Friday, November 28, 2008

EPub State of the Practice, Part 2: Color

[Here "EPub" refers to electronic publishing in general, not specifically to the epub format for electronic documents. At the time I wrote this blog entry, I was not aware that "epub" already had a meaning for many people in the world of, well, EPub.]

As I noted in my previous blog entry, I've been looking at electronic versions of several books, and because I'm viewing them on a device offering color (my computer monitor), I expect the books to use color where color makes sense. Such use is one of the "Well, duh" features I mentioned last time.

One can argue about when using color makes sense, but I hope we can agree that one place where it does is screen shots, and I was surprised to find that three of the nine books where I found screen shots showed them only in monochrome. I hope we can also agree that most programmers these days are used to seeing their code syntax-highlighted (i.e., in color), and of the 13 books that show code, only four show syntax highlighting. The intersection of these sets -- those books that show screen shots in color and that also use color for syntax highlighting code -- is only 3 books, all of which were published by The Pragmatic Programmers in the last two years.

I also checked for the use of color for live links. Because links on web pages are traditionally rendered in a special color (typically blue, in contrast to non-link text, which is typically black), I believe that the active behavior of link text is likely to be overlooked by many readers if it looks the same as regular text. I thus believe that link text should be distinguished in some visual way. This point could be argued, i.e., one might claim that with a little experience, readers would begin to intuit which text is "linky" (e.g., cross-references, URLs, initial definitions of terms, etc.) and which text is not, and that visually distinguishing linky text wouldn't really do anything except add visual noise. One could also argue that even if linky text is to be visually distinguished, color isn't necessarily the best way to do it. (One could use, e.g., underlining or a different font face instead.) Rather than argue the point one way or the other, I'll simply remark that among the books I looked at were several that do use a special color for link text as well as several that do not.

Mine do, and I spent a lot of time trying to come up with a color that was visually recognizable while at the same time being unobtrusive. My goal was to employ something that looked and acted more or less like a web page for people who were scanning for links, while simultaneously looking and acting more or less like a standard book for people who were reading straight through. I ultimately chose a dark blue for links, which is, I hope, different enough from the surrounding black text to be distinguishable, but similar enough to it to recede into the background. Here's a sample from Effective C++. There are three links in the text shown. (The red text is used to focus readers' attention on the topic at hand and has nothing to do with links).
A different approach is taken in Agile Web Development with Rails 2E, where link text is a shade of red or pink, depending on whether the link is an internal cross-reference or a URL:
One of my concerns is that when you combine such use of color with other uses, such as syntax-colored code, the result can be chromatically rather busy. For example, here's a page from Programming Erlang where, in addition to black, text appears in pink, grey, blue, brown, and red:
I'm not saying that's too much, but I remember the horrors that arose when multiple font faces became available, so I worry about analogous things happening with font colors.

Incidentally, both Agile Web Development with Rails 2E and Programming Erlang are published by The Pragmatic Programmers which, from what I can tell, is leading the pack in thinking about ways to adapt conventional book authoring and publishing for a mixed-delivery-mechanism world. When I discuss their use of red and pink for links and their use of many colors on a page, I'm not criticizing them, I'm taking advantage of the fact that they're doing things that nobody else seems to be. The publishing world doesn't have a lot of experience with books as electronic entities, so the fact that I chose dark blue for my links and they chose pink and red says nothing about which is better. Five years from now, maybe it will be obvious that pink and red is the better choice. Or that blue is. Or that both are inferior to something else. The only way to find out is to try various options and see which ones work best.

Another color-related aspect of the ebooks I examined was whether they use color in display elements like figures, tables, and sidebars. I found that many books use it cosmetically, but far fewer use it semantically. That is, the use of color to visually set display elements off from the primary text flow or to make the display elements more visually attractive was common, but the use of color to help readers understand the information in the display elements was a lot less common. To my surprise, some of the best examples of such use came from SOA Principles of Service Design, a book whose application of semantically-meaningful color in figures contrasts sharply with its rejection of color for links, screen shots, or code fragments. Here's a sample figure from the book:One of my goals is to learn how to take advantage of color in figures, diagrams, tables, etc., to help get my information across to my readers. Whether I do the work myself (as I've done in the past) or have a professional illustrator do it, I need to break out of a monochrome way of thinking about depicting information. A good way to do that, I hope, is to pay attention to what others are doing and then shamelessly apply the sincerest form of flattery to the matter :-)

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