Why your snazzy PDF report looks like *%$# on my desk

by Maria on March 3, 2014

I have endless important topics I need to, should and must blog about, not least the fact that I was in Crimea some time back and am currently glued to the radio, thinking very hard about it and not sure quite what to say. But anyway, I hope this post may end up being useful to somebody, somewhere, sometime.

Right now, I’m doing a lot of what consultants term ‘desk research’. That is, I read a lot of stuff on the Internet, must of it about technical topics. Every now and then, some person or organisation I admire collects a lot of information into a report they are really proud of – and which looks incredibly useful to me – and I think ‘that is so good I’m going go ahead and read the whole thing.’ And that’s when the nuisance begins.

Look, I am old. Or what to my parents’ generation was called middle-aged, anyway. (When I was a teenager, women my current age wore scarves to protect their weekly set.) When I am very interested in something I’m reading on the Internet, I print it out and scribble, underline and write things on it. That’s what we old-timers do. Actually, I think that’s what most people still do when they want to ‘engage with a text’, and it’s why despite being a crazy-early adopter of Kindle type devices, I haven’t used one in over five years. (But I am grateful to e-readers for finally liberating me from the fear that scribbling on books and bending down their corners is desecration. It may also be my own mortality that causes me to mark things I am reading, as a none too subtle note to myself that it’s the only literary mark I am likely to make. Also, it helps me to remember later on that I’ve read something and even what I thought of it.)

Anyway, back to the PDFs of the useful and improving reports on matters technical or technocratic (it’s all the same in my world, that of Internet policy). The problem is, the people who produce these reports – and I am not naming names, because that would be ungrateful and the reports really are great, just unreadable – are so thrilled or relieved to finally get them out the door, they whip up something that looks great on the screen and just publish it to the Internet where saps like me download it and print it out at our own expense. Now I am happy and delighted to print this stuff at my own expense. It’s the ability of organisations to externalise this cost that makes it possible for many more people to get their stuff. But the wonderfully unbounded nature of online dissemination also stops those people from thinking about the reality and cost to their readers of actually printing and reading their work.

Probably back in the olden days when the world wide web was new, people would whip up something that looked great in print, put it online without doing anything else, be underwhelmed by the response and then sit through hours of expensive, off-site design seminars being told that is a totally wrong way to go about online publishing and the reason we can’t have nice things. Now the problem is kind of silly, really. People design documents that look great on a screen, publicise and publish it online, and send out to the home and office printers of the world an offering whose form is so irritating it detracts from the content.

So here is my free, in-your-own-time design seminar about what not to do when you hit ‘upload PDF’ to your website. I am sure that CT readers can add to this list:

Don’t for the love of God include pages of solid colour, e.g. the back cover or internal dividing pages to mark the end of the section. My colour toner is EXPENSIVE and has run out twice in the past 2 weeks printing out a couple of dozen ‘design features’ such as a page of blue or a page of orange. They add NOTHING to the prettiness of your report and just make me angry as I scroll through the print preview and think ‘there goes another twenty quid to Kodak / HP / etc.’

Do not use yellow for type face. Seriously! I can’t believe an amateur like me is begging document designer people to Not Use Yellow Writing, something every eight-year old knows. It is unreadable when printed out. Frankly, it’s not that great on a screen, either. I’ve just gone through a 100 page document where every heading, table title and even the page numbers were in yellow. I have now gone officially blind and it didn’t happen in the fun way.

Put the page numbers all back on the right hand side. Sad but true, most of us cannot indeed print double-sided. Or just stick them in the middle why don’t you. Fine. But alternating left to right left to right as I re-assemble documents that the printer has sprayed on the floor is not fun. Especially when they are yellow.

Please, please please consider making a version that doesn’t include a dozen photos of people around a computer / children in a classroom looking happy. Stock photography is also pointlessly expensive to print.

OK it doesn’t have to look as flamboyantly style-less as an IETF RFC - making those things doubly unreadable. But please just give a little thought to the individual – and she or he is a rare one, and deserving of consideration – who actually wants to read the whole thing.

Other suggestions?



