Mike Eng User Experience Designer 401-234-4611
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Horizontalism and Readability

Apr 30, 2010

I somewhat recently discovered an online magazine called Thinking for a Living (update: it’s now defunct). I could go on quite a bit about it, but in short, the writers take design thinking and apply it to a broad scope of objects and systems in our designed environment. I am a huge fan.

Diagram to explain the user interface mechanism of scrolling. From the Original Macintosh Manual. 1984.An article, titled Horizontalism and Readability, discusses the origins of scrolling as we know it today. In 1984 with the development of the first Apple Macintosh, the designers introduced the concept of a graphical user interface. With it, they discovered an early problem that there may be too many words and too much content to fit in the allotted space of the computer monitor.

The designers of the Macintosh knew this was an issue that had to be solved through the user interface, and devised an ingenius model that’s still being used today. They found a previous solution in the physical world and ported it directly to the digital space: scrolling.

But the article makes the case that Apple in 1984 got it wrong. Scrolls in a vertical orientation mainly come from idealized versions, but the majority of actual scrolls are oriented horizontally.

A simple Google Image Search will reveal the same sort of pattern. Most of the vertical scrolls are idealized versions, stock illustrations, or clip art, while most photographs of historical scrolls and documents are horizontal in format.

The article goes on to make the case for a horizontal orientation with narrower columns for the sake of readability.

Fascinating. Maybe the decision to introduce scrolling in the vertical orientation wasn’t that simple. But maybe it was. One simple oversight, and we as a society have arguably botched the orientation of the vast majority of a new medium of text.

The article got me thinking – why were scrolls initially oriented horizontally as opposed to vertically? One possibility: when writing on a vertical scroll, the bottom rod interferes with the writer’s hand. Another: when reading, if the scroll is oriented horizontally, the reader can place the scroll on a surface that is tilted toward him/her without the rods rolling off.

The manifestations of this decision for vertical scrolling in the digital realm are all around. Take the computer mouse, for example. The most commonly used mice today still have a vertical scroll wheel. Some intermediary versions have a vertical scroll wheel that the user can push left or right as well.

Then Apple introduces the Mighty Mouse with a ball instead of a scroll wheel, enabling scrolling in any direction. Then there’s the Apple Magic Mouse with no physical scroll device but multi-touch capability that allows the user to scroll in any direction as well as perform various gestures.

And we are moving in a direction-agnostic orientation with mobile devices.

Thinking for a Living, as one might expect, was oriented horizontally.

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