The Ergonomics of Computer Code

Computer code serves a dual purpose. It must be processed by a machine, but also readable by a human. And preferrably not just the human who wrote it, but any well-educated human.

In the Old Days (tm), programmers didn't need to think very much about how their code would be displayed. In the 1970s (for the purpose of this discussion, I'll assume history began with the UNIX Epoch), you usually had a cathode-ray tube which could display two colors: black, and either green or amber. To simplify the hardware, fonts were monospaced, meaning that each character took up the same amount of horizontal space on the screen. Line lengths varied between 40 and 80 characters.

vt100 Programmers didn't have to worry about which colors to use to display code. The hardware designers made that choice for them when they selected the phosphors used in the monitor. The idea of writing code with more than 80 column line lengths was obviously bad, because the monitor would have to wrap the text.

Of course, we don't labor under these constraints today. Big monitors are cheap: on, I can order up a 32-inch monitor for around $400. Even at 75 dots per inch, that huge monitor could display a gigantic line length. And of course, so-called "retina" displays can display somewhere north of 200 dots per inch. Proportional-width fonts have been technically feasible since at least the day of the original Macintosh in 1984.

Despite all these technical advances, most programmers continue to use monospaced text, displayed with a muted color scheme, with a line length of somewhere between 80 and 100 characters. For example, the coding standard used by the Apache HTTP server specifies that lines must not be longer than 80 columns. The obvious question to ask is: are programmers using these standards because of tradition, or because they're better?

Monospaced Fonts

Why use a monospaced font? Well, code often contains lots of punctuation characters such as exclamation points, carats, dots, and so forth. In a proportional-width font, these characters are often very narrow relative to the other characters, making them easy to miss.

It's easy to align text when using a monospaced font, simply by adding spaces. You also know that the spacing and line lengths will remain the same when another developer views it with a slightly different monospaced font.

Line Length Limits

Why limit the length of lines? There are a few reasons.


Consider this diff:

diff If we had line lengths that were hundreds of characters long, it wouldn't be possible to display a diff like this, with the old version on the left and the new version on the right. You could argue that with a really giant monitor we could still do it, but in order to read such a stretched-out diff, your eyes would have to go back and forth long distances, causing eyestrain.

Multiple Windows

It's helpful to be able to display multiple files on the screen at once. For example, when you are moving a subroutine from one file to another, wouldn't it be nice to be able to see both of them at once? Of course, even with long line lengths, you could split the screen horizontally to accomplish this. But then you've limited the amount of vertical context you can see. Even without any line limits, there will always be short lines sprinkled throughout the source code. Reducing the vertical context limits the amount of information you can see at once.

Good Style

The more indentation your program uses, the more context a person reading it has to keep in their head. Most programming languages allow code in a nested scope to access things in enclosing scopes. For example, in Java, non-static inner classes can access the variables of the enclosing classes. Since you want to limit the cognitive burden on your readers, you generally want to limit indentation.

Line length limits are a good way of limiting indentation. If it becomes difficult to keep the code within a reasonable line length limit, that's usually a red flag that your variable names are long and unwieldy, or that you have nesting that is way too deep. In fact, the Linux kernel style guide uses 8-space tabs for indentation precisely to limit excessive indentation.


When you are done reading one line, you have to find the beginning of the next line. This is easy when lines are short, but becomes harder and harder as lines get longer. There is a reason why newspapers and magazines still display text in multiple columns!

Color schemes

Some programmers like to read light text on a dark background; others prefer the reverse. As far as I can see, the main rationale for using a dark background is that it allows you to look at something that is less bright. (I remember one programmer described trying to read text on a white background as "trying to read text printed on a lightbulb.")

Personally, I use a light grey background. I do this because so many other applications I need to use on a daily basis, like my web browser, generally use a light background as well. I find it jarring to move my eyes between a window using a dark background and one using a light background.

I think it's important to note that you should not use a bright white background with black text. I have found that staring at high-contrast text for hours on end tires out my eyes. That's why I always configure my terminal to use a grey or off-white background. I wish that the upstream maintainers of xterm and other software would make this the default.


Over the years, developers have created a set of conventions that make it easier to read and understand computer code. Although it may seem tempting to dismiss these as artifacts of the past, as long as human beings are at the keyboard, these conventions are going to be a part of our future.