Elizabeth 03.03.14 at 6:45 pm

Glad to see a post on this topic. I would only add that it’s not just yellow type that’s a problem, but pale type in all colors. Right now, pale gray seems to be fashionable; hard to imagine who thinks this is legible.


Maria 03.03.14 at 6:47 pm

Oh yes! I forgot to mention the pale grey. In the offending document I have in mind, it was in places alternating yellow and pale grey text. Will no one think of the children?


Ed 03.03.14 at 7:00 pm

While I totally agree, a cheap monochrome laser printer ( I have used one from Brother brand for many years) has a consumables cost of closer to 1¢ per page – i.e. a $60 toner cartridge will print 6000 pages.


The Temporary Name 03.03.14 at 7:04 pm



I never have to do it so I don’t know what the best thing on offer is, but it seems tons of people LOVE dissassembling PDFs. Somewhere out there is a text-extraction widget that will make life easier.


DaveL 03.03.14 at 7:05 pm

I love a good rant critical piece. Thank you.

I would amend your suggestion regarding page numbers to add as a preface: “Put page numbers on your document.” In fact I’d go further: “Put some sort of identifying header or footer on your document.” I’m continually amazed that people don’t do that.

As for color, I agree completely, but don’t you have access to a b&w printer? If you are spending a lot on color cartridges, it might be cheaper to just buy a cheap b&w printer if you don’t have one. Also, some color printers have drivers that let you use only the black ink even if you are printing a color document. (With apologies to Edward Fitzgerald, “I often wonder what the cartridge makers buy / One tenth so precious as the stuff they sell.”)

Also, never turn off the feature of PDF docs that lets you copy from them.

Also also, if you have a PDF form, make the form elements editable or please, as the kids say, “DIAF.”


mikebdot 03.03.14 at 7:06 pm

Use Adobe Reader X instead of printing them out? You can highlight and mark-up. And then it has a list of the mark-ups? Shoot, even a paid for application for marking them up would pay for the toner costs. You should consider it at least.

Which is to say, dude, you ARE old!


Chris Bertram 03.03.14 at 7:23 pm

1. You are not old. I am old.

2. I’ve managed to make the transition to reading it all on an ipad. Not that it is ideal, but I think that the real problem is printers. They are ridiculously expensive to operate, they drink some colours of ink and declare others “expired”, they jam, they declare themselves jammed or “offline” without discernible explanation. In short, dealing with them is too frustrating and time-wasting. I couldn’t bear printing off the endless pdf of academic papers (black and white) I have to look at every week, so ipad it is: though the screen reflection/glare is a pain.


adam.smith 03.03.14 at 7:27 pm

I do like printing out stuff. I think stuff should look nice printed out. But:
– why on earth print out in color? Just set your printer to greyscale. If your printer can’t do that (and I’d be surprised if that really still exists) it may be time for a new one.
– why can’t most of us print double-sided? A black&white laser printer with double-sided printing is less than US$100. If you print a lot of reports this would seem to be a wise investment both economically and ecologically.

More generally, the problem is that these reports often have a dual function: They are used as glammy presentable publication, not least to potential donors or customers – who get the shiny professionally printed version (I very much doubt these are screen optimized. If you screen optimize something you don’t make it a PDF) – and they’re printed by folks like you and me. It’s surprisingly hard to set up a system that produces nice versions for both. And since it’s the former class that brings in the money, that’s the one that gets the effort.

There is no excuse for yellow headlines, though. Ever.


JW Mason 03.03.14 at 7:28 pm

The Kindle DX was ideal for reading pdfs. Unfortunately they stopped making them for some reason.


MPAVictoria 03.03.14 at 7:41 pm

I used to work with a gentleman who would print out all of his emails.

Odd that.


JW Mason 03.03.14 at 7:41 pm

… oh hey, looks like Amazon started selling them again, and cheaper.


Chaz 03.03.14 at 8:01 pm

It should be really easy with a decent word processing/publishing application to provide both a spiffy photo-filled presentation and a spartan text version. Just swap templates. The full color pages and whatnot would just be a divider feature in a fancy template; the equivalent in the spartan template would be a blank page or a line.

