This points to my major problem with your argument here. I have no issue with the assumption that things should be readable, or the position that on occasion designers wander into a lack of contrast that’s damaging or bad.
But your argument goes further — that contrast should be as strong as humanly possible at all times because clearly, if it’s black on white then it’s perfectly readable.
There are other concerns! As people have said, a visual hierarchy is important. It’s more difficult to do on the internet than in print, because there are so many kinds of things that are UI or supplementary information as well as just text and headings. One of the tools we use is contrast.
If something’s a very large heading, then it’s still perfectly readable with less contrast. And moreover, if you put it in black, then it’ll look huge and ungainly and aggressive, because it’ll consist of great fields of solid black on a page.
If something’s a pullquote — which are mostly pieces of page furniture in large typeface rather than the copy you want to read—again you can lower the contrast. It breaks up the page, it adds some variety. It captures your eye because it’s large, but it doesn’t get in the way if you’re reading the piece. That’s what you’re after.
Similarly, if something is a minor feature (like a permalink or a list of how many people like something or a caption) then you tend to de-emphasize it in some way. One way is to lower its contrast. You draw the eye to the most important stuff.
For example in twitter, you want people on the whole to skip past the date stamp unless they’re really looking for it. You lower the contrast so that people’s eye skips to the text of the next tweet. You could make it smaller if you wanted, but that would also make it less readable. You could remove it completely, but then if people wanted to find it they couldn’t. So you choose a technique that explicitly is designed to make that part of the text a bit less visible than the others. This is normal. This is good practice!
And then there’s the branding. Full black on white makes things look pretty stark and cold and aggressive. And if you’re combining them with other colors, then it makes it harder to make things that look elegant, or subtle, or quiet or peaceful. It makes using primary colors more common. Most designers are trained explicitly in using tints and contrast appropriately to get the most from their medium in terms of emotional connection, atmosphere and readability. We don’t always succeed, but it’s always more than readability alone, just as buying a chair is not only about comfort, but also appearance, feel, how to fits with the other things in your home.
Sometimes you want to use a dark grey on a white or light grey precisely because it means that the screen isn’t like a lightbox blasting out at someone’s face.
Sometimes you don’t want it to feel cheap. Printing is often done on off-white paper. Ink isn’t always black. Contrast is not the be-all and end-all.
And honestly, some companies are insanely focused on testing things and seeing if they work and they still end up with less than 100% black and white contrast. Google is one of those. Their current homepage buttons are darker grey on lighter grey. Do you believe for one minute that they’d do that if the color made any significant difference to their bottom line? I don’t.
And while we’re talking about this, your view of designers is a weird kind of stereotype from the late 90s when people were experimenting with Flash and making all kinds of weird arthouse things. Mostly designers don’t just sit in a room with perfect light making beautiful things that don’t work in the world. They work for companies that care about bottom lines, that care about results, that care about conversions and click-throughs and funnels and users being able to complete purchases.
I’m not going to pretend that designers don’t also want things to feel right, feel nice or look beautiful, any more than I’d pretend that engineers don’t have arguments about code stylings or get obsessed with avant-garde technical approaches or clean, well-documented code. But I will argue that designers are also on the whole are professional people doing work with a purpose inside organisations where they collaborate with other disciplines in trying to find the best solution for their users.
So sure, let’s rightly critique the bad behaviour — the sites that have no contrast and have text in small sizes that are unreadable by many people. You may believe some of the design work I do falls into that category. That’s fine — we can debate that.
But please don’t take it to this bizarre extreme where something could always have a bit more contrast, where the last 0.001% of readability is worth sacrificing atmosphere, feel, pleasure or branding for everyone. Let’s not pretend that readability is the only criteria that matters when it’s also vital that a user is able to parse a page and understand what’s content, what’s navigation, what’s UI, what’s supplementary information, what’s page furniture, what’s legal and copyright information etc.
I know this has been a personal bugbear of yours for a really long-time, and I understand why. I’m also pretty sure we’ve had this exact argument before. Possibly multiple times. But my point remains the same. Yes, contrast matters. Yes, readability matters. Yes, it matters a lot. But just because it matters a lot does not mean it’s the only thing there is.