When the medium has no message

Here I go griping again. The last few columns must make me seem like a really miserable old curmudgeon. But now and again all of us need to let off steam; I’m just lucky to have a column so I can sound off publicly. Today I’ll climb back on the soapbox and deal with an issue some of you might remember from a previous column. 

It came to a head this time when I received a newsletter from a favourite charity. A few years ago, newsletters appeared as a communications tool to replace more costly magazines. Initially, they contained few if any pictures – just the plain facts with an easy-to-read font. In time they added pictures and colour, lots of colour. They began to look much like the magazines they replaced. The change occurred as computers made it easy for anybody to create pages; and they did so without the experience and training of the typesetters and commercial artists who had previously done the job. The results too often show it.

Maybe I’d better illustrate by returning to the newsletter that set me off on this tirade. It looked gorgeous. A full-colour picture filled half of the front page. A colour wash covered much of the rest of the page behind columns of typewritten material. I flipped through its few pages; again more pictures and colours. I held it at arms length thinking, “This looks great. Someone has an eye for colour.”

Then I tried to read it. The colours masked the words. The designer had chosen to use a small sans-serif font. A sans-serif font does not have the tiny additions called “serifs” at the end of strokes.

The fonts used by most book and newspaper publishers employ serif fonts, based on centuries of research that identifies font styles that most people find easiest to read. Not only did I have to struggle with a coloured background and an uncomfortable font, but the designer, to get more words on the page, had chosen a small type size. Those errors happen in many publications not assembled by professionals. To be fair, I understand why. The designers most often have young eyes. Many would not have even reached the bifocal age, and it just does not occur to them that the majority of readers do not have perfect eyes. 

The outcome of my interaction with the newsletter: I threw it away without reading it. Large numbers of other intended readers would also run into difficulty and frustration. That results in a so-called communication tool that fails to communicate.

Not only has this become a problem with newsletters, it also makes many websites hard or impossible to read. When I find one with problems, I simply move to another site. My son, who has been involved in the communications field all his working life, describes that problem as “form over function.”

The creators of newsletters and websites care more about what things look like without paying attention to their communication properties. So, now that I have griped about it, what can you do? Let the publishers of websites and newsletters know you have difficulty reading them. Eventually, they might get your message – even if you don’t get theirs.


Ray Wiseman