Textbooks suck. They take up a lot of space. They are heavy. They are inefficient and harmful for the environment.  They cost a lot.

But worst of all, they are indispensable. The entire database of human knowledge is housed and passed on through textbooks.

So if textbooks are so essential and if they represent an entire array of human brilliance, why are they designed so poorly? After a thousand years of human literacy, why are textbooks so hard to read? And why do textbooks have to take so long to read?

I had to buy a marketing textbook for one of my courses titled Contemporary Marketing. I have no doubt that the information inside of the textbook is enlightening and thorough, but the design of the textbook is far from contemporary.

This is how not to design a textbook.

<p>Contemporary Marketing’s other pages have graphs, charts and photos which help the textbook’s visual appeal. I don’t care about those aspects though. I’m more interested in the width of the text column, the size of font, the type of font and the number of pages. These characteristics add up to make the design’s readability.</p>

There are a few characteristics a good textbook must have in order to accomplish its purpose. This list, I believe, is for all student types and for general readability:

  • Large font size
  • Readable font
  • Narrow body of text

These three characteristics do not limit information that can be packed into a textbook, nor do they change the types of data that can be included. The textbook may end up thicker and heavier and/or may take up more space. But, when having to choose between the lesser of two evils, I wager most students would choose a textbook which is easier to read.

I’ve always felt that reading is the means to the end of a book. Whenever I begin reading something, I begin with the intention of finishing what I started.

As I read, my brain uses subconscious triggers as I surpass reading objectives. These objectives can be the end of a paragraph, like when reading through a scrolled article online, or the end of a page when reading a physical book. People also use chapter endings to mark reading objectives. In essence, the table of contents becomes a check list and crossing off each chapter leaves me feeling with the sense of accomplishment.

And this is where bigger font sizes and extra pages come in. If the same amount of information is presented in the same textbook but in two different formats — one with narrow body text, large font and more pages, and the other with wide body text, small font and less pages — finishing the book with more pages will feel like more of an accomplishment. Doesn’t the 2000 page textbook seem insurmountable next to the 500 page textbook? Finishing either is an achievement, but the 2000 page textbook feels like more of an achievement. There is an inherent positivity in accomplishing something while reading and I think this is where the addiction in reading lies. A good story makes this addiction easier to give in to, but finishing a chapter always feels good.

I should also note that most students use textbooks for skimming information before heading to class. I believe the three formatting characteristics outlined above are also ideal for skimmers. When skimming quickly, our eyes have a hard time finding the next line. The wider the body, the more difficult it is to connect a line's final word to the first word of the next line.

We can liken this to the comparison of reading on an iPhone and reading on a full screen laptop. An iPhone, with medium sized font in iBooks, has approximately four to six words per line. iBooks on OS X, in contrast, has approximately 10 to 12 words per line. Obviously, the more words on a line, the further you must shift your eyes from left to right. Due to the short length of lines on an iPhone, you can actually read down as opposed to left to right.

This is the ideal scenario for skimmers. Personally, when skimming, I look for key words and relate those key words as I go. With an iPhone, I can process the key words on each line all at once and move down to the next key words. Regardless of whether this is or isn't the best method, skimming downwards is faster than skimming from left to right. The actual result of skimming on a wide body of text is potentially slower than reading the text; because it is difficult to connect one line to the next at a fast speed, you end up having to reread the previous line.

All of this fine-toothed analysis merely results in finding a more efficient way to read. I think websites that I follow on a daily basis, like Matt Gemmell and Marco.org, illustrate my argument. They use large text, narrow body width and a readable font. There should be no reason why textbooks can’t use the same format.

Now, textbook body width does not need to meet the width requirements of an iPhone. I’ve always found an iPhone to be the perfect reading device and a textbook doesn't need to be ideal. A textbook just needs to be better than what you see above.

Generally, the faster we read something, the quicker we can learn that piece’s lesson. Impediments to learning, especially when they are as rudimentary as text formatting, should be fixed and eliminated as much as possible.

Now, does someone want to type out my entire Contemporary Marketing textbook so I can read it on my iPhone? Maybe then I’ll actually read it.