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Fixed width vs liquid layout for on-screen reading

Now that I've updated my website I've been thinking again about readability in relation to line width. I spent a long time on the internet looking at different opinions. One school of thought recommends 'liquid layout', in which the line length is not specified and each reader's browser decides for itself how long the lines should be.

This is quite an attractive option since it avoids the need for sideways scrolling if you have a small screen and doesn't waste space on large screens. But on large screens it also means that text lines are very long, which makes for difficult reading. Some sites I look at have adopted this format but I don't think it makes for readability.

The alternative is to specify the width. (I know there are some hybrid schemes that try to have the best of both worlds but I'm ignoring those here.) If you choose to do that you have to decide on the width to specify. One of the best discussions of this question I've come across is The Line Length Misconception. This argues that the current widespread recommendation of short lines may be excessive and that lines that are 100-110 cpl (characters per line) are perfecty readable. This is followed by an interesting and knowledgeable discussion by readers. There is evidently room for more research.

In the light of this discussion I have settled for the moment on 82 cpl, with a text width of 550px. This is a compromise, of course, but compromise is inevitable. My screens have a resolution of 1600x1200, which is higher than average. The Statcounter survey shows most browsers viewing my pages at about 1280x1024 or even 1024x768. I've viewed my pages at these resolutions and they still look all right to me, so I hope they do to you. Feedback on this question will be gratefully received.


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