As in, portrait not landscape. It’s the way to go. Which is to say, tablets should be held with the short bits at the top and bottom. And columns of text should be long-ish and narrow-ish. There are consequences, in particular for tablets.

Some evidence, were any needed:

  • Books, which when opened are somewhere between square and wider-than-tall, divide their text into two vertical rivers.

  • Safari’s Reader mode and the fascinating Readability. (Interestingly, Safari offers Reader service on some of this blog’s pages but not others. I feel troubled that it sees the need on any.)

  • Newspapers. Already taller than wide, the text is still further sliced into tall-and-narrow.

  • The windows on your computer screen. Most screens live mostly in landscape mode, but many of your windows are tall-and-thin, and those that aren’t are often vertically sliced into panes.

Here’s the tablet conundrum: I find that full-size (i.e. iPad or Xoom scale) devices often sit most comfortably in the hand when held sideways. And, during a recent presentation I attended on app design for the tablet form factor, someone pointed out that a landscape-mode tablet, unlike a portrait-mode handset, recalls the shape of computer monitor; so presumably the user-experience lessons we’ve learned designing for monitors begin once again to apply.

Well, maybe. But what I foresee is a chance for overexuberant site designers to pack in marginalia and widgets and gadgets and social-media dung and so on ad nauseum. Thus requiring the services of things like Readability.

One solution on a tablet is to emulate book design and go two-column. But electric text wants to be scrolled, which doesn’t sit well with columnar layouts.

So hold your damn tablet the right way up. That’s the way the information wants to be, anyhow.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: John Cowan (May 22 2011, at 23:44)

I'm not so sure scrolling is as natural as we think it is. Non-geeks still find it pretty artificial and alienating: they prefer paging.

Also, newspapers aren't as narrow and wide as they used to be: broadsheets are getting displaced by tabloids (meaning the format, not the content) in the U.K., and even the Old Gray Lady only has six columns across the page instead of the eight I grew up with.


From: Jeremy (May 23 2011, at 00:30)

Anyone else remember those cool Wang monitors that could be used in both orientations?


From: Chris Swan (May 23 2011, at 01:50)

Portrait is also the right orientation for GPS devices. It perplexes me why makers of wide screen PNDs choose to orient things so that you see more of what you're passing (to the sides) rather than where you're going. I find an iPod/Phone running TomTom much more satisfactory when in portrait mode.


From: Reto Meier (May 23 2011, at 02:07)

Couldn't disagree more Tim. Apart from my mobile phone, almost everything I use to consume content is landscape.

My monitor and TV are both widescreen. My application windows on my monitor are *always* wider than they are tall. When I open a book to read it, it becomes wider than it is tall (split into two portrait panels sure - but it's still presented in landscape. Don't forget, they could easily print the text such that it's presented in portrait mode).

I'll give you newspapers, but I'm not convinced we should be designing tablets based on that paradigm. I never hold my Xoom in portrait mode (notably not even when reading a book).

I've seen people who rotate their monitors to portrait mode -- I wonder if this is a personal / brain thing? Some people just prefer portrait to landscape maybe?


From: Mark Russell (May 23 2011, at 03:55)

Re your note about Safari Reader: I use it on pretty much all blogs. Yours is better than 99.9% of other sites in giving me "just the text, ma'am", the RHS column is still noise as far as I'm concerned when all I want to do is read your most recent post. If I'm in any way typical, the average web author would be astonished at how high the bar is to avoid people reaching for the "Reader" button.



From: Michele C. (May 23 2011, at 08:29)

I can't imagine any good UI designer who decides that the best way to design is to tell the users they should do it his/her "damn" way. Seriously? If it's more comfortable to hold the device in landscape mode, then you'd better figure out how to put text in landscape mode.


From: Robert Lowe (May 23 2011, at 08:39)

The obvious counterexample is video, which is almost always landscape.

Oh, and Angry Birds.


From: Andy Lee (May 23 2011, at 08:42)

I often use landscape with Safari so the text will scale bigger. Maybe I would stick to landscape if there were a way to increase and decrease the font scaling like in desktop Safari. But I don't know -- turning the device sideways is simple enough and usually makes the text big enough for my weak eyes.


