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RE: Mail order catalogues was Re: Cognition Simulation

From: Charles F. Munat <chas@munat.com>
Date: Wed, 29 Aug 2001 03:52:39 -0700
To: "WAI GL" <w3c-wai-gl@w3.org>
If I didn't know better, I'd think this was a troll. I'm happy to respond,
however, because I'd like to clear up a few things.

For what it's worth, here are my views on text and graphics:

1. The more different ways we have to communicate the message, the more
people who will receive and understand that message.

2. Text is better with graphics/audio/video/etc. and
graphics/audio/video/etc. is better with text.

3. Writing comprehensible text is difficult. Most of us spend many years --
both in school and out -- practicing, and yet truly comprehensible text is
still uncommon.

4. Creating graphics, drawings, pictures, music, video, etc. is difficult.
Unfortunately, most of us have had very little training in these fields. Art
classes in school are not seen as very important. Many people actually get
through school without taking a single serious art class. By comparison, my
high school required four solid years of English (and writing skills were
stressed in nearly every other class as well).

5. Because the ability to write at least moderately well is widespread,
creating text content for Web pages need not be expensive. Most people
willing to make the effort to create a Web page can also manage to write
something reasonably comprehensible.

6. Because most people have no training in graphics, etc., most amateur
non-text content is awful. In my experience, the non-text efforts of most
amateur web site designers actually decrease comprehensibility more often
than they improve it. One very common example is the use of loud backgrounds
making text almost unintelligible. The background usually adds nothing to
the comprehension of the page, and significantly detracts from readability.
It's like writing on gift wrap.

7. On those sites that can afford professional graphics, the graphics often
detract from comprehensibility as well. The reason is simple: advertising
pays the bills. Advertisers don't want pages where the content outshines the
ads. So the ads are usually the flashiest -- thus the most distracting --
thing on the page. And as content becomes more interesting, the ads will get
still more distracting to compensate. Frankly, I think the best thing that
we could do for comprehensibility on most Web sites would be to outlaw ads.
But of course that will never happen.

8. Graphics tend to be more bandwidth-intensive than text. It is easy for
those of us in the First World to forget that many people in the Third World
do not have access to high-speed connections, or to the latest computers and
software. I lived in a Third World country. I know many people who are still
using 286 and 386 computers, some with DOS, some with early versions of
Windows (pre-95). Some have tiny 12" monochrome monitors. A 14.4k modem is
still commonplace there. And time on-line costs money. A 100KB page costs
five times what a 20KB page costs, both in money and time to download. That
restricts access. This *is* an accessibility issue. For this reason, it is
important to me that pages be as comprehensible as possible with *and*
without graphics, and that graphics be used judiciously.

This means knowing which non-text content will enhance comprehensibility,
and which won't. It means avoiding superfluous non-text content as much as
possible. My experience with most Web sites is that superfluous images are
the rule. For every www.peepo.com there are a million sites where images
were added solely for flash with no thought at all for comprehensibility.
The reason to add images (audio, video, etc.) should be -- to my mind -- to
enhance comprehensibility. Every image that does not add to the
comprehensibility of the page simply helps to deny that page to someone who
cannot afford fancy new equipment (or the on-line time to wait).

10. Regarding the WCAG, I think that it is very important that we stress
that non-text content be designed to increase comprehensibility, not just
added willy-nilly to make the page pretty. It will be a long time before the
rest of the world catches up with the First World. Let's not make it any
longer than it needs to be.

11. I also think that we need to provide techniques for making text more
comprehensible -- far more detailed than just "write clearly and simply." We
need specific techniques. What does it mean to write clearly? When is a
document simple enough? There are also issues of typography and layout. For
example, while serif text works better on paper, sans-serif seems to be more
readable on monitors. There is also the issue of line length and its
relationship to readability.

