The positive side effect of big text: less text Jason 28 Dec 2005

25 comments Latest by Timur

Some think big is in while others think big is dumb. Others call big insulting:

But I wonder if we belittle users with visuals that implicitly say, “Hey, you’re too foolish to choose what to do next, so I’ve put a really big button right here just for you.”

Our take: Like everything, the key is moderation. Too much of anything is a bad idea. However, if you’re going to err on the side of bigger or smaller, I’d take bigger. Now I’m not talking 48 px type everywhere, but 14 px vs 10 px with the occasional big headline. Newspaper design has been around a lot longer than web design and they’re still sticking with big huge headlines.

And then there’s the positive side effect of big text: less text. The bigger the text the less you write and nearly every corporate website could use less words. Better words are more important than less words, of course, but less words would be a great start.

Paragraphs look taller dressed in larger font sizes which encourages writers to optimize the sentences and strip out the extra words that don’t add value. Small type sizes encourage people to write more than they need to to fill up the space.

How many times have you added a few extra words or sentences just to fill up the space? Words and sentences aren’t for filling up space, they’re for reading. When 150 words only takes up a couple inches of vertical space you don’t think twice. But if those words were to take up six inches then you’d have second thoughts.

If you’re going to add more or remove more, err on the side of removing more. At the very least it will force you to actually read what you’ve written (if you don’t read what you’ve written then you won’t know what to remove).

Happy better and less text in 2006!

25 comments so far (Jump to latest)

brad 28 Dec 05

Paragraphs look taller dressed in larger font sizes which encourages writers to optimize the sentences and strip out the extra words that don’t add value. Small type sizes encourage people to write more than they need to to fill up the space.

Very true. Back in the mid 1980s, the president of an organization I worked for insisted that everyone use Times 14 for correspondence—for exactly this reason. It worked. People wrote more concisely. There was a lot of resistance to it at first, Times 14 just looked WAY too big on the page, but eventually we all got used to it. I still like it, although I’ve since moved down to 12.

Tom 28 Dec 05

“Fewer” words! “Fewer”! “FEWER”!

Dan Boland 28 Dec 05

What the “everything is big” movement says to me isn’t that companies and websites are saying things more concisely, it’s that they have nothing to say in the first place. It’s as though a signup form is too small and therefore makes the page look too blank, so it’s made huge to fill in the space. Maybe that’s not the motivation for it in most cases, but that’s what it looks to me, under the guise of simplicity.

Darrel 28 Dec 05

I hope ‘readable’ and ‘legible’ are in.

“Less” has been used in the sense of “fewer” since the time of
King Alfred the Great (9th century), and is still common in that
sense, especially informally in the U.S.; but in British English it
became so rare that the 1st edition of the OED (in a section
prepared in 1902) gave no citation more recent than 1579 and gave
the usage label “Now regarded as incorrect.” The 2nd edition of the
OED added two 19th-century citations, and changed the usage label to
“Frequently found but generally regarded as incorrect.”

Ed Knittel 28 Dec 05

As a long established website with a PR of 8 and a blog with a PR of 7 it’s easy to see how 37 Signals can say less is more. While quality is a better long term measurement of success than quantity it’s hard to explain that to a client who is new to the web. In a world where “content is king” it’s important to remember that Google and other search engines aren’t concerned with the perceived quality of your content. They just want to see more relevant information on your website. That, combined with with a wealth of quality incoming links (usually due to quality content), helps the new guy move up in the lucrative world of ranked websites.

I do think it’s important to find a balance. People do read long, and lengthy articles - provided they are relevant and useful.

So, while it’s ambitious to ask for less text in 2006 I’d settle for better text right now.

Blake Scarbrough 28 Dec 05

I would have to agree that big is better. Moreover, big is better accessibilty-wise. Easier to read for those with vision problems—and I don’t mean the 2% of people but mainly the aging populous of the baby boomer generation. Just be prepared as we see more big and of course better copy.

Robert 28 Dec 05

In 2006, 〈blink〉 will be the new/old/new!

Jason G 28 Dec 05

What about “words” as a collective?

Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd ed. (1934), gave the usage label “now incorrect, according to strict usage, except with a collective; as, to wear less clothes.”

Jonathan Holst 28 Dec 05

I agree on your main point — if you could say something in fewer words than the current state, you ought to.

But (there is always a but) the font size should have nothing to do with your amount of words. Font size can always be adjusted, and if you make a redesign or something, it can look awful.

Say what you want to say, with the exact number of words and letters you need to do that.