From: Derek Morr (May 23 2011, at 09:03)

Unfortunately, on the Xoom, if you hold it in any orientation other than landscape with the ports on the bottom, your framerate is cut in half. I heard this was supposed to be fixed in Android 3.1, but it wasn't.


From: Gary Walker (May 23 2011, at 09:15)

The real issue has little enough to do with the proper orientation of the device except in that portrait orientation is more conducive to display of an optimum-width line of text. The human eye doesn't deal well with a line of more than 35 em. This is something typesetters have known for ages and is why books, newspapers, etc. are set the way they are. If you need a more digital age example, look at the defaults for layout in TeX. They are sane and look good because they are based on the one universal piece of equipment involved, the human visual system.


From: Roman Nurik (May 23 2011, at 09:25)

More on scrolling vs. paging from Information Architects:


From: Peter Emery (May 23 2011, at 09:29)

I'll hold my tablet any damn way I like, thank you.

Who died and made you God, anyway?


From: @adambanksdotcom (May 23 2011, at 09:33)

Books divide their landscape visible area into two text columns, and you move to the next two text columns with a single discrete operation, not a continuous progression. I don't think that's a bad model.

We sometimes forget books didn't have to be the way they are; they ended up that way because it works. Where does the word "scroll" come from, after all?


From: Zellyn Hunter (May 23 2011, at 09:55)

"I'm not so sure scrolling is as nat­ural as we think it is. Non-geeks still find it pretty ar­ti­fi­cial and alien­at­ing: they pre­fer pag­ing."

Ugh. This explains why all my ebook apps have to pretend that their stream of information is divided into pages, and won't even given me an option of a scrolling mode...


From: Gary Walker (May 23 2011, at 10:03)

"Scrolling" is misleading. If you look at actual ancient scrolls they aren't unbroken columns of text. They were held landscape and scrolled to display columns of text which traversed the scroll's shorter dimension. Sort of like if you printed all the pages of a book next to one another on a long sheet of paper. Humans don't like long, uninterrupted lines of text or columns of text. We aren't good at processing text that way and trying to read documents formatted that way is extremely tiring.


From: Ken (May 23 2011, at 10:10)

This is my reasoning behind the 7 inch tablet. Once you have something the size of a Xoom or iPad, you are going after a desktop experience.

But a Flyer or Galaxy Tab 7 feels about like that usable of usables, a paperback book. And unless you're reading a website designed for wide screens, it's natural to HOLD in portrait mode.

I don't find a Xoom comfortable to hold in any orientation.


From: No_Thanks (May 23 2011, at 15:12)

@Gary Walker:

It's a well known conundrum that they human eye parses information better when it's in thin columns, but the human brain parses info better when it's contiguous wide blocks. There have been studies that show that it's likely that most western cultures have the thin column issue because of gutenberg style printing automation. IE it's easier to do (manual) type setting in small thin columns. This is/was reinforced with larger scale printing (think early newspaper) because it allows you to distribute the act of assembling your type across a number of different employees and then have a different set of employees be responsible for assembling the prebuilt columns into the individual page layout.

@adambanksdotcom Scrolls were what we had before books. You unrolled a section, read it, and then unfurled another section while re-rolling the section you had already read: a.k.a scrolling


From: Dave Walker (May 23 2011, at 16:38)

Good to see some lively debate on this :-).

I find that I use my iPad far more frequently in landscape than portrait; this is mainly for reasons of typing. I pretty much distinguish between a tablet and a PDA by the ability to get all ten fingers down onto the onscreen keyboard of a tablet; as I have fairly narrow hands I can just do this on an iPad in landscape, but anything smaller (or the same size but landscape) would be Right Out.

Also, some apps Just Work Better in landscape; ironically, i wouldn't be without the tall, thin scrollable window on the left of iPad Mail which lets me literally flick through my inboxes :-).


From: Bill Seitz (May 23 2011, at 20:19)

I think a big different between tablets (and other mobiles) vs devices with bigger monitors is that those bigger systems support having multiple windows opened, even from multiple applications. (Even though this idea seems to escape a surprising number of users.)


