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Typeface or Font Readability

Which typeface (or font if you prefer it that way – moogk explains the difference) is the easiest to read, especially by less-accomplished readers?
I started this series of pages about font readability in 2004. I found I kept being told in a work context by those people who knew someone who was a world expert in these matters that such-and-such as font had to be used because it was the most readable, so I looked into it a bit.
And I thought, that’s fun, the world expert must be on shaky ground, so I began to put my researches onto my blog, to keep the thoughts in order as much as anything else.
The answer is, my researches have uncovered, that the question itself is, for various reasons, barking up the wrong tree.
If you are given a choice, then it does seem to be a natural human need to want to know which, among the choices you are given, is the best choice to make. This despite the experience that in many things, there is no absolute perfect choice. If you look in the cake shop window, you will not want to choose the same thing always, now, will you? At breakfast you might like a croissant and in the afternoon a cream cake. Everyone knows that don’t they? Do they?
And different fonts are used for different reasons; even if there was one that turned out by some magic to be ‘easier to read’ (whatever that means) than others, to use it all the time and everywhere would make life dull, tedious, utilitarian and poor.
Look at a newspaper. One aimed at the less erudite readership. What font do they use? Well of course they don't use a single font, they break up the page with variety. A singe font would make the page heavy and turgid.
Next, roll the newspaper into a tube, and whack those experts over the head with it.
I come at this not as a typographer but as an observer of human nature, and fonts seem have gripped the human imagination. I suspect the reasons have a lot to do with the desktop pc, and a wish to master its perceived intricacies. There must be an answer, is the wish of many.
I blame the education system (in most countries) that still seems to instill in people the idea that there is an answer to anything. It’s time that changed.
These pages discuss some of the things that you may be able to use as some form of evidence with those who are perched on their bar stool determining what is or should be. I hope you are lucky in liquidising the fixed view a bit; it will certainly be an uphill struggle. I keep thinking I’ll take these pages down, because typefaces aren’t really my subject, but then so many people from all over the world keep asking, what is the easiest font to read? that I kind of think it would be a shame to.
If someone says to you, ‘It’s been categorically proved that such-and-such a font is the easiest for people to read’, the first thing to ask yourself is whether it is a Microsoft font they are proposing and then consider Microsoft’s forgotten monopoly . Though whether the favourite font is from Microsoft or not, to think that we have recently discovered the typeface of universal optimum readability is, er, rather arrogant, or let’s be kind, innocent.
Typefaces in the sense that we know them have been around for something in the region of 550 years. For those who actually want to learn about using type, try for a startoff: 50 Totally Free Lessons in Graphic Design Theory by Danny Outlaw. See also The Typographer as Reader, by Will Hill on the Linotype Font Lounge. OK, some of that is a bit complicated and a lot to take in in one go. Just remember: varied blocks; not too dense; lots of air; line spacing. Don’t worry too much about which font.
And to rub in the point alluded to in the previous paragraph: t’aint what ya do it’s the way how’s ya do it! Which is obvious really isn’t it? The perfect font for readability (we’ll call it Ay Carumba!), set too close together, would give you a perfect headache. You know that.
Books have been written on how to lay out type, one of the best-regarded being The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst, about which, in relation to web pages in particular see The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web. That book and others like it will not tell you which is the best font to use, it’ll give you guidelines on how to lay out a page. There’s a web page discussing the issue of layout for readability (not fonts note, but layout) at The 100% Easy-2-Read Standard.
And now for something really sensible
If you have read my Typoface pages, you should surely by now have come to believe that there is no such thing as a ‘best’ typeface. And to prove it to your boss, who probably knows for sure that there is, you can show him or her the demonstration of typestyle in relation to fashions in clothing, that you can find at www.linotype.com/2258-16895/fashionandtypeface.html.
And further reading about legibility? You can’t do better than this: www.linotype.com/ 2258-16905/ aboutlegibility.html
And in colour?
There’s also the issue of readability of different colours of text on different hues and shades of background. This complicates the subject rather, and I’m in the process of building up some pages on this. You can make a start with Readable Text in Colour, which gives some thoughts as well as some Javascript, and with my text colour readability page and you can accompany this with experiments using TypeTester.
Essentially, when looking at colour readability, the hue (eg red, green, blue etc) is of minimal importance; far more important for readability is the relative brightness of text against background. That is to say, that red on green is perfectly readable (despite what your teacher said) provided it’s a light red against a dark green or vice-versa. You really should see my text colour readability page. Have fun!
Next page in this set: Arial v Comic Sans.