Kathleen Fasanella 28 Dec 05

I can honestly say I’ve never written extra words/sentences just to fill up space, lol. I’ve also gotten into the whole “short posts are better” debate with other bloggers but I really think it depends on your voice, your audience and your topic. And maybe your passion too. Very few of my posts are under 150 words (only 3 in the last month). I’d consider a short post to be about 350-500 words because mine are usually long (750-1000 words). Still, about 18% of my visitors spend at least 30 minutes on site. Another 12% spend an hour or more. I’ve cultivated the in depth approach to posting but then, it suits my topic. Now my readers expect it.

pwb 28 Dec 05

“Fewer” words! “Fewer”! “FEWER”!

Tom, this has been explained several times already. They are taking some poetic license with the keyword “less”.

Per Melin 28 Dec 05

What the “everything is big” movement says to me isn’t that companies and websites are saying things more concisely, it’s that they have nothing to say in the first place.

And trying to give the impression that you have more to say than you do is killing most corporate sites.

I have done alot of usability testing for my clients over the past six years, and in probably four out of five cases I end up recommending less text. So far it has always paid off in terms of usability.

For example, if your users don’t understand (i.e read) the instructions, don’t add more, instead remove the fluff that drowns out what is important.

Darrel 28 Dec 05

Content is king.

Uh, not really. That’s like saying “product is king.”

What the customer wants is king. ;o)

Justin Reese 28 Dec 05

In a world where “content is king” it’s important to remember that Google and other search engines aren’t concerned with the perceived quality of your content. They just want to see more relevant information on your website. That, combined with with a wealth of quality incoming links (usually due to quality content), helps the new guy move up in the lucrative world of ranked websites.

Your second sentence is precisely my response to your first. The absolute best feature of your site is relevant, linkable content. That’s a timeless “PR-booster” that Google will never penalize. Any algorithmic deduction from “fewer relevant words” will easily be offset by incoming links, if you offer people a content-driven incentive for doing so.

Tom 28 Dec 05

pwb: If it really is intentional, if “less” really is being used as a jargon term unrestrained by the standard rules of English usage, they need to explain that explicitly somewhere (the post will doubtless be called “Less is fewer”) so that people can find it. As it stands, it just gives off an overwhelming stench of illiteracy, and every time they do it I can barely hold my breath long enough to get through to whatever message they’re trying to convey.

“Better text for 2006”? Yes please.

pwb 28 Dec 05

They’ve been doing the “Less is more” thing for quite some time so I think most viewers “get it”.

Does *everything* need to be explained? Sheesh.

Justin Reese 28 Dec 05

they need to explain that explicitly somewhere

Just out of curiosity, would you have searched for that post before making your comment? I can’t imagine anyone would. Really, I’m as pedantic as the next man, but understand the “less” terminology to be equivalent to Apple’s “Think different” campaign: a poetic appropriation of proper grammar.

Dan Boland 28 Dec 05

I think of the “less vs. fewer” debate as who fucking cares?!

Len 29 Dec 05

Great post.

The frist rule I set for posting news to the corporate site I maintain was a limited number of characters. It improved the quality of the information we published.

It exposed the difference between the good and the bad writers. Only the good writers were able to change the text to fit the bigger format.
So we got better text to publish.

D Scott Royall 29 Dec 05

There’s big, and there’s concise. The two may be linked, but not firmly. I notice that 37Signals likes things as brief as possible, and they do have a good point. Software is bloated. We can all cite examples of it, and it is an issue. Yet, the “Unix” approach doesn’t work for everyone, including me. If you are going to put something out there, whether it’s text or software, you still have to accomplish whatever you set out to do. I think the real secret is defining that goal correctly in the first place.

RyanA 29 Dec 05

I’d rather 100 words to 1,000 words to express something. The other 900 words are a waste of my time and may contain waffle waffle waffle. This is especially true of technical books. I.e. I’m focused on absorbing and understanding concepts and the ‘more text’ is just getting in my way (See ‘Introduction to Databases’ by C.J. Date… waffle waffle waffle. Ironically he expresses regret that his book has become so large, it’s beacuse it takes him 500 words to tell you that ‘the sky is blue’ pah).

And if a page has only 100 words on it. It makes more design sense to make it larger. Otherwise the client/boss will most likely tell you to ‘fill in the white space’ with graphics or more… words. Most deisgners I know can relate to this one!

John Koetsier 19 Jan 06

I have to echo what Per Melin says above: we just did a usability study on a calendar-creation site and as a result removed probably half the words. It was capital H hard, but very worthwhile.

Too many words, and people won’t even start reading … it just looks like too much. Only a few words, and they * will * actually * read * the * instructions * … as unbelievable as that may sound.

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