Unfortunately when I say “decent” that does not necessarily mean commonly used. Microsoft Word’s “styles” flat out don’t work as far as I can tell. But Powerpoint’s templates work okay, and LibreOffice styles seem to work well too. I don’t know about publishing software; if it’s from Adobe I would assume it’s terrible. Latex or HTML/CSS do this the best of all, but the sacrifice in usability is great.


adam.smith 03.03.14 at 8:27 pm

@Chaz – InDesign is actually very versatile and allows for a lot of custom scripting. Publishers are using just that to produce ebooks. But it takes not insignificant effort to set up initially and my guess would be that most shops putting out reports aren’t interested in investing in that effort.
LibreOffice is of course just as useless as Word to produce anything looking vaguely professional. LaTeX is probably the set-up best suited to give you different versions of the same publication for different purposes, but setting up LaTeX so something looks professional beyond the typeset – especially if you’re interested in having nice illustrations, pretty pics in the background etc. – isn’t exactly trivial, either. I’m relatively familiar with those issues because one of my closest friends runs a (very successful) business consulting publishers on automated workflows. And the gist of it that it absolutely can be done and is much harder than one may think it should be.


Maria 03.03.14 at 8:34 pm

It is also true that I am older than some, younger than others, and several of the problems I raise are just as much printing problems as design ones.


The Raven 03.03.14 at 8:35 pm

You forgot to mention color-dependent graphics, which some people cannot read at all, and which do not show up on a Kindle DX, which Amazon is again producing.

Me, I write in HTML or some just-above-HTML format, and then output in two formats: HTML and PDF. So there’s two versions. The pro version of this is to use Adobe InDesign, but that takes a lot of learning, and a lot of work. It can, however, produce genuinely beautiful text and graphics, which is insanely difficult in HTML.

As a graphic designer, however, this doesn’t work at all. It takes expertise to produce graphics that look good on screen and on paper, and for paper the smallest graphic I want to deal with is usually 11×17, which most people can’t even print.


Warren Terra 03.03.14 at 10:21 pm

RE all the suggestions that you should obtain a color printer:
I think it’s possible to adjust your settings in the “Print ..” dialog so you’ll print out the document black-and-white, whatever the authors specified. This might save a bit (and might not save so much, if black toner costs as much per pixel as each of the colors do). Sadly, it won’t help with faint text, could be actively problematic if someone never got over the esthetic inexplicably promoted by Wired twenty years ago and put their text over images, and will make many charts unreadable.

Ah, for the days when people grew up encountering page charges, and you had to justify all uses of color …


Colin Danby 03.03.14 at 10:27 pm

I’m happily making the transition to tablets despite my advanced years, but the excellent suggestions in the OP would make documents better on screens too.

To turn the question around: is there available out there a good list of things you should do, with examples of really good pdfs?


The Raven 03.03.14 at 10:30 pm

I am thinking that we really need to teach document design as part of frosh comp.

The terror!


GiT 03.03.14 at 11:06 pm

Hm, everyone ought to be able to double-sided print. Just a matter of printing even pages then odd and making sure you feed the pages back in with the proper orientation (usually just take the stack and put it back in the tray text side up, upside down relative to you when standing in front of the printer). Though if you’re dealing with ink-heavy stuff this could go wrong. But for b&w text, no problems.


mollymooly 03.03.14 at 11:14 pm

I assumed Maria knows how to print in greyscale; the problem is that yellow-on-blue (say) prints as grey-on-slightly-different-grey.

I have this problem printing out web-based maps. The promising printer icon usually conceals not a wonderful screen-to-paper contrast-optimisation-conversion engine, but rather a dumb WYSIWYG image dumper.


Dave W. 03.04.14 at 12:08 am

I will second @Raven #15 – I’ve had to print out some papers recently where there were references in the text to specific colors in the figures. Printing those in greyscale really doesn’t help you figure out which are the purple rectangles in the figure that the text is referring to.


Tzimiskes 03.04.14 at 2:06 am

There should be a rule that any publication aspiring to be taken seriously should be dual published in the glitzy format and text only, with graphics, tables, and other special presentation tools put in an appendix.

Since most of this stuff is written first as text before formatting it wouldn’t be difficult to do and would be a great public service.


shah8 03.04.14 at 2:28 am

Maria, lovely meeting you, but if I might be a youthful cad…perhaps get an Ipad and throw away your printer?