The Font Bullies

A Little Knowledge, and They’re Off! – August 2012
Why should anyone whose job it isn’t feel they need to be an expert in fonts (typefaces)? But they do, and there is something telling about it. I have yet to quite work out what, but I have some hypotheses.
The so-called Dyslexia Style Guide from the Dyslexia Association gives something of a clue as to what is going on, for it is not just fonts that are pontificated upon here, but a whole raft of things that the writer has learned a little bit about, and obviously thinks they are now the world’s expert on. And instead of coming over as expert, they sound to anyone who actually does know a little bit more about these topics as rather a joke, like the bloke on the bar stool who knows all there is to know about everything. And sadly, like the man on the bar stool, there are people out there prepared to believe this rubbish.
Rubbish? Who says so? Well, OK then, bad science, or unsupported assertions; assertions for which the evidence seems to be either that someone I know who knows about these things said so, or I tried it with my some of my students/patients/clients/mother and they liked it – classic bar stool.
So how does it come about that so often you see this sort of thing pontificated on, and why does it so frequently have the topic of fonts high on its subject list?
I am coming to believe it is deeply psychological, and connected with the nature of work. For something has changed in recent decades. In the old days, say, pre-1980s, when you went to work, someone told you what you had to do. Going even further back, to when many people worked on the land, you didn’t even have to be told what to do, you just knew. And for many, who followed their father or mother into an occupation, this state of inherent knowledge continued into industrial and commercial eras.
And then came along the desktop computer. And the person at the next desk said I dunno, you’ll just have to make it up as you go along like what I do. And mother hadn’t the first idea about it.
For some people, this was a welcome challenge. I am one of those. I was brought up in a social circle where anything could happen unexpectedly at any time – in working class north-east London – so getting a grip on the uncertain comes somewhat naturally. And I’m most certainly not going to be defeated by some flaky American machine.
But for others this is unsettling. If you believe that the world has answers, if your whole family culture and education are based upon the concept of right and wrong, while things out there keep trying to challenge the world being quite like that, then the desktop computer will be for you a jelly to be tamed.
And there on your word processing screen, there’s immediately in front of you a choice that you have no guidance on. The choice of a font!
Someone must know the answer - now there’s that bloke over there perched on a bar stool, probably calls himself an educational psychologist or something.
And this personal need for order becomes exacerbated further when we introduce the issue of the DISADVANTAGED.
For we all want to help the DISADVANTAGED now, don’t we? In fact that's right, most of us do want to, but whether this assistance necessarily means putting a kind of suburban middle-class order onto everything is a much mooter point.
Suburban middle-class? Who are you calling suburban and middle-class? Well right-on-ness is essentially that, in its insistence on there being only one way, the 'right' way.
I am not an expert in reading disabilities or dyslexia, but I feel confident in saying that dyslexia is not a single, fixed thing; there are degrees and types of it. And it surely is patronising to say that, whereas the majority of people can whiz through a newspaper or book without a second thought, those people with dyslexia can only be expected to do this if the font is 14pt Comic Sans printed on pink paper. Surely we want everyone to be able to enjoy the everyday don't we? Saying that someone with dyslexia must be restricted to infantile first readers seems to me to be patronising in the extreme.
So it is do what I say because I say so, and limit your output to the infantile for those less 'fortunate' than ourselves. Bullying and patronising or what?
But we must not forget to spare a thought for certain disadvantaged people, those for whom a computer is a scary mystery, a machine enveloped in a halo of iconoclasm.
It's all right, folks, uncertainty is fine, you only have to throw off your mantle of conceptions about the world. Well OK, I suppose that is easy to say.
And through all this, there is a significant thread running, because for those who hanker for the old, clear, certain ways, things aren't going to get any better. Somehow we as a society have to make sure that even the tree-lined avenue set can eventually learn to cope when they see a priest with no trousers on.

