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[Digital Simplicity] Why font matters in an era of multiple digital screens


I had nearly perfect vision. I had no problem reading fine print. I was able to read paperbacks whose font size was deemed too small for average readers. I often read books on the bus or in rooms with poor lighting, which would surely make eye doctors frown. But I was fairly confident about my excellent vision, and I enjoyed the privilege.

I bet you have already noticed that in the previous paragraph I used a past tense about my eyesight. As with many other middle-aged people, my eyesight began to deteriorate quickly when I passed the age of 40. Increasingly, I found it difficult to focus on objects up close and read small fonts.

The embarrassing issue with my eyesight was a result of “presbyopia,” the gradual loss of my eye’s ability to focus on nearby objects. That presbyopia is a natural part of aging did little to ease my concerns. Since reading books, magazines and newspapers is a crucial part of my life and career, my deteriorating eyesight causes more than simple annoyances.

Just imagine that you work as an editor at a newspaper but have trouble reading and editing news articles because the font used in the paper is too small for you. In another, real-life instance, you might be deeply disappointed and have felt helpless when you discovered that a new novel by your favorite author is formatted in a miserly font size that makes it difficult to read.

I am not arguing that all books, magazines and newspapers should be published in big fonts so that they are legible specifically for those with poor eyesight. My point is that publishers should pay attention to the accessibility issue linked to eye health in general and explore more options in font for readers in particular.

There is a strange irony. Greater digital screen exposure leads to poor eyesight, which in turn results in more screen time. As we are exposed to multiple screens at home and in the workplace, we are letting digital devices harm our precious eyesight and eye health. Unfortunately, poor eye health makes people spend more time reading texts through digital devices, because they allow users to adjust font size freely.

I began to use e-book readers such as Kindle several years ago because dedicated e-readers, armed with reflective display called “E-Ink,” are thought to be easier on the eye. But I am not so sure about their eye-related superiority over digital devices with LCD displays. I spent thousands of hours reading digital books on specialized e-readers, tablet computers and smartphones, but I did not feel any meaningful difference in terms of eye fatigue between the devices.

The more important feature than E-ink, at least for me, is whether a device can provide more font and page-formatting choices so that I can adjust reading format to reduce eye fatigue as much as possible.

An intriguing sign for the growing public desire to protect eye from digital screens is the surging popularity of “dark mode” that is fast being integrated into apps, operating systems and user interface.

Both Apple and Google have introduced dark modes for their smartphone operating systems and even social media such as Twitter let users change the background colors of the apps into black.

The proponents of dark mode theme claim that it improves visibility in low light and reduces eye strain, but there is still a dearth of scientific evidence supporting the purported advantages. What’s certain, though, is that more people are concerned about the impact of digital devices on eye health and any new technology in digital user interface that helps protect eyesight will be readily and widely adopted.

When I was working on the interface design for the current version of The Korea Herald website, I strongly argued for a bigger-than-average font, plus customization options that allow readers to adjust font size more freely.

As for paper-based newspapers, the main group of readers are now estimated to be in their 40s to 60s, the very age group finding smaller print uncomfortable. This is why Korean newspapers are subtly increasing the font size for their print versions. The Korea Herald might follow suit. I cannot say exactly when, but you might see this column in a bigger font in the foreseeable future.

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)

Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.
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