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.