12. More importantly, we need *very clear* techniques for adding non-text
content. We need to discuss the basics of layout. We need to discuss things
such as the use of contrast to draw the user's attention; the idea of first
read, second read, etc.; the use of repetition to increase comprehensibility
(I'm talking about repeated visual elements here -- a part of consistency);
the use of proximity and white space to show relationships; the use of
alignment to show relationships; and much more. And from our basic
techniques, we need to link to other sites (if available) that give more
detailed instructions on how to design graphics, etc. that will be effective
and *small* (as in small file sizes). To encourage the use of graphics and
other bandwidth-intensive media without explaining how to use them
effectively (including minimizing file sizes) would be to do a disservice to
all those users who are, by reason of economics or geography, unable to
access bandwidth-intensive pages.

I'm not suggesting that we go overboard here, but we need to cover in
general terms the kinds of techniques that will be needed, and then link to
more detailed resources. I think that Jonathan's idea of a bibliography is a
good one (I assume he meant a bibliography, not that we create an actual
physical library). Of course, our bibliography should include works related
to the issues facing users with physical disabilities as well. I'm sure it
wasn't Jonathan's intent to suggest that our bibliography only consider
graphics issues.

Jonathan mentioned "The Art of Color" by Johannes Itten. This is a classic
and well worth reading. If you want a shorter version, you might check out
Itten's "The Elements of Color." At 96 pages, it's a good introduction to
color theory. Another great book is Josef Albers' "Interaction in Color."
There is a cheap paperback version out now with 10 color plates, but you
might try a library to see if they have the original hardcover with over 100
color plates. It's worth the effort.

Of course, no web developer's library should be without the superb Tufte
trilogy: "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information," "Visual
Explanations," and "Envisioning Information" by Edward Tufte of MIT.

Another book I really liked is "Creativity for Graphic Designers" by Mark
Oldach. It's an excellent discussion on idea generation, and it covers some
of the issues facing graphic designers when dealing with clients. And of
course, if you're interested in using graphic design in socially responsible
ways, look no further than the excellent Adbusters magazine from The Media
Foundation: http://www.adbusters.org/home/ .

Frankly, our bibliography would be incomplete without the classic text on
writing comprehensibly: "The Art of Style" by Strunk and White. Another good
work, sadly out-of-print, is Ernest Gowers' "The Complete Plain Words." And
everyone should read "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell
(available here: http://www.resort.com/~prime8/Orwell/patee.html ). Orwell
provides six simple rules for writing clear English (applicable to most
languages, I think):

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are
used to seeing in print.
2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you
can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It's a good start.

Finally, let me state for the record (archived here for all eternity):

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a commun- er, I mean, anti-graphics. I
do not now prefer, nor have I ever preferred, text-only pages. I am waging
no anti-graphics campaign; just the reverse: I am very much in favor of
multimedia Web sites -- provided that we consider the limitations of
currently available technology and that we use that multimedia effectively.

I don't see how I can be any clearer about this. If anyone is still confused
as to my thoughts and beliefs regarding these issues, please email me
off-list and I'll try again.

Chas. Munat

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Anne Pemberton [mailto:apembert@erols.com]
> Sent: Tuesday, August 28, 2001 1:35 PM
> To: Charles F. Munat; WAI GL
> Subject: RE: Mail order catalogues was Re: Cognition Simulation
> Chas,
>          What would *really* help would be for you to study the resources
> Jonathan posted. They aren't there just to look pretty in the
> archives!   They are there to help you understand the needs and how to
> address them.
>          Didn't you recently post a reference to a personal opinion that
> commercial graphic design is dangerous to Democracy? If your purpose in
> that post wasn't to continue your anti-graphics campaign, why was
> it posted?
>                                  Anne
> At 09:33 AM 8/28/01 -0700, Charles F. Munat wrote:
> >What *would* help to achieve that goal would be some actual design work.
> >When can you have a prototype ready for us to see?
> >
> >Chas. Munat
> Anne Pemberton
> apembert@erols.com
> http://www.erols.com/stevepem
> http://www.geocities.com/apembert45
Received on Wednesday, 29 August 2001 06:50:21 UTC

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