From: Rob (May 24 2011, at 00:53)

When humans develop eyes, one over the other, then vertical screens will seem natural.


From: Tim (May 24 2011, at 00:53)

I could not agree with you more. One thing I hate about my Dell Streak is that it is built for landscape. I only ever hold it in portrait, unless I am playing a game, viewing a photo or watching a video. For reading, browsing, etc.. PORTRAIT!

Problem is: all Android tablets are built for landscape. It's because of the aspect ratio. You have a 4:3 aspect ratio like the iPad and you are invited to hold the thing portrait. Try holding the Xoom portrait and your hand falls off.


From: Sam LG (May 24 2011, at 09:33)

+1 for "us[ing] landscape with Safari so the text will scale bigger".

Another, very personal, quirk: my eyes are relatively light-sensitive, so I wear polarized sunglasses pretty much all the time. When I had an iPad, the only way I could see the screen through my polarized lenses *at all* was to hold it in landscape.

(I also can't see most of the current Apple displays in their landscape orientation.)


From: Geekboy (May 24 2011, at 11:03)

Interesting. I had to stop and think about this, and I realize that (except for watching video and playing board games) I hold my pad almost exclusively in portrait to CONSUME data, but then flip to landscape when I want to type. I didn't even notice that I was doing it until i did it to post this very comment.

Thinking about it, I do it all the time for email – reading upright and then flipping to type in landscape, but until I ready this post I never noticed I was doing it. I would guess that is a pretty solid vote for portrait being the natural way to read with a tablet *shrug*


From: Hub (May 24 2011, at 11:04)

(How did I miss that past without DF)

Orientation is IMHO a real issue, whatever the device is.

Yes we are used to landscape. But do you know a lot of book in that format? Worse: papers being published in PDF in two column. Looks like they still use an obsolete presentation for a modern distribution, and each time I encounter such a paper I swear, because it hard to read on a laptop screen (landscape) and is only salvage on a 30" screen by being able to have it big enough to be readable and fit the whole page in the vertical dimension.

Does anybody remember the vertical screen for DTP that were sold for Mac in the late 80's mid 90's. I do. Does anybody remember the Radius Pivot screen? The only thing close to that was the fancy Dell 19" screen I had for work, but unlike the Pivot, it didn't tell the machine that the screen had been rotated by the user.

And yes, I use my iPad mostly in portrait.


From: Chris N (May 24 2011, at 11:11)

Fun debate.

I prefer landscape mode for my iPad, primarily because Safari displays a larger font size in landscape mode than it does in portrait mode. Offhand, I'd say it's 10pt vs 8pt. Sure, I can zoom in with an unpinch or double-tap, but somehow it is just more natural to hold it in landscape.


From: John (May 24 2011, at 11:34)

Agreed. (See example)


From: Will G. (May 24 2011, at 12:49)

I have two 4:3 monitors at work and I really wish that the right graphics card drivers installed so I could do side by side portrait. Hooray for centralized government computer images.


From: Dave Kosiur (May 24 2011, at 13:12)

You seem to focus only on text-based usage. I have some excellent examples of ebooks with two-page spreads of photos, or a photo with accompanying text on 2 adjoining pages, where the landscape mode is the ONLY way to view the content properly.

Aside from games, the weather apps I use, along with my journaling app and to do list apps all are better viewed in landscape mode.

I'd estimate that my use of an iPad is probably split 75:25 between landscape and portrait modes, despite the fact that I read quite a few PDFs on it and hardly play any games.


From: mbaDad (May 24 2011, at 13:20)

I agree for hand held devices, it simply fits your hand better and is easier to hold.

wide landscape does fit out vision better, but even that can be taken to extremes. For example I prefer 16:10 ratio monitors for there extra height to 16:9 HD monitors we are being force fed these days.

On my 16:10 1920x1200 laptop monitor I usually run two windows side by side. Either 2 separate web browsers, or word and web page to do research on, or two word pages side by side (too bad excel does not like this).

I don't understand all the 16:9 tiny tablets hitting the market. Except for watching movies that is a really odd form factor.


From: Tom Dibble (May 24 2011, at 14:31)

"Another, very personal, quirk: my eyes are relatively light-sensitive, so I wear polarized sunglasses pretty much all the time. When I had an iPad, the only way I could see the screen through my polarized lenses *at all* was to hold it in landscape."

