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First, let me point out that a viewer's needs and actions are fundamentally different when viewing CSTheory and when reading the blog. Most of the questions posted on CSTheory are a few short paragraphs in length (or less), and require only a couple minutes to read, though they may inspire a lot of thinking time. By contrast, our blog posts are averaging over 1200 words each, or in one case much longer, and the technical introductions have been conceptually dense, requiring re-reading sections more than once in order to digest the material. Also, people have been posting in meta about starting polymath projects, or posting for ResearchBlogging.org, either of which would be likely to increase blog entry length, as well as density of content.

Therefore, it would be quite surprising if the same page format were ideal for both the blog and CSTheory, given such different user experiences -- and, in fact, the same format is not ideal for the blog. The current design of the blog violates universally accepted industry best practices. I will start with those, move to a suggestion based on personal taste, and finish by pointing out an issue (math rendering) for which I believe no great solution yet exists.

  • Industry Best Practices

Characters per line: Different sources differ, but all agree on the following range: a blog should have 50-75 characters per line. (One link here.) The blog currently has about 95 characters per line. This is consistent with the CSTheory site, but not consistent with blog readability. I see no reason to change the Q&A site, but I suggest we change the blog line width to 60 characters. Just this step alone would dramatically improve readability and the blog design would still be reminiscent of the main site.

Web fonts: There is no longer any reason to put up with Lucida Sans UTC-8 when publishing content. Professionally-designed web font services allow for a much more legible, and beautiful, reading experience. The only webfont service I have used directly is Typekit, which would be free for us, since they offer a free package to users with less than 25,000 views a month. There are at least a few alternative companies as well. Also, Typekit provides close relatives to Lucida Sans, like Luxi Sans, so the blog would remain in theme with the main site, while the readability would improve dramatically if we installed one or two web fonts.

Line rules and boxes to texturize the space: This is an area where the main site is currently much better designed than the blog. If you look at right hand column of the main site, you will see two input boxes at the top, an information box about the chatroom below that, information in a special meta color about meta below that, a blue-background section below that, and a list of (boxed) tags below that. By contrast, the texture of the right sidebar of the blog is essentially identical to that of the blog entries themselves. As a result, the page appears washed out, because there is no delineation between one type of content and another. So in this case, I think the blog should look much more like the main site. Perhaps the fix here is as simple as arranging plugins in a particular order, so they appear usefully in the sidebar. But, for example, the Twitter feed could appear in a blue-bordered box with the official Twitter logo on it.

  • Personal taste

Both the blue and the black are too white: I think if we deal with the above issues, that will solve almost all the problems, but another thing that concerns me is the flatness of the color scheme. This is particularly an issue with the black letters in the blog entries. Again, the main site is better here than the blog. If you compare the same letters on both sites, they are rendered more "blackly" and less pixelated on CSTheory than on the blog. This particular issue would be solved with a web font, but overall I would prefer more contrast between the colors of the letters and the background color. For example, I think the blue in the article titles should be darker.

  • Something to think about

Math rendering: I don't believe there exists a great math rendering package for the web right now, but, even so, I would like to raise the point that we don't need to be using MathJax. I don't have a better suggestion, though. For more than you probably want to know about rendering math on the web, see this blog entry, and the followup entry to it.

That's all I can think of for now. I'm sorry I didn't just post this when the blog first started, but I hope we can deal with it now.

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    $\begingroup$ Added later: I forgot about sharing buttons, even after I had mentioned them in an earlier comment. I would say the priority are Twitter and GooglePlus for TCS. (We have a Twitter plugin now, but the button in provides does not look good.) My personal blog experience is those two are the most used, then LinkedIn when I post about something chemistry-related, and Facebook (though FB may be my friends and family, so not relevant). $\endgroup$ – Aaron Sterling Sep 27 '11 at 21:46
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Since there has been no discussion, I would like to focus on the number of characters per line. Changing the number of characters per line from the current 93-97 to, e.g., 70, would be straightforward and would dramatically improve readability.

Please note that the following TCS blogs already have the 55-70 char width in place:

Terry Tao's blog (lines that end in long words get closer to 75-77 chars, most lines are 70)
Scott Aaronson's blog

Notable TCS exceptions are Richard Lipton's blog and Computational Complexity, which are both in the low 90s, similar to our current theme. In both those cases, though, there is a strong demarcation between blog text and other text: use of rules, boxing, completely different text color in the sidebar. (This is also the case, even more strongly, for the official Stack Exchange blog, which uses color extensively, to separate content.) Our current blog layout does not have those advantages.

So perhaps if we improved the contrast between body text and the background and sidebar, we could keep the number of characters per line the same (especially if we improved the font also!). I would be glad to try either approach, or both.

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    $\begingroup$ I do not say that it is worthless to try to improve readability, but honestly speaking, I do not think that improving readability is very important. People would read terribly formatted blogs with terrible navigation if the content is interesting (even while complaining about them). $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Sep 30 '11 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ @Tsuyoshi: Ha! And... I agree with you. But why not do both? $\endgroup$ – Aaron Sterling Sep 30 '11 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ If people have time, there is nothing wrong for them to spend time improving readability. I am just saying that it does not seem like a high-priority thing to do. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Sep 30 '11 at 16:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Tsuyoshi: My analysis also is that it is low priority, and that is why, over the last couple months, I have published content on -- and recruited others to provide content to -- a medium whose layout I dislike. Probably I should have spoken up immediately, before people were used to it. I held in my dissatisfaction with the layout, until just a couple days ago when I allowed it to come out in an undiplomatic way. I should not have done either of those things, of course, but I did. (more) $\endgroup$ – Aaron Sterling Sep 30 '11 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ Bottom line: I really don't like the current blog theme, and never have. There was never discussion about this before, or I would have made myself clear long ago, and I should have taken the initiative to do so when I made my first post. I thought there was going to be a discussion thread, the way there had been one about the design of the main site, so I was waiting for that -- politely, heh. Since there never was, I hope we can have it now. $\endgroup$ – Aaron Sterling Sep 30 '11 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ I feel your frustrations about the blog design from your posts on meta, but I fail to understand why you hate it so much. To me, the problems with the blog are more about functionality than design. For example, the inability to use the same identification methods as the main site somehow makes the blog look like an area detached from the Stack Exchange network. (more) $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Sep 30 '11 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ (cont’d) Surely you consider much more about the blog than me because you are an editor, but currently my honest impression is that it looks to me that you are arguing about details which many people do not really care. (Of course I may be wrong about what many people care.) $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Sep 30 '11 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Tsuyoshi: I don't hate it. I don't like it either. I am irritated by the irony that if we were using WordPress.com, my concerns would take 30 minutes to fix, but we are using the SE platform, so fixes will come more slowly, if they come at all. And yet, the content we produce for the blog is content SE owns, instead of, say, SIGACT. $\endgroup$ – Aaron Sterling Sep 30 '11 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ ... Be that as it may, I will read anything you write (if you respond again) but I probably will not continue commenting on this thread. I have made myself as clear as I can, which may not be good enough, but I will stop now, esp. if you are right and others do not care about this topic. $\endgroup$ – Aaron Sterling Sep 30 '11 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ I guess most of the regular readers typically subscribe to the RSS feeds, so they never notice what the blog actually looks like... (I am not saying that it does not need to be fixed – of course it should be fixed, the lines are ridiculously long. I am just suggesting that this might explain why so few people seem to care about it; many meta regulars are also probably using RSS readers.) $\endgroup$ – Jukka Suomela Sep 30 '11 at 22:46

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