Arial v Comic Sans

Arial and Comic Sans, some thoughts, some good, some less so
You sometimes hear ‘expert knowledge’ that this or that font is the ‘easiest to read’, and this or that often seems to involve Arial or Comic Sans. This fashion for pedantry appears to be waning a bit now though, thank goodness, but is still about, e.g. see www.4dyslexics.com/dyslexia9.htm.
But then how about this:
The word that begins the title of the article is ‘ill’ with a capital i, i.e. Ill. The font is Arial, which as we are all told by those experts who know these things, is the most easy-to-read typeface ever invented and is essential for use by people with dyslexia, dontja know? Capital I and lower-case l in Arial must of course be easy to distinguish from each other, for the experts assure us they are.
The ‘evidence’ for the assertions about Arial and Comic Sans being the most readable of fonts is probably the University of Wichita whose results are highly skewed (see my Academic Evidence Base for Typeface Readability page)
Arial and Comic Sans are designed for use on your desktop computer. Neither of them was ever intended to be a printer’s font, so they don’t have many of the features that a font that is designed for print is likely to have, though of course not everyone knows that there is such a distinction and so will demand their favourite font – that which they have heard about as being so perfect – for everything including sometimes uses that are inappropriate.
Personally, I don’t take a stand on this in the sense of believing any one to be being better or worse, my view is that in the right place either could be quite comfortable to read, and in the wrong place (especially for example blocks of text for a quirky font like Comic Sans) either could be considerably less comfortable to read than a whole host of alternatives. I just think it’s rather a joke that, when it comes to fonts, many people demand cornflakes for dinner.
It seems that Arial (and probably Comic Sans too) are not very ecological.
And certain academics say that Arial is easy to read and Comic Sans hard.
I’ll comment on the two fonts one by one:
Arial
Some people believe that Arial is definitely NOT the answer that some others would have it to be:
Mark Simonson gives a rundown on the history of Arial and concludes, ‘ . . . a professional designer would rarely—at least for the moment—specify Arial. To professional designers, Arial is looked down on as a not-very-faithful imitation of a typeface that is no longer fashionable. It has what you might call a “low-end stigma”.’
www.mimeartist.com/helvetica, is a kind of game where Helvetica kicks Arial out of the way for, as the site says of Arial, ‘We don’t need its type round here’.
http://www.ms-studio.com/articlesarialsid.html, tells you how to spot the difference between Arial and two fonts it is based on, ie Helvetica and Grotesque 215 .
And why not take a look at www.cafepress.com/72dpi.1368492 which is not actually Arial but Helvetica (upon which the Arial font was based) and as it says on the page, ‘Annoy the crap out of your type-snob friends!’ – so I thought it was germane to include that one.
I have a page which demonstrates that the Arial font in particular can be very jiggety.
The Arial font, like many sans-serif fonts, makes little or no distinction between an upper case i (I) and a lower case L (l). So in a word like Illegal, set in Arial like that, the first three letters are pretty-well indistinguishable. The Verdana font distinguishes upper case i from lower case L clearly, viz Illegal, as does Comic Sans: (Illegal).
But there’s not many people know that. Lots of typefaces have these similarities between two or more letters and no one notices most of the time.
As an indication of that (that just about nobody notices what you might think would be a reading ambiguity), take a look at my Letter Ambiguities, a Readability Conundrum page.
There’s a page of discussion on whether Arial or Verdana is a more preferable font (that’s Verdana, not Comic Sans), at Signal vs Noise. No comment!
Comic Sans
Comic Sans is an eccentric font and can look rather daunting and rather garish, and the number of websites that try to use it for body text is mercifully diminishing. One example still extant at time of writing is http://www.peoplefirst.org.uk, a website maintained by people with learning disabilities, unfortunately. For an example of how Comic Sans can look poor on readability in comparison with a font of more uniform letter shapes, see my Fonts for People with Reading Disabilities page.
No typeface is right or wrong in every circumstance. The picture is an information sign in the village of Ravenfield near Rotherham in the north of England. Comic Sans is used for the body text (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what the font is) and in my opinion it works really well. I think it’s the concise text (that is to say not dense blocks of text) in combination with the light-touch drawings that makes Comic Sans look so comfortable. (You should be able to expand the pic by clicking on it, so you can read the type.)
In Comic Sans the a and o (a and o) can be hard to distinguish, especially in smallish point sizes, in a word like goal (goal).
On 28 April 2009 The Guardian newspaper in the UK printed an editorial piece called In praise of . . . Comic Sans and it generated a large number of comments on its web page; clearly Comic Sans is something that some people have strong views about.
I found it amusing to read Applications that annoy the appointments committee . . . on the forums of the Times Educational Supplement, where the writer, ‘TheoGriff’, under ‘Some of the daft things that I have seen:’ includes ‘Documents sent in non-professional font (Comic Sans)’. This has clearly shocked some of the people who commented on the post, who until they read that had no idea that Comic Sans was not the finest font known to humankind. But if it is going to annoy the appointments committee – oh dear!
Now for those Comic Sans fans in the world, of which I have come to believe there are some, how about this: Comic Sans for bus destination indicators. I have so far only found one place that uses this, and that is the eccentric Italian city (that is also one of my favourites), Bologna. It’s only some buses that have it, and I don’t know whether it is a choice that the driver can make, or whether there’s some other reason. Anyway here’s a photo:
I can find just one other example on the web, on this page and scroll down to Bologna. So far as I know Bologna is the only town where there are bus destination indicators in Comic Sans. Anyone know of any others? If so please do let me know as I would like to build up a collection.
Comic Sans for a bus destination indicator where the words are in upper-case is quite a good choice in my opinion , it has a leaning-forward look, and we assume the bus intends to be going places, and the capital I has serifs and so will not look like a number 1. Anyone disagree with me on this?
 

