraph break, making it easier to separate out the ideas it includes, as you might list a phone number as 555-3226 instead of 5553226 to make it easier to remember.
That block also uses a typeface with serifs, the little ticks at the ends of the letters, like on this K. Why are they there? Because the serifs create a visual sense of a consistent line across the page (or, in this case, screen). It’s like writing on a sheet of lined notebook paper; the serifs act like lines in the background keeping your eye moving along the line.
The Post’s designers found a balance of leading and type that they think makes it easier to read the text in our articles. This is the art of typography, and it’s an important design consideration. After all, if you were faced with a Post article that looked like the Block 1, the odds are good that you wouldn’t actually read the thing.
So let’s now talk about the president.
On Friday morning, Nate Silver made an interesting point on Twitter.
Trump's 280-character Twitter is totally unreadable. It's completely neutralized his Twitter game. https://t.co/7OGSeN0mii
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) November 10, 2017
Silver was referring to this tweet, which uses Twitter’s recently expanded 280-character limit to share more text.
Throughout my travels, I've had the pleasure of sharing the good news from America. I've had the honor of sharing our vision for a free & open Indo-Pacific — a place where sovereign & independent nations, w/diverse cultures & many different dreams, can all prosper side-by-side. pic.twitter.com/qBOCY3u7YV
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 10, 2017
That tweet was one of a series from the president coupling a video of his speech in Vietnam with an excerpt of that speech. It is, indeed, a dull, uninspired tweet which, we can be confident, Trump himself did not write. (Why? Well, first of all, it’s … not very interesting. Second, the inclusion of a video from his speech is not the sort of thing that Trump’s pre-late-campaign tweets ever manifested.)
Silver’s tacit point is that not very many people were into that speech tweet. Getting 7,700 retweets (as of writing) is, for Trump, a bad tweet. (Before he ran for office, that would have been a lot of tweets for him; this one about Diet Coke from October 2012 got only 1,700 retweets.)
This one seems more like Trump, but is still awfully long.
I don’t blame China, I blame the incompetence of past Admins for allowing China to take advantage of the U.S. on trade leading up to a point where the U.S. is losing $100's of billions. How can you blame China for taking advantage of people that had no clue? I would've done same!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 9, 2017
Getting 25,000 retweets is more on par for Trump, but still not great. Contrast it with this one, from before the 280-character expansion.
NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 2, 2017
Granted, the subject matter of the latter is a bit more controversial, but Trump saying that it was all right to take advantage of Americans “that had no clue” is the sort of thing that, once upon a time, might have been a blockbuster.
You’ve already figured out where this is going. The 280-character tweets from Trump look a lot more like Block 1 in our example than Block 2. Viewed in a timeline in a browser, it’s hard to read in a different way: long lines of text in smaller type.
We are not typography experts. Brendan Griffiths, director of the MPS Communications Design program at the Parsons School of Design in New York, is — specifically in the context of designing for interactive platforms.
To get his assessment of the typography of the new, bulkier tweets, we asked him to consider this tweet from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
We expected (and ❤️!) all the snark & critique for #280characters. Comes with the job. What matters now is we clearly show why this change is important, and prove to you all it’s better. Give us some time to learn and confirm (or challenge!) our ideas. https://t.co/qJrzzIluMw
— jack (@jack) September 27, 2017
Griffiths wasn’t too hard on Twitter’s designers.
“Certainly I think that this is less legible than the historic iterations of the platform,” he said. “It could be probably a bit looser in the leading and it would become more legible.”
Part of this is specific to the expectations Twitter users have. Griffiths expressed his wish that the platform would return to an older iteration in which it was solely short blocks of text, making it easy to skim a lot of information at once. When Twitter introduced photos and videos and began including images with article links, that reduced the number of tweets that you could see on your screen without scrolling — a trade-off made in favor of more compelling content.
This new change results in big blocks of text that eat up more space and are less compelling. Even the workaround that users developed for including more text — embedding screenshots of articles — is better in one sense than the block of text in a 280-character tweet. After all, those images use text that, like our Block 2 above was designed by professional designers to be legible on the screen which is being captured and then shared.
Griffiths identified a more critical problem than leading: Lack of editing.
“This idea that now people have more space to write, so they’re spending less time chopping down what they would have written,” he said. That editing includes things like adding line breaks (the dash in the 555 -3226) to make it easier to skim. But it also means cutting out words. “Whose woods these are I think I know/His house is in the village though” vs. “The guy who owns these woods has about 200 acres in the area, but he actually lives down in Port Chester, on Main Street. John Smith. Works at the grocery.”
“Of course there’s that kind of human nature — any larger chunk of information is going to be more difficult to digest than something pithy,” Griffiths said. “That’s a reality for us and always has been.” In the case of Twitter, “the platform necessitates brevity, and when you take that away, it actually does become more and more difficult to parse what’s being said by an individual user.” The way in which people read Twitter — scrolling quickly through it — means that short blocks of text are more likely to be grasped as they zip by.
It was probably the case, he said, that bigger blocks of text were cutting down on the extent to which those tweets were being read. In other words, that Trump may actually be undercutting the effectiveness of his preferred platform.
Griffiths had a question for us, too.
“I mean, with all the stuff that’s going on right now, especially on a platform like Twitter,” he asked, “isn’t the typography the least of your worries?”
Well, yes, but it is a Friday on a holiday weekend and it’s an interesting question and, just: come on, man.