Oops, my first instinct is repeatedly said….

Well, to contribute something new, I don’t think all black is viable, given chart data and other visual information that may well have a material need for color printing.


P.M.Lawrence 03.04.14 at 3:03 am

Since we are talking about communication style, this may not be completely off topic…

I can see what you are doing with that “she or he” right at the end there, being gender neutral while removing the apparently arbitrary or biassed prioritisation of the male in “he or she”.

The thing is, there is actually a sensible reason for that, so I thought I ought to let you know it for future reference. Consider the following similar stock terms in common use:-

- “men and women”;

- “Dear Sir or Madam”;

- “ladies and gentlemen”.

The first two contain the same apparent bias, but then the last reverses that, apparently arbitrarily. But those and “he or she” do actually have a common pattern: in each case, the shorter term appears first. I have been informed that there is a style reason for this, much the same as in grouping related bullet points with the shorter ones earlier (as I did just above, without consciously intending it): it gets the general theme over at an earlier stage. That’s no big deal with things that are short anyway, but I thought you might like to know why the convention does have some sense to it after all.


William Berry 03.04.14 at 3:15 am

Don’t know about other e-readers, since I haven’t used them, but the iPad is an outstanding pdf formatter. It gives you an “open in iBooks” option for pdf’s which creates a perfect e-book (unless original pagination is important, of course; the iPad pagination changes acccording to the highly variable font sizing, and would almost never correspond to the original).

Use a wireless network printer. Save the color ink by printing in gray-scale “everyday” quality (which is very good on a decent printer). Alternatively, use a laser-jet, as mentioned earlier in the thread.

Even with colored graphs, the gray-scale should not be a problem. There is a natural variance in color saturation in computer-generated colors (at least with the basic colors that would be used in a decent graph) that translates very well into distinct mono-chrome shading.


shah8 03.04.14 at 3:20 am

Many types of graphs do not display well without colors. There are also photographs, and anything that challenges the contrast, say, lots of different lines on a line chart, will be hard to see without color because you’ll need to actually tell the difference between maroon and indigo…


ezra abrams 03.04.14 at 3:25 am

PDFs are bad enough (1)
but websites are even worse:
on the website of a company that sells expensive, esoteric reagents, mostly liquids, for biotech, for each catalog item there is a picture: not a picture of the item, but a generic picture of three glass bottles, and that same picture is next to items that are *not* liquids.
I could go on a long time about the basic, grade school fails on websites; I have lost track of the times I have emailed a for profit company, and said, about thiss mispelt wordd – you do know there are *free* spell checkers ?

1) I got i a “marketing” email about esoteric lab equipment, from a major company recently. Attached was a pdf, which had a table that you couldn’t read
I sent the company an email complaining about the illegible text, and the sales/marketing person actually wrote back, yes, you can’t read the print version, when we need to refer to the table, we blow up the ecopy.


William Berry 03.04.14 at 3:49 am

Shah8 @26:

Unfortunately, largely true, but, all-too-often, the problem is, I think, piss-poor graph design, which is pervasive, even in my area of technical (chemical) work, where you’d think the mathematally-inclined would be better at it.

To re-phrase the above: Almost any well-designed graph should print reasonably well in mono-chrome.


adam.smith 03.04.14 at 4:09 am

To re-phrase the above: Almost any well-designed graph should print reasonably well in mono-chrome.

word. But of course designing well takes time (or money).


Belle Waring 03.04.14 at 4:13 am

Hey, do you guys want to know what I’m thinking about P.M. Lawrence right now? Anyone? Fuck him or her for his/her condescending, irrelevant put-down of the author of this post. [I'd like to note that while the two words divided by the slash, much like him/her, are of equal length and could, according to the rules outlined so thoughtfully above, be put in either order, they remain in the order they acquired in the nominative case as it is tidier and there is nothing a grammarian loves like tidiness. And being a dickhead, but mostly tidiness.]