I find that somewhat annoying as well. Of course, it's because you are using "driver's" polarized glasses (which reduce the glare off horizontal surfaces) and the iPad also has a polarized screen (critical in keeping the LCD screen working and pixels separated). The "nice" effect of this is that, when holding the iPad horizontally and wearing polarized lenses, the iPad is about the same effective brightness with or without the glasses, but the rest of the world dims significantly with the glasses on. Makes for a really nice "immersion" setup.

In any case, though, Apple's use of polarization here on the iPad (favoring landscape mode when wearing sunglasses) compared to their use of the same on the iPhone (favoring *portrait* mode when wearing sunglasses) seems to send the signal that Apple expects the iPad to be used primarily in landscape while the iPhone is used primarily in portrait. Or it may just be an accident :)

It'd be Really Cool if the polarized filter on the iPad screen could be rotated or disabled, but such is not within the realm of possibilities for polarized filters and non-square shapes, and obviously would end up completely countering the purpose of the LCD screen altogether unless you were also able to somehow "rotate" the geometry of the individual pixels in place at the same time.

I just live with either reading books in landscape (ie, two columns) or take off my glasses altogether and find a spot in the shade. I suppose if the only prescription glasses you have are polarizing, the latter is not an option.


From: Peter Meyers (May 24 2011, at 14:38)

I smell of whiff of fake provocateur in orders like "hold your damn tablet the right way up." Me, I spend a ton of time reading with my iPad in landscape mode; it's how, for example, Apple's case works best for elevating the device at an angle — at the breakfast table, for instance. iPad apps like Flipboard, Zite, and Twitter on my iPad spend most of their time in landscape mode, too. So crunch that anecdata and consider factoring it in to your next bit of reading advice ;)


From: Rzah (May 24 2011, at 15:21)

Portrait is better for reading text, landscape is better for moving or still images. This generation of Tablets are the first devices to really take this into account with apps designed to present data differently depending upon their orientation.

The real debate here is whether 4:3 or 16:9 is a better compromise. I suspect the sweet spot is somewhere between them. 1:1.414 perhaps.

*Another iPhone user that only uses landscape when a site's font is too small and finds it infuriating when the designer crippled this utility by recognising orientation to make even wider columns of tiny bloody text.

Just my tuppence


From: Tablazines (May 24 2011, at 15:46)

First of all... thanks for using the cover of one of our publications in the video. :)

I do almost everything in landscape mode with the exception of reading iPad magazines because it just feels more natural to me.


From: Miara (May 24 2011, at 15:46)

I'm not sure books and newspapers are a good example, since their format is in large part a historical artifact of the original technology (securing short piles of blocks is physically easier than securing long piles) and, for newspapers, the problem space (you want as many headlines adjacent as possible).

Personally, I prefer landscape mode, mostly because of the font size issues brought up by others (no zooming doesn't solve the problem, since it simply spills text off the side of the screen). A quick check with a piece of paper tells me that all the windows currently being displayed on my monitors are also wider than they are tall.

I believe the true answer here is "people is different". (And I like parentheses.)


From: Richard Lawler (May 24 2011, at 16:16)

One thing I like about the 16:10 format tablets like the Galaxy Tab 7, Xoom and others is that the user actually has a choice of two fairly different configurations. And the application can really present two very different ways of viewing and controlling the information. (This is even more the case if you take into account the permanent ornaments that take up screen space like the system bar on Honeycomb.)

4:3 doesn't present as much of a variation (it's wide vs kinda wider), and the different layouts UI designers come up with that accompany the two configurations often seem simply obtrusive. (As in, "why is there no toolbar?" "Where did the controls go?") Just as on your laptop, the same options could be offered with a single landscape orientation and a soft-switch. (e.g. "display list of email on left: on | off") The screen rotation as a configuration switch is more of a gimmick.


From: Patrick Quinn-Graham (May 24 2011, at 17:11)

I find I use both modes, maybe leaning a bit towards portrait with the iPad.