Serif v Sans-Serif – Arial Font Creates Optical Illusion

Readability Experiment
This is part of my pages on Typeface or Font Readability.
One of the supposed expert views that keeps on coming up is the assertion that sans-serif typefaces are ‘easier to read’ than serif typefaces. You can see some research that looks at this issue (and disputes it, while acknowledging that it’s a widespread view) at www.alexpoole.info/academic/literaturereview.html
On this page, I will clearly demonstrate that the reverse is the case – this page enables you, with someone who asserts very authoritatively that sans-serif is clearer for reading, to look at their backside, then you can tell them how clever they are to talk out of it.
There are two samples blocks of text below, one in Arial and the other with identical text in Times New Roman. The two samples you see here are in thumbnail, click on them to see the full-size samples.
The Arial sample looks like the lines of text aren’t straight. They are, but there’s an optical illusion that they are not. In the sample with the serif font (which is at the same point size) the effect is much less marked – the text looks OK and not climbing hills and descending valleys. With Arial it looks misaligned.
Arial
Times New Roman
Here you can experiment for yourself with different fonts and with more regular-style text. What this all tells us is not to be pedantic with guidelines, for those who do that are not as expert as they like to think.
Font     Set   Default font   Size pt.    incl. (n%) 
Countries  Recalc      Random Text
A pattern of text in certain fonts gives the illusion that the lines are not level. More marked the wider the window. Sans-serif fonts seem to be especially prone to this. Serif fonts suffer from the distorting effect much less seriously.
So there you are then, that settles it, a serif font is much easier to read, right? Except of course that this is a rather contrived experiment, for who would lay out lists of countries like that? Nonetheless, it does show you that what some people categorically think, is categorically wrong. Sometimes it’s fine, sometimes it isn’t, it all depends.
(Because this page does not ask for anything to be downloaded to your machine, it has no way of knowing what fonts are present on your machine, so it cannot give you a full dropdown list of fonts. The dropdown box just gives the Microsoft fonts that most people have. You can type in any font name in the ‘Font’ box and click ‘Set’, if the font in the font box is not found on your machine, the font from the default list will be substituted.)
If you uncheck the incl.(n%) checkbox for the list of countries, you’ll see that without the numeric percentages in parentheses the distortion illusion is much reduced, so it seems to be something to do with the parentheses, or the parentheses, numbers and percent sign, that aggravates the effect.
Making the font size bigger reduces the distortion, as one might suspect, since there will be fewer words on the line.
A word about Comic Sans. There are still some people who maintain that Comic Sans is an easy-to-read font of merit. Not on this page it isn’t, though – it’s a feast for sore eyes (it makes them sorer). Another strange observation about Comic Sans, that you will notice on this page. If you look at the country name, United States in Comic Sans, and compare it with, say, Morocco, or Lithuania, or Slovakia, United States looks altogether much bigger and wider. Of course it is much bigger and wider than those countries, as a place, but that’s no excuse for Microsoft to be so brazen about it. No wonder that some people have a downer on Comic Sans! (If you cannot see United States on the page, click on the Recalc button, which recreates the countries list using a randomiser.)