P.M. Lawrence, if you are at all inclined to complain that you were not being hostile, but merely helpful, may I direct your attention to this sentence? “That’s no big deal with things that are short anyway, but I thought you might like to know why the convention does have some sense to it after all.” This explicitly presumes Maria did not know the ‘original reason’ for the traditional his/her alteration. (Further, it’s false a matter of actual fact that this was the reason, but let’s never mind that.) Then, having assumed she is going about her business in ignorance, you take it upon yourself to correct her in what can fairly be described as the most patronizing tone possible.

And this–all this!–you managed to get out of a post…by a woman…with reasonable complaints…about the print quality of PDFs. You have been awarded an honorary PhD in Mansplainatory Studies from the University of the Isle of Guy. I’ve never given anyone anything higher than an MA based on a single comment before, sir, so bravo. Well done, my good man.


Zora 03.04.14 at 6:19 am

If you are going to use InDesign to create ebooks, radically simplify your document before pressing the export button. Otherwise you end up with a bloated .css file full of specifications that make no sense on ereaders and will be ignored in favor of the ereader’s defaults.


ink 03.04.14 at 9:24 am

Face it: the default page design of reports will become less and less tailored for print and there is nothing you can do about that. However, there are plenty tools that let you on the fly make the text more printer friendly before actually printing.

For pdf reports or other files on your computer use software like FinePrint and PriPrinter to remove and change page elements in various ways. FinePrint will also aid you in double-sided printing on any printer.

For web pages there are many tools that simplify a page for reading. Pocket is handy. Or try the Firefox add-on Readability.


Sean Matthews 03.04.14 at 10:07 am

Edward Tufte has said some good and some not so good things. One of the good things is to suggest that a valuable metric of presentation quality is the density of information relative to ink expended (not that anyone where I work understands this).


Scott Martens 03.04.14 at 11:58 am

Beware of font issues on screen. My dissertation uses a beautiful typeface that prints brilliantly and looks like crap on screen. Stick to the holy trinity: Helvetica, Times, Courier.


Scott Martens 03.04.14 at 12:00 pm

BTW, what is a “weekly set” and how does a scarf protect it?


Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 03.04.14 at 1:12 pm

Allow me to second the recommendations for a laser printer. I purchased a duplex black and white laser printer (from Brother) and it’s been one of my best investments. Ink-jet printers were a terrible detour in computers.


DaveL 03.04.14 at 2:11 pm

MPAVictoria @10: “I used to work with a gentleman who would print out all of his emails.”

I can beat that! I used to work with a “gentleman” who would have his admin print out all his emails and bring them to him.

Sam @36: I’ll third the recommendation for a laser print. We have an all-in-one b&w (print/scan/copy) wireless printer from Brother and I love it. We also have a horrible cheap Dell color inkjet that I loathe, but we got it free so “Oh, well.”


Doug K 03.04.14 at 4:04 pm

Belle @30 – thank you for administering that salutary slap.. PML’s post was very dispiriting, your response was nicely bracing ;-)

The buzzword of the moment in IT hiring is ‘full-stack developer’. This means someone who can both do graphic design and sling code. The ‘full-stack developer’ unfortunately is a mythical beast, snarks and boojums ain’t in it. Unfortunately every coder is sure that design can’t be that hard. I suspect a lot of these PDFs are produced by code-slingers who sold themselves as FSDs, and have never thought about dead tree formats..


RSA 03.04.14 at 4:08 pm

MPAVictoria @10, DaveL @37: I can’t beat either of you, but your gentlemen seem to be following the path of the most famous computer scientist living today, who hasn’t had an email address since 1990.


mud man 03.04.14 at 4:26 pm

This is computers, your local machine should be able to take the text, words in a row, and format the bejezzus out of it according to your particular specifications. Those Adobe folks don’t have any incentive about making that easy to do, but someday maybe when computers actually get integrated into the way humans work, you will be able to print out those reports formatted as if you had written them yourself. If we all last long enough.

Personally I wish I could put such things through my voice reader so I can listen to them while doing useful stuff in the garden, instead of sitting upright in my chair trying to stay awake. Be nice if I could annotate at that time too, working in the garden is wonderfully productive thinking time.