On my android tablet however I almost never use portrait - 16:10 is an awful aspect ratio for a tablet (too wide in landscape, too tall in portrait), and in portrait lines appear between the rows of pixels that you can't see in landscape, so I just stick to portrait.


From: AlfieJr (May 24 2011, at 21:49)

gee whiz. some things work better one way, some the other. personal preferences vary too. who cares? that is, if you have a 4:3 screen. or 3:4.

the advantage of a 4:3 screen is both orientations are very useful for a wide range of stuff. whereas the 16:9 screens Android is optimized for really push users to use landscape most of the time. but hey, it's open! in landscape, anyway.


From: Tobias Cohen (May 24 2011, at 23:36)

Actually, I think landscape is much more natural. Movies are in landscape for a reason - people see in landscape. Just think about the arrangement of our eyes - they're lined up horizontally, not vertically. Humans have a greater field of vision horizontally than vertically. About the only thing you'll find that wants to be in short thin lines is text, and that's only because the wider a block of text gets, the harder it is for your eyes to trace from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. And the way that text is arranged is a mere matter of convention. Chinese, for example, is traditionally written in top-to-bottom vertical lines, from right to left. That's a format that would be far more at home on a landscape tablet device than a portrait one, and would also have all the advantages of our wider horizontal field of view. Columns are just a hack to help us deal with the fact that we chose to write all our lines of text on the wrong axis.


From: Simon (May 25 2011, at 02:41)

I'm with you on this. I can happily hold my iPad2 in one hand in portrait but not in landscape. Video content works fine on a landscape 4:3 screen but text portrait on a 16:9 is too narrow - Apple obviously did the usability testing on this and, I think, made the right choice.

On a side note I still don’t like 16:9 screens on small laptops. I love my widescreen monitors (20”+) as they let you work on two documents side by side but on a laptop either the resolution isn’t there (or if it is screen objects become too small) to do that. Most ultra-compact laptops (eg HP2530) end up with dead space above and below the screen - dead space that would have enabled a 4:3 screen with higher res and more work area.


From: Hamranhansenhansen (May 25 2011, at 10:23)

It doesn't matter which view you use most, that will vary with each user. What matters is you have both so you can use only one display yet have it do both aspects, and the modes have to be easy and transparent to switch between, so there's no penalty from going from video to an office letter. Computer screens didn't switch (generally), but printers all have horizontal and vertical orientation, and office documents and printed photographs come in both horizontal and vertical aspects, so movies, now that it is easy to hold a movie camera sideways. So both views are needed if a single screen is going to be universal.

I think 4:3 is essential. A 4:3 device is more useful than a 16:9 device because almost everything with a layout is sized for 4:3, and what isn't, is easily adapted onto 4:3 in a letterbox with room for captions and controls above and below. The 4K video standard is 4:3 and a letterbox sits within it for 16:9 content, so video is not a good reason to do 16:9.

Computing is horizontal 4:3 all the way. Even on a 16:9 screen you see the same 4:3 about-10-inch virtual screens (windows) as everyone else. Removing menus and distractions when you turn. computing app vertical is a nice extension of computing into the vertical. It would be great so see desktop displays make turning them easier, but the truth is, you are better off just adding another monitor in vertical than turning a desktop display.


From: XO (May 26 2011, at 06:43)

I find that landscape balances better for me when holding the iPad from behind with one hand. The shorter height and wider width is more stable and minimizes the need to tilt the wrist.

Since this the dominant way I hold it, i would be disappointed if the trend went the other way towards portrait. With tablets, designers need to look beyond vision and incorporate posture into the equation.


From: dare (May 27 2011, at 00:04)

It's electronic text, not electric ie electrical text. Perhaps it's electrifying, but never electric.

Bloody computer scientists. Stick to your own expertise!

Marginalia! I love it! Goes with Dirt Nasty's "regalia" which means stuff ie things ie cool things eg big gold chains (watch the "1980" music video by Dirt Nasty)


author · Dad
colophon · rights
picture of the day
May 22, 2011
· Technology (90 fragments)
· · Publishing (160 more)

By .

The opinions expressed here
are my own, and no other party
necessarily agrees with them.

A full disclosure of my
professional interests is
on the author page.

I’m on Mastodon!