Typography can make or break your site. It should not only look nice, but most importantly it should read well. And thus you are using short lines, right?
Wrong! And I’ll tell you why. I’m using some scientific sources to prove my point, you’ll find the references at the end. A link to the source is present when publicly available.
We’re talking about lines here, not sentences. It’s about the amount of characters that fit on one single line before the sentence will continue on the next. A “longer” line is one that holds more characters.
The main argument why the “expert” in favour of less characters per line is wrong resides in the reading speed. The influence of line length on reading speed is confirmed by Dyson en Haselgrove (2001) in “The influence of reading speed and line length on the effectiveness of reading from screen”.
Earlier research from Duchnicky & Kolers (1983) and Dyson & Kipping (1998) had already shown that longer lines, containing 75 or even 100 characters, are read significantly faster than shorter lines. And more recently “The Effects of Line Length on Reading Online News” by Shaikh (2005) shows again that line length has a significant influence on reading speed. Articles containing lines with 95 words were clearly read faster than articles with 35, 55 and 75 words per line.
Still not convinced? Already in 1999 a test was performed by Youngman and Scharff (1999) with a 12 point font on 10, 15 and 20 cm lines. Which line was read the fastest? Yes, that one.
After establishing that longer sentences are a faster read, let’s have a look at the comprehensibility. Reading well is more important than reading fast. What effect does the length of a line have?
Well… Shorter lines are not easier understood. In fact, the length of a sentence does not influence the comprehension of the reader. (Dyson & Kipping, 1998; Shaikh, 2005)
If your goal is to provide the reader with a text that he can read efficiently and effectively, the long sentence should be preferred. But why are shorter lines often recommended? The argument is that our eyes are very inefficient when moving to the next line. A shorter distance between the end and start of a line should aid the efficiency, resulting in higher readability.
These researches show that while the first part is true, the second is not. Therefore longer lines have the advantage as they require less switching from start to end.
Now for the interesting part. Contrary to the advantages as found through scientific research, your reader prefers to read short lines. (Dyson, 2001; Youngman & Scharff, 1999).
This makes the decision between long and short lines an interesting paradox.
Why? Your first objective is to get the reader interested. Make him or her at ease. So you should address the preferred option, even though it is less efficient.
But then another factor becomes important. Do you know a patient reader? If it takes too long to read the text: TL;DR. Therefore you should address the need of your reader to read the text efficiently. Use longer lines! Research indicates an optimum length of 100 characters per line for efficient reading.
Use your typography to engage your readers. Address their needs by choosing the appropriate amount of characters per line. Good typography is the base for every good design. Microsoft has realised this and applies that to the Metro interface and even Apple’s latest iOS7 has increased the importance of typography at the expense of visual effects.
Would you consider using different line lengths throughout your website? Or would you simply neglect the scientific arguments for longer lines and solely focus on the preference of your reader? Tell me in the comments!
Duchnicky, J.L. and Kolers, P.A. (1983). Readability of text scrolled on visual display terminals as a function of window size, Human Factors, 25, 683-692.
Dyson, M.C. and Haselgrove, M. (2001), The influence of reading speed and line length on the effectiveness of reading from a screen, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 54, 585-612. (link)
Dyson, M.C. and Kipping, G.J. (1998), The effects of line length and method of movement on patterns of reading from screen, Visible Language, 32, 150-181. (link)
Youngman, M. and Scharff, L. (1998), Text width and margin width influences on readability of GUIs.
Shaikh, A.D. (2005),. The effects of line length on reading online news, Usability News, 7.2 (link)
Shaikh, A. D. and Chaparro, B. S. (2004). A survey of online reading habits of Internet users. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 48th Annual Meeting, 875-879. (link)