Anonymous 03.04.14 at 6:03 pm

mud man: There are various technologies which are set up so as to allow people to restyle documents relatively easily. The problem is that PDF was explicitly designed to not be that, but to give a complete specification of a fixed layout. The solution is that PDFs should stop being the default format.


parse 03.04.14 at 9:31 pm

This explicitly presumes Maria did not know the ‘original reason’ for the traditional his/her alteration. (Further, it’s false a matter of actual fact that this was the reason, but let’s never mind that.)

Would it be more or less insulting if PM Lawrence explicitly presumed Maria did know something which was, as a matter of actual fact, false?


Yosemite Semite 03.05.14 at 1:23 am

I never print nothing ever. Except travel documents.

I agree with the comments about colors that people use for their documents. Computers gave us colors for documents, God help us! It was not an advance. And even people who stick with black and white get it backwards: white type on a black background. The worst, the very worst, and studies show … studies show that half of all studies are wrong. If I happen on a site that has white type on black, I leave. Immediately. Unconditionally.


Belle Waring 03.05.14 at 2:04 am

Well, if we are going to parse things as carefully as you wish, parse, then in principle it would be more insulting if PM Lawrence explicitly presumed Maria did not know something which was, as a matter of actual fact, true. However, since I was preëmptively countering a hypothetical complaint from PML that he was merely being informative, I was attempting to demonstrate that, within his mind/the bounds of his comment box (and here one cannot write in the margins, generally (please do not talk to me about opening screengrabs and adding a photoshop type layer (or about “nothing being outside the text” et seq.))) he was being a condescending, supercilious fuckface, and so I was saying that, from his point of view he assumed she did not know this thing and made the assumption clear in an insulting fashion. So, yes, “know” was being used a little loosely there in that one cannot “know” false things, but only true ones, yet my comment suggested the latter thing was possible! How ridiculous and fanciful I became in my attempt to demonstrate that PMJ had taken the mildest opportunity imaginable and transformed it into a chance for sexist dickery!

Do you wish to hear more about this parse? I’m certain I could explain it to you more fully if logic demanded it. Just say the word, my good trans person. Well, or you could be cisgender, of course, many people are. And within these categories a woman. Or, again, hypothetically, a man, it’s possible, I don’t want it to seem as if I’m excluding you, if that’s how you identify; I know there’s a lot of stigma attached to being a cisgender man, but that just means it’s all the braver for you to live life openly, and find out who your real friends are. People see all the fucked-up shit cisgender men have done in the world and then they project that onto individuals; it’s so not cool. Even people who think they have liberal attitudes are like this. I think it’s probably really tough sometimes.


Belle Waring 03.05.14 at 2:34 am

Thanks Doug K–we aim to please! No, wait, we aim to yell at people for being sexist on the internet. Yeah.


Ed Herdman 03.05.14 at 5:16 am

I saw Adobe Reader X – I just wanted to say that I’d love to ditch Adobe Reader X forever, once Nitro figures out how to put the X in the actual corner of the page (screw you, Windows XP visual theme heritage) and gets ePub support.

Yeah, you can mark up PDFs in readers, but I love to read old reports.

Somewhere along the line I got lucky and had somebody insist on headers in all documents – I use a very simple justified / italicized 10 point format on the top of every page which helps people not forget what they’re reading. It doesn’t stop students from saying “to the person who wrote the unlabeled paper,” to which I go back to my original file and open it to see the header staring back at me.

On the white type / black background thing – this is one of those arguments that goes back and forth. I’ve known lots of people who swore up and down that the lowered brightness over black text on a white lightbulb made things much easier on their eyes – perhaps they just needed to turn down their monitor brightness.

There’s still one good thing about reading indoors in your deep, dank cave – no possibility of burning your retinas from reading bright white papers in the sunlight. (Well, supposedly this happened to some people taking a test or some such nonsense…)


Jeff Dickey 03.05.14 at 5:31 am

Elizabeth @1: who, indeed? My current best guess is under-25s with fighter-ace-quality vision and printers priced on par with average folks’ houses.

Chris Bertram @7: true on all counts. My solution for iPad glare is to read indoors or, when outside, to orient myself so that I may make effective use of the cover.

Adam Smith @8: yellow text is perfectly legible on a black background, which one “gent” had the gall to send me as a CV a few weeks ago. Fortunately, I noticed this before attempting to print.

Scott Martens @34: different style settings for print and screen?

