Flex CSS with JavaScript for better reading

As a web designer with a print background I hate what happens to text on flexible (or fluid or jello or just sloppy!) web pages. It is impossible to set a line-height with CSS that will suit both a narrow and a wide formats of the page. Generally we have to compromise with something in the middle and hope that’s how most people will see it. Why not use a little JavaScript to make line spacing relative to line width?

Check out the demo page:
Presentational JavaScript to adjust text line-height in proportion to text column width.

Most of the content of this entry was extracted from my previous post Another NetNewsWire style. Visit that entry to download a copy of my latest NetNewsWire style which makes use of the JavaScript discussed on this page.

If you are wondering what line spacing has to do with anything – let me attempt to explain why before I explain how.

Line spacing is important

Where text content is the most important consideration, it is desirable to minimise inappropriate interruptions or distractions to the task of reading. Appropriate interruptions are elements of reading itself, for example: punctuation, new paragraphs or the contrast between a heading and the text around it. These things can all contribute to slow down reading, but used well, they serve to assist the reader’s comprehension of the text.

To read text that is, by obvious necessity, wrapped over multiple lines, your eyes must skip back quickly at the end of each line to the start of the next line. Common sense tells us that longer lines of text will minimise the frequency of this interruption. Trouble is, the more characters in each line the further this leap becomes. Consequently the more care and time your eyes must take to ensure you don’t skip back to the incorrect line. Either way, making the text column too wide or too narrow will interfere with smooth reading. Of course, like most things, the answer lies in a happy place between these two extremes.

If you can’t control the text width the next best thing you can do to compensate for an overly wide text measure is to increase the leading. You may call it line spacing or, if you know your CSS, line-height. This clears the path along which your eye travels when seeking the next line to read. Again, all things in moderation, more is not necessarily better. If excessively deep, this space will create a barrier between the lines rather than just a separation.

On a printed document, a typographer will typically take great care to get the balance right between these factors. To make the same decisions for text displayed on a computer involves more compromises – the same control is simply not available. Typically when you change the width of a column of text on your computer only the width is changed; rewrapping the text onto shorter or longer lines. Your software normally doesn’t include any mechanism to make compensating changes to any other text attributes, such as lines spacing. Perhaps it should!

Extending CSS with presentational JavaScript

A bunch of CSS properties already allow us to make properties of one element relative to another. For example dimensions and font sizes can be relative to the users font size; Widths, heights and positions may be relative to those of a parent element. Unfortunately there is no means to create new relationships between properties that the designers of CSS didn’t anticipate us wanting. Fortunately JavaScript provides a means for us to do just that.

It was with this principle in mind that I found, with the help of Google, Progressive Layout. This JavaScript, which appears to reproduce the behaviour provided by the CSS properties of min-width and max-width, gave me the perfect framework to start with. Thank-you Alessandro!

Update: I have since rewritten the code. See source of the new version and further explanation below.

My first version of the JavaScript is something like this:


function getEmWidth()
    return document.getElementById("emunit").offsetWidth;

function pxToEm(pxMeasure)
    return pxMeasure/getEmWidth();

function MakeLayout(id,minw,maxw,minlh,maxlh)
        window.onresize=function(){ SetWidth(id,minw,maxw,minlh,maxlh);}

function SetWidth(id,a,b,lha,lhb)
    var w=pxToEm(document.getElementById("lineflex").offsetWidth);
    var unittype="em";
    if(w==0) return;
    var el=document.getElementById(id);
    var d=el.style;
    else if(w==b)

For it to work a few other elements need to be in place.

A few things I learnt from this project

Where from here

Know some JavaScript? Help out by writing a script that applies this mechanism to a number of independent elements in a page. Wouldn’t hurt if the script worked when inserted in the head of the page; for standards compliance and all.

The time it took me to get the script to work is evidence enough for me to know I’m no JavaScript wizard, so if you think you can improve any aspect of it or have any other ideas about how it could be applied in the wild show me how!

The limitations of web based typography demands designers to let go of the control with which we are accustomed to in print based design but that’s no reason give it up without a fight!

Here’s a couple of links relevant to this subject:

Further thoughts

11 February 2006

After reading a couple of very informative chapters of DOMscripting I decided the code above could use some improvement—in terms of best practices and ease of use. See the updated demo. Without looking at the source the example ought to look identical. Here’s an overview of the changes:

As a test I have applied the script to the individual entry pages of this site, it may still need some more tweaking but so far so good.

While you are here, you may like to download my updated NetNewsWire style, Ollicle Flex. It makes use of the same line-height optimisation technique.

3 June 2007

I have completely rewritten this script as a jQuery plugin. See new post Auto line-height: a jQuery plugin for flexible layouts.