One of the first things we do in CyberEnglish9 is create Websites. Right now, my 86 9th graders are beginning to imagine themselves as Web designers. More than that, they’ve begun to understand that the content they create for the Web and the way they present that content will have a potentially larger audience than they’ve ever been asked to consider before.
“Make it public” is one of the main tenets of CyberEnglish. It is, in fact, the most important one, I think. Because CE students publish their writing on the Web, anyone could read it. We have agreed that “anyone” includes me, their teacher, but also it includes their parents and other relatives, and of course, their peers. I’ve told this group about Mary Stillwell in New Brunswick who is beginning her CE journey this year. I told them I imagine Ms. Stillwell’s students might be looking at their sites, too.
With this wider audience comes a greater responsibility also. No one wants to look or sound dumb in public, so students generally attend to detail and revise with care. What eventually occurs is the sense that “I am writing for them, but I need to be satisfied with the result myself.” Gone are the days of writing just to please the teacher.
And because the writing is on a Website, presentation (that always fuzzy trait, the plus one trait that seemed so inconsequential) takes on a much greater significance, too.
This week we spoke about readability on the Web. Akin to having good penmanship, I suppose, making design decisions about font and color do affect readability. We never want our audience to be squinting to read.
My daughter, Laura, who works for the Kohler Company as a technology support specialist, is reading a book called Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works, by Janice Redish. As I am the only other person in the family (besides her grandfather) who is geeky about Web design, we were looking at it last week. I was pleased to see many of the same concepts I “preach” about in my CE classes included in this book for adult professionals.
- Text should not be too big (screaming); plus it’s hard to read. We laughed about this as she told me the story of a woman who only had a small paragraph for a page so she thought she should make it really big to fill the page. Of course, I’ve seen memos on paper created out of that same misapprehension.
- Colors need to enhance text and readability, not interfere. Dark backgrounds make it harder to see text. And certain colors are simply too harsh. For some reason, after reading a student essay on a lime green background, my eyes feel as if I have been staring at the sun.
- Sans serif fonts are easier to read on the Web. Conversely, serif fonts are easier to read on paper. I think it’s interesting and don’t know why this is so, but it’s been studied apparently. I do agree. I think it may have to do with the fact that a computer screen is actually moving constantly. Maybe the serifs have a trailing effect that, while nearly imperceptible, does tire our eyes more.
There are many more important design aspects that good Web designers should keep in mind. The key thing for my students to know is that their design decisions affect their audience.
I know that English teachers talk to students about the importance of audience all the time, but honestly, if students are just writing a daily journal entry in a notebook, their only audience is the teacher and hopefully, themselves. The real power comes with a real audience. And no artificial audience from class workshops to bulletin boards can come close to the power of the Web.