Anonymous @41: Good luck with that. It took us decades to get to the point where we could send out PDFs to all and sundry with reasonable confidence that “all and sundry” would be able to actually open them. Your replacement, which does not yet exist, is highly unlikely to reach that saturation level significantly more quickly.

And Belle Waring @30: preach on, sister! My job is to communicate effectively with two very distinct groups that nevertheless must be addressed together: one is a gaggle of (highly) arguably grown-into-adulthood (overwhelmingly) young (overwhelmingly) male egos; the other is a group of angstrom-thick-skinned perfectionists who collectively hold all relevant patents on political correctness. After gigabytes of complaint email, the usage I’ve settled on is “s/he”, which each group seems to see as it wishes to. The overgrown teenagers ignore the “s/” part, whereas the were-their-noses-ever-in-joint? cohort is “pleased with the ordering”.


Belle Waring 03.05.14 at 9:14 am

“The other is a group of angstrom-thick-skinned perfectionists who collectively hold all relevant patents on political correctness.” Hmmm. You interest me, and yet I think it would probably be safer for you not to go on. Each writer decides for themselves what the most useful solution to this problem of generalizing will be. I think one should make use of the fact that English already contains a gender-neutral pronoun which applies in all these situations, and which, though decried by various prescriptivists for often quite random and varied reasons, is nonetheless actively used by native speakers, and has been used by noted authors such as Jane Austen to good effect.


NomadUK 03.05.14 at 12:28 pm

The solution is that PDFs should stop being the default format.

Well, no, I think the solution is to acknowledge that ideas are still ideas, that text is still text, that we spent several centuries before these new toys came along learning how to organise and present knowledge in a legible fashion that assists in comprehension rather than distraction, and that if all you’ve got is crap, then all the bright colours and fancy multimedia whoop-di-do in the world is just putting lipstick on a pig. And there are a helluva lot of pigs out there.


asp burger 03.05.14 at 12:30 pm

Or just use “them” and “they”?


Anonymous 03.05.14 at 3:15 pm

Jeff Dickey: Depends on what your document needs. If you could just shove things in plain text or minimally formatted HTML, it’s an extremely safe bet that the audience will be able to read it and print it to a variety of formats. The difficulty is when you legitimately need a format capable of representing complex formatting while still allowing people to modify that formatting if they want.


Sasha Clarkson 03.05.14 at 6:43 pm

I use a Brother A3 duplex colour inkjet multifunction printer. It’s very cheap to run with unchipped compatible cartridges. (The latest printer models ARE chipped, but there are plenty of the old models around which are inexpensive to buy.) The “normal” quality isn’t great but can be improved by tweaking the printer driver. Another advantage to me is that Brother provide good configurable linux drivers online for free too.

I totally agree with the comments about yellow print and black/dark backgrounds.


clew 03.06.14 at 12:16 am

One of my browsers — Omni, maybe — used to let me try my preferred CSS (stylesheet) and lapse into the site’s styling if they’d managed to hide something. I could have set it up the other way, defaulting to site styles with a quick button for `apply mine’.

That was nice. It printed well enough, too. Then people got tricksy with CSS and it mostly quit working. I find it unlikely that the tricksy sites are manageable by accessibility readers.


Ed Herdman 03.06.14 at 2:06 am

@ Anonymous

The problem with HTML is that even your “technologically savvy” student is really just competent with a different segment of the technological curve in the same way as, but not necessarily with more sophistication than, older folks. Talking about saving in different formats and stuff is likely crazy talk that eats up instruction time. Maybe I’m being super pessimistic here, but – young people aren’t tech gods and they get the simplest things wrong sometimes, just when unexpected.

But hell if I know – maybe that ubiquitous MS Word garbage saves as HTML in a readable enough format. Speaking of that, though, probably the biggest impetus against change is the paint-by-numbers reliance in higher education on “common formats,” which is a fancy name for vendor lock-in.


Maria 03.07.14 at 3:04 pm

Thanks all for the tips, especially those to do with printing. And thanks, Belle for your comments! I tend to try and take comments like P.M. Lawrence’s either at face value or in the most generous possible reading of their intent – whichever is the more positive – but I guess this one really was a bit OTT.

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