Typefaces (Fonts) for People With Reading Disabilities

Another of my pages relevant to the issue of readability of short and simple blocks of text is Capitals Rule ok. You may find that page a corollary to this one.
This is part of my pages on Typeface or Font Readability.
The issue of a ‘font’ specially designed for people who have a learning or developmental difficulty is a kind of perennial weed, it keeps coming up.
Personally, I think it is a disgrace to ask the question. In a time of attempts to integrate people who have a developmental shortcoming into society as much as possible, when even in countries such as Germany where that integration happens less than in some others there is pressure to move in that direction, the moment someone starts waffling on about fonts, they seem to want to bung the less-intellectual among us back in a kind of literate institution again. Why shouldn’t everyone be allowed to read the posters trying to sell us insurance? What’s all this discrimination?

A demonstration march by young people in Köln on 20 September 2013. They are demonstrating for the inclusion of young people with learning disabilities into mainstream education. In Germany people with learning disabilities attend specialist centres that are extremely well-equipped for the most part but are separate.
I am fairly sure that the people taking photographs are from China. There’s a good chance they’ll have absolutely no idea what the march is about as the leaflet that is being handed out is in extremely complex German.
So the first thing to do, if you want a font specially for those with learning disabilities, is to examine your own motives and prejudices.
Then once you’ve done that, read on, and you can use some of the ideas given here to counter those who claim with assured knowledge and authority that such-and-such has been ‘proven’.
You might think that a passage of text that can be read easily by someone who has difficulty reading passages of text, would point to a clear-to-read and perfect typeface. But no one has found it yet, and they won’t, it’s a crazy thing to want to do. Take a look at any newspaper designed for quick-bite reading, especially those aimed at the less erudite reader. They break up the text with a variety of fonts. Can you imagine them set in a single one? Really turgid! Who would be able to read that? It would be like The Times circa 1872!
And there is some distinctly dodgy guidance out there, for example Typefaces for Dyslexia, at www.dyslexic.com:80/fonts which makes the rather surprising assertion that the serifs found on traditional letter forms ‘tend to obscure the shapes of letters’. Pretty revolutionary, considering how centuries of practice have tended to indicate the opposite (see About Legibility by Adrian Frutiger).
May I recommend that you read The Science of Word Recognition from Microsoft Typography, by Kevin Larson. Though it begins with a rather amusing-sounding sentence: ‘Evidence from the last 20 years of work in cognitive psychology indicate[s] that we use the letters within a word to recognise a word.’ (My copy-edit in [ ] brackets). