Are We Making the Web A Bit Bland?

The Internet consensus is that your blog’s design should represent your personality and voice. Perhaps Shawn Blanc describes this notion best:

First of all, when you read someone’s site you are imagining their voice. Not only is that voice influenced by the style of their writing, but also by the design of the site itself. Drastically changing the colors and fonts of a site can have serious impact on the reader’s pre-established and familiar voice of your site.

When I first started this site the body text was set in Georgia, a serif font, and I used Helvetica and Verdana in other spots, both sans-serif. Since that time I have moved to sans-serif and one single font across the entire site, save the logo. I have also changed the site logo, but the look and feel of the site has stayed pretty close to what it was on day one. Some readers were a bit bothered when I moved away from Georgia, but most of those complaints have trailed off since I made the switch.

It was important for me to make that change because by and large I am not a serif font type of guy. Most everything I do revolves around great sans-serif fonts and I wanted TBR to reflect that aspect of my personality — I wanted to stay true to who I am. I chose Georgia originally because I found it to be more readable that other options and I didn’t want TBR to be another site set in Helvetica. FF Meta WebPro came about after playing around with the font I found it to be just as comfortable for long reading and damned nice looking to boot.

Messing with Other People’s Sites

The other day John Gruber posted a link to a site that would not only allow you to change the color scheme and layout of his site, but also allow you to create a custom CSS file for any other site. I was a bit surprised he posted this to be honest with you — then listening to the latest episode of The Talk Show he and Dan Benjamin spoke about site design and what it conveys to them.

It would seem that everyone has a relationship with the way a writers site is designed — be it dark text on light backgrounds or light text on dark backgrounds. We get emotionally attached to these bits and channel that design while we read the articles. A site’s design helps to convey the message of the written words.

This is great, but what about people who never read the articles on the actual sites?

Making the Web a Bland Singular Voice

I am about to say something and I really don’t want it to be construed the wrong way because I love Instapaper with a passion. What I fear though, is that perhaps Instapaper, Reeder, Safari Reader, Readability, NetNewsWire, Google Reader, Flipboard, and any other app that allows you to read a site without seeing the actual site are starting to chip away at the personalities each site offers.

They are making the web a bit bland.

I am going to talk about Instapaper, solely because it is such a fantastic service that I use daily, I worry that it may be changing the way I ‘hear’ my favorite writers. Let’s go back to Daring Fireball and John Gruber for a bit, he has his site set to display a lovely dark gray background with light text over it, in a small sans-serif font face. However, when I read a post by John Gruber I am likely reading it in Instapaper with a white background and larger dark gray serif text (unless it is night time then reverse the colors — thanks for that by the way Marco), this is a stark contrast to the personality Gruber (and others) has decided to convey with their design.

Does taking the personality of the site’s design out of the equation make the material better or worse?

I never thought this mattered, but now I am starting to think that you lose something when you don’t read the content in the environment it was intended to be read in. I am not saying we should all abandon Instapaper and other services like it, but I am saying that we need to make sure we know what the sites we read actually look like.

I am not trying to pick a fight on some pedantic point — this stuff should matter. Imagine taking all of Apple’s stuff and selling it in a generic, bland, electronics store. Actually it looks like this, compared to this. 1

Sure the computers and writing are still great when they are out of their element, but it’s just not the same. Going to the Apple section of Best Buy is hardly as compelling as going to the Apple Store. I would spend an extra $20 is gas to buy a new Mac from an Apple Store over buying it in Best Buy.

Instapaper & Me

I have been thinking a lot about what that means for my love affair with Instapaper. Moving forward I am going to try and read most all content on the actual site it was written on, under the following conditions:

  • The site is not hideous.
  • I have a web connection (otherwise Instapaper on the iPad).
  • The article will take more time to read than it would take to open the page on the web starting from the iOS Instapaper app.

Basically I am going to read 100% of stuff in its native context when I do so on my Mac, and only read long form stuff in its native context on the iPad (the short stuff will remain in Instapaper).

My goal, or my hope, is that I get a better sense of who the writer is by doing this. I tested this out with Daring Fireball and Shawn Blanc’s site over the past few days (luckily both have been posting a lot lately). I wanted to see if I got a different feel from the same article if I first read it in Instapaper, then read it on their site and vice versa.

What I found is that both sites felt vastly different when read in Instapaper and not on the actual site. Perhaps this is in part due to the natural flaws in the experiment (meaning I was aware of the experiment), but I did not expect such a difference. After all I have been reading Shawn and John for a very long time and thought that I knew what they “sounded” like without needing to see their site.

This Would be Neat

Wouldn’t it be neat if Instapaper saved the site color and font information. Basically if in addition to pulling down the article text it also checked to see if the font was dark on light or light on dark and whether the site used serif or sans-serif on the body text? I think that would be a great comprise to helping readers maintain a semblance of the authors ‘voice’.

Just stop and think the next time you decide to read your favorite authors in a bland sterile environment.

  1. And that isn’t even the best picture one can find of an Apple Store, but probably the best one you can find of Apple in Best Buy.
Originally posted for members on: January 10, 2011
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