You read with your eyes – why layout matters

Nowadays there are more subtitles than ever, but it is often forgotten that the presentation of subtitles also plays a big role.

Thanks to new technologies such as automatic subtitling, e.g. on sites like YouTube, there are more subtitles than ever today. Nevertheless, this development also has a downside: people often forget that presentation also plays a big role in subtitling.

The following five subtitling mistakes show you the main focus points in formatting subtitles. The visual presentation makes the difference between average and excellent subtitling.

Mistake 1: Font too big or too small

Not everyone owns a 20-inch 4k TV. Subtitles are often displayed too small on smaller screens, whether old TVs or smartphones.

If the subtitles are open captions, i.e. part of the video’s image information, then the size and font cannot be adjusted. It is therefore generally not recommended to subtitle video material in this way.

Open captions are extremely rare in the digital age. But this mistake still happens, even with closed captions. This is often because the software on which the video is hosted (e.g. the streaming service) does not allow settings for font size. If the subtitles are not scaled by percentage, the subtitles may end up difficult to read on very small screens. You should check if the subtitles are displayed on different screen sizes and resolutions.

Error 2: Too many lines and alternating lines

Never display more than two lines at a time, because three or even four lines make subtitles difficult to read. You must always keep in mind that you only have a few seconds to read the subtitles.

In addition, subtitles should be on a fixed position on the screen. It is particularly annoying when a subtitle line always slides up. So, a line of text appears not once, but twice. If you notice the change of a subtitle, your eye automatically jumps back to the first line. But if the second line of the previous subtitle appears after the change, you read it twice. Very irritating. Even worse if this happens again and again, but not continuously. Then you are busier finding the next line to read than understanding the message of the text.

Mistake 3: No contrast

Colour and shading are as important for comprehension as the size of the subtitles. The colour should be chosen so that it is clearly visible and easy to read in all parts of the video. If this is not the case, it disturbs or slows down the flow of reading.

However, it is often almost impossible to find a colour that fits all parts of the video. The solution here is to use a frame, shading or background.

The colour of the frame should contrast with the text colour as much as possible. In the case of shading, the text colour should also be significantly lighter than the shade used, for example.

Text backgrounds that appear like bars over the video are mainly seen in teletext subtitling. But they are also used often in live subtitling because they are easy to read. Disadvantage: A larger part of the picture information is lost. With this solution, it is also important that the font and background colour are contrasting. Light-dark contrasts work best, as they can also be read well by colour-blind people.

Error 4: Placement

Ideally, subtitles should not appear randomly in different positions on the screen. Due to the increasing popularity of video posts on social media platforms, creative placement of subtitles has become more common. This is not always bad but depending on the type of video and amount of text, it is better to limit yourself to one or two different positions. Especially when there is a lot of text or the subtitles change quickly, they need to be placed in such a way that they can be found and read quickly.

Mistake 5: Overlaps and too short time gaps

Overlapping subtitles are a no-go. The only exception is if the subtitles are placed in two different places on the screen. However, this only works if the subtitles are short and/or are displayed long enough to be easily readable.

If there is too little time between the subtitles, the reader can’t prepare for the change of text. As a result, less of the information will be taken in and remembered by the reader.

Also important: The gaps should be of equal length whenever possible. This keeps the reading experience cohesive.

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