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Make Text More Readable with Solarized and Cousine

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Josh Centers here. As someone who now works with text all day, every day, readability has become paramount to me. That’s why, not long after I began here at TidBITS, I became obsessed with the combination of the Solarized color schemes, paired with the Nitti Light typeface, as highlighted by bloggers Justin Blanton and Ben Brooks.

Solarized is a pair of color schemes, one light, one dark, designed by Ethan Schoonover to minimize eye strain. They were designed around CIELAB hues and a fixed color wheel, to minimize contrast and maximize symmetry.


How do these colors help? One of the main causes of eye strain is high contrast. Traditional black text on a white background, while easy to read, is harsh on your eyes, especially with today’s ultra-bright displays. Solarized smooths out the transitions between colors and brightness, while still making individual elements, like markup tags and colorized URLs, easy to distinguish.

You can download preconfigured Solarized themes for many popular apps from Schoonover’s site. Included in the package are themes for BBEdit, Vim, Emacs, TextMate, Terminal, and even a palette for Photoshop so you can create your own designs. (Be sure to look at the Read Me files for each app for installation instructions.) A few apps also have built-in Solarized themes, such as the Ulysses III writer’s environment for the Mac, the Writing Kit Markdown text editor for the iPad, and the iPad RSS reader Mr. Reader.

The Nitti Light typeface was popularized by the minimalist iA Writer text editor for iOS and Mac, developed by Information Architects. The app has no options, so you’re stuck with writing in Nitti Light. While that’s an opinionated choice, a lot of thought went into it, as is evident if you read the company’s 2,400-word thesis on the matter. Long story short, Information Architects chose Nitti Light because they believe it maximizes readability, and sets the proper tone for users writing a first draft. You may not agree with them, but in the endless arguments over which font is “best” for writing, they have a lot of ammo.

However, iA Writer is a limited app. No options, few features, and there’s no way you can use Solarized with it. However, you can purchase the Nitti Light typeface yourself from Bold Monday. The bad news is that it costs €59, which as of this writing is nearly $78. That’s more expensive than BBEdit itself!

However, there is hope for those on a budget. Google Fonts offers the Cousine typeface, designed by Steve Matteson, for free. Cousine is similar to Nitti Light, though it’s thicker, less crisp, and less detailed. (The first screenshot below compares the two typefaces, with Nitti Light on top and Cousine on the bottom.) To install Cousine, if you haven’t used Google Fonts before, click the “Open Cousine in Google Fonts” link at the top of left of the specimen page, and refer to the numbered steps in the second screenshot for download instructions. Once you expand the Zip archive, double-click the font(s) to open them in Font Book, and then click the Install Font button.



In any case, professional writers often prefer a fixed-width, or monospaced, typeface for tapping out drafts. As opposed to variable-width typefaces like Times New Roman and Helvetica, each character in a monospaced typeface takes up the exact same width on the screen, making individual characters easier to distinguish. The most famous monospaced typeface is Courier, which resembles type from a typewriter, and is still the standard in manuscripts and screenplays today.

I’ve implemented the combination of Solarized and Cousine everywhere I can since I started at TidBITS, and I’ve been pleased with the results. The combination has been easy on my eyes, and although it’s impossible to separate out all the variables, I feel as though I’m making fewer typos and misspellings.

But my opinion is just that: opinion. To put this setup through the wringer, I turned to a friend of TidBITS for whom readability isn’t just a luxury, it’s a requirement: accessibility expert Steven Aquino. If you’re not familiar with Aquino, he’s made a career out of writing, despite being legally blind. I couldn’t think of a better person to test this setup, so I introduced him to the combination of Solarized and Cousine and asked him to try it for a while. Take it away, Steven!

Looking Dimly at Solarized/Cousine -- Thanks, Josh. Steven Aquino here. Since discovering Markdown a few years ago (see “With Markdown, Even the Blind Can Write,” 18 June 2013), I’ve tried several text editors for Mac OS X and iOS, including iA Writer and Byword from the Portugal-based development house, Metaclassy. I preferred Byword for its light and dark modes, which I switched between during the day and night, respectively. I paired those themes with the Courier Prime typeface, which is a customized version of the fixed-width Courier typeface optimized for screenwriters.

Over the last few months, however, I have transitioned away from using Byword for my long-form writing. Instead, I’ve embraced The Soulmen’s Ulysses III on the Mac and its iOS sidekick, Daedalus Touch. I love these apps because they nail readability.

In Ulysses, I had been using the Courier Prime typeface, pairing it with the Solarized Light theme. Unfortunately, Courier Prime isn’t available in Daedalus, so I use the only fixed-width typeface available: Meslo LG, also against a sepia background. In both cases, I have found these setups comfortable to use and very readable.

At Josh’s urging, I changed the default font in Ulysses to Cousine, while keeping the Solarized Light color scheme.


After using this setup for the last couple weeks, I can say with confidence that the combination of Cousine and Solarized Light is great for writing. More importantly, as a visually impaired person, I find the combination to be extremely comfortable for my eyes. Between Cousine’s clean design and the contrast of the background, I’m experiencing considerably less eye strain than normal. While nothing will ever completely eliminate my ocular fatigue and pain, less eye strain means I can write more — eye strain is the limiting factor for how many hours I can spend at the keyboard. Simultaneously, the more comfortable writing is for me, the easier it is for me to concentrate on what I’m writing, rather than the mere act of looking at the screen.

In iOS, Daedalus Touch doesn’t incorporate the true Solarized theme, and Cousine is unavailable as a system font. But the approximation I’ve cobbled together with Meslo LG and the sepia background is nearly equivalent. Meslo is not quite as nice as Cousine, but it is similarly comfortable to use.


Using Ulysses marked the first time I had been exposed to the Solarized theme, and it has made a surprisingly significant difference to me. The best part is the contrast between the typography and the background. Words seem to pop off the page, and they’re easy to discern, even for me. Moreover, the bluish hues given to hyperlinks are wonderful because I can instantly see at a glance what is plain text and what is a link. Markdown formatting also receives a subtle grayish hue, which nicely differentiates text from formatting, while avoiding the mistake of garishly over-colorizing the formatting characters. These details, while no doubt a treat for those with normal vision, are a big deal to someone with a vision impairment like myself.

Because of my positive experiences with Solarized and Cousine, this setup — inside Ulysses and Daedalus — will be my standard writing environment for the foreseeable future. Not only are the setup and the apps beautiful and feature-rich, but they’re designed in such a way that a visually impaired writer like myself has less trouble getting the creative juices flowing. Thanks to Josh for turning me on to the combination, and I’ll pass the keyboard back to him now.

Final Thoughts -- As our pal Steven demonstrates, the choice of typeface and color can have a profound impact on both comfort and productivity. So give Solarized and either Nitti Light or Cousine a try in your own workflows. Even if they don’t suit your tastes perfectly — everyone’s vision is different! — take the time to experiment with colors and typefaces to find a combination that works for you. Your eyes will thank you.

Have your own preferred visual setup for writing? Tell us about it in the comments!

 

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Comments about Make Text More Readable with Solarized and Cousine

Steve Nicholson  2013-08-02 16:19
I don't do prose writing, but I've had Solarized set up in all my coding environments (Xcode, BBEdit, Terminal, Visual Studio-ugh!) for quite a while.
Karyn Voldstad  2013-08-02 17:07
Is it really easier to read in Solarized Dark? I was excited to see that Mr. Reader has Solarized, but they only have Dark. My 50+ year old eyes get so tired on both the Mac and the iPad these days.
Steve Nicholson  2013-08-02 17:27
I've been using Solarized dark exclusively and my eyes will be 50 in a couple weeks.
Charlie Hartley  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-08-03 17:54
This sounds like something my almost 70 year old eyes might enjoy. After looking at the "direction" for BBEdit however, I'm pretty confused about how to set it up. You can probably blame that on my almost 70 year old mind.
Michael Schmitt  2013-08-04 20:57
The instructions for BBEdit and TextWrangler are out of date. The revised instructions are at https://github.com/rcarmo/textwrangler-bbedit-solarized. Basically you just need to copy the two .bbcolor files to the BBEdit/TextWrangler Color Schemes folder, and then use BBE/TW's preferences to select the scheme.
Charlie Hartley  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-08-05 17:39
Thanks. That was a lot simplier.
Eric Ullman  2013-08-20 06:45
Thanks, Michael!
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2013-08-20 08:41
My thanks as well. I was just about to write a tirade on how installing Solarized in TextWrangler and/or BBEdit was a geeks only chore. The directions included with the Solarized download were written by programmers for programmers. Coders seem determined to exclude average computer users from their club, writing deliberately arcane instructions that leave out more than they include. Either that or they're congenitally clueless. And they wonder why Linux has never caught on with consumers.

The new, easier way to install color schemes in TW and BBEdit is due entirely to improvements in the apps. The developers at Bare Bones Software have always shown a sense of public service, providing first BBEdit Lite and later TextWrangler for free to those of us who don't need all the horsepower in BBEdit.

Further, I think the author of this article was more than a little disingenuous not to mention the complex installation issues - which are not addresses on the Solarized web site. If it weren't for thoughtful readers like Michael Schmitt we'd be SOL.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-08-20 11:32
I'm sorry that you had trouble, or think my article was disingenuous. When I set up Solarized with BBEdit months ago, I didn't read the instructions, as I keep my BBEdit settings in my Dropbox, so developer instructions are rarely helpful to me.

The intent of the article wasn't to be a comprehensive guide for setting up Solarized, but rather pointing out its availability and testing its effectiveness. As I pointed out, there are dozens of applications that support the scheme, and to cover each one individually would be a book-length piece.

If there's sufficient interest, and there seems to be, I'd like to do some more in-depth pieces on Solarized in the future. For instance, I have a bookmark that renders a page with Cousine and either Solarized Light or Solarized Dark.

And thanks to Michael for pointing out the updated instructions. I usually try to help out our commenters personally, but I've been a bit distracted with a newborn. :-)
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-08-05 14:39
After using Cousine for a while, my only irritation is that some capital letters have a smaller x-height than others. In particular, the capital Q, E, C, and N characters are smaller, which makes words like EPUB look funny. I can't see any reason these four characters should have this issue.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-08-20 07:37
Oddly, Josh doesn't see this in his copy of the font, so either I somehow got a bad one, or there's something else in play on my system that's causing this.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-08-20 07:40
If anyone's having the issue Adam is having, try deleting the font and redownloading from Font Squirrel: http://www.fontsquirrel.com/fonts/cousine
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-08-20 08:21
That fixed it, Josh, thanks!
joestoner  2013-08-19 23:23
First illustration seems of little help (I have a screen shot if you'd like it Adam); I found Cousine at:

Opened zip (available from the download arrow lower top right) and popped folder into FontBook and all is well.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-08-20 07:34
Not quite sure what you're referring to (if you put URLs in angle brackets, they're seen as HTML tags and are ignored, but you can edit your post to add it without brackets)...
Evan Deerfield  2013-08-20 01:24
I use the Solarized Dark theme in Sublime and I love it. I don't use Nitti Light or Cousine, but use Adobe Source Code Pro (which is free and you can download at https://github.com/adobe/source-code-pro) and I find it very readable.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-08-20 06:52
That's a good font!
Robert Goshko  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2013-08-20 12:12
+1 for Source Code Pro
John Brandt  2013-08-20 01:33
WHAT?!! A monospaced font is probably better if you're writing code, or handling heavy financials. But please, don't perpetuate a misnomer that any monospaced font could possibly be superior to any professional proportional font created for publications with long text. Type designers have spent many years creating proportional text typefaces for the express purpose of aiding legibility and readability. Absolutely, adjust the lighting, colors and your monitor. Select a somewhat heavier than print typeface or a sans serif (preferably a humanistic one (with distinct character shape differences, like Gill Sans or Droid Sans) if your monitor requires. But save the monospaced fonts for your trip to a typewriter museum, or sure, if you feel you must duplicate that old-fashioned look to write, use a monospaced font. But never pretend that it's easier to read. There's certainly no scientific proof that any monospaced font could possibly be superior to a proportional one for easy readability.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-08-20 06:52
To each his own.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-08-20 07:36
Josh isn't saying that monospaced fonts are best for reading; he's merely noting that it's common among professional writers (at least those we know) to write using monospaced fonts, and in certain fields, like screenplays, monospaced fonts are the standard.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-08-20 07:39
Thanks Adam. I wouldn't want to read a book in a monospaced font - I know, I've tried. But when I'm writing or editing, monospaced fonts are easier on my eyes and make it easier to distinguish typos.

And they seem to work well for Steven, who has crippling eyestrain. But, like I said, to each his own.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2013-08-20 10:01
I entirely agree. Monospaced fonts are an anachronism. Why some people still use them is a mystery to me. As a legally blind reader, I have always found monospaced fonts to be a pain and I avoid them whenever possible.

Personally, I like san serif fonts like Lucida Grande and Verdana for on-screen reading. Verdana in particular is larger than, say, Helvetica, at the same point size and has wider letter spacing that, in my experience, aids in legibility.

For printed text, of course, serif fonts still excel in readability for most people. My all-time favorite type display, however, was on a Brother word processor. It had a black background with amber type. I have duplicated that color scheme in Terminal as closely as possible.

Microsoft Word has an optional blue background with white type that I find quite usable. It still prints out black and white - so you can work with a darker background without affecting output color.

To reduce glare in situations where I cannot directly control the application, like here in Safari, I use a little app called Brightness Slider (http://actproductions.net/brightness-slider/) that enables me to dim the screen to a comfortable level. In addition I use f.lux (http://justgetflux.com), also freeware, which changes the screen color at night to correspond with a selection of ambient light sources. You can set both the nighttime and daytime color temperature; at night I use a moderately warm setting of 5500k. You can turn it off for an hour at a time if you are editing graphics where color accuracy is important.

For long form writing I use Adobe InDesign so that I can control the layout. With the rise of self-publishing, the ability - and indeed the necessity - for doing your own layout design is increasingly important. Of course you could draft your text in a more user friendly work environment - of which there are many to choose from now, including WriteRoom and StoryMill. But with InDesign you develop your formatting and styles as you write, which is far easier than going back over a large document you've written in another app and pasted into InDesign. To ease the strain on my eyes, while writing in InDesign I use the white on black display option in the Universal Access preference pane. I can adjust contrast by using this in conjunction with Brightness Slider.

Hopefully in the future Solarize will be adapted for a wider range of applications. Personally, though, I find it's bias toward low contrast to be limiting. Many visually impaired people require more contrast rather than less - or combinations thereof. For instance, I find brighter highlight colors to be more useful than the low-contrast options in Solarize in writing and reading HTML, where the colors convey critical information. That said, I'll have to give Solarize a spin in TextWrangler. Perhaps without the white background, HTML tag colors will be easier to distinguish.
Lewis Butler  2013-08-24 07:18
The vast majority of my work is text based (as opposed to word processor based) so I use monospaced fonts much more than proportional ones. Things like the Terminal and code just do not work well in proportional fonts.


Mark Nagata  2013-08-20 15:43
Japanese writers need Japanese fonts, that contain both alphabetical _and_ Japanese characters. As far as I know, default Mac OS X installation contains only _one_ Japanese monospaced font, that is "Osaka(Regular-monospaced)", whose alphabetical part is basically [Monaco with narrower character-width].

The (fixed) character width is similar to Cousine's, that is, much narrower than Monaco or Courier, looking good on screen, and the characters themselves are the same with Monoco's, that is, basically sans-serif, slashed "0", etc., making them more readable on screen.

Osaka(Regular-monospaced) is a pretty good choice, but it's too bad if it's the only choice. Does anybody know any other Japanese monospaced font, that's not too expensive?
Lewis Butler  2013-08-21 00:59
Cousine isn't a bad sanserif font except for one thing: I hate hate HATE the dotted zero. For code I use Menlo, for everything else, I am inconsistent.
Eric Rosenbloom  2013-08-21 12:05
I work with text on screen all day, in a fair variety of programs and purposes, and high contrast makes it easier, not more of a strain. (And I am over 50 and require prescription reading glasses.) I am reconfirmed in this after setting up the Solarized colors in BBEdit and finding it very much a strain to read, however nice looking. The fact is that the difference between black and white on a computer screen is a lot less than the example of reading a book in direct sunlight (where the strain would seem to be the brightness, not the contrast). Finally, that Cousine font is a lot less readable than Consolas for monospaced work.
Josh Centers  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2013-08-21 12:05
Consolas is a great font, especially the version that comes with BBEdit. I used it for quite some time before switching to Cousine.
Jesse the K  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2013-08-25 14:19
Different folks have different eyes. A person with ocular albinism, for example, prefers the minimum contrast possible.
Myron Molnau  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-08-22 16:32
My problem is entirely with the color of the font against some bad background. There are many sites that seem to relish using blue font on a black background or, even worse, a light gray font on a white background. Using some of the advice given here would alleviate most of my problems.
At the moment, I would love to have some Safari extension that would allow me to change the font color in some web sites something that I do not think is really possible.
Lewis Butler  2013-08-24 07:34
There is a safari extension that lets you override the CSS for a site. I use it, for example, to make daring fireball more readable by setting a darker background.

http://code.grid.in.th/

I don't understand the current fascination with grey text on white, usually I ignore it as most sites I go to are transient and I can use OS X's zoom feature to make the text large enough the color doesn't matter. Sites I go to often are generally not sites which make reading them difficult.

Funny, that.
Chap Harrison  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2013-08-24 21:01
As others have mentioned, the "instructions" for installing are completely beyond Joe User. I'd like to install Solarized for Terminal + emacs (so I'm not a complete doofus at under-the-hood stuff) but I'm at a loss to know (a) what to download, and (b) how to tell Terminal and emacs to use it. I guess if you use GitHub it's obvious, but ... Could anyone help?
John (JD) Denning  2013-10-01 08:19
I'm visually impaired, and used to do tech support for other visually impaired users at work. One thing I learned is we are ALL different. There is no one solution, look, that fits all of us. I can't stand to look at a white screen. IOS7 just HURTS and is for the most part unreadable.

But I know people who have to have very strange color schemes so they can see. One guy has this soft sand and brown text, I find it nice, but difficult to read. Another co-worker has this garish bright color scheme that she said she could see. I told her she's going to go blind looking at it.

I wish apple would build in support in Mac 0S, and IOS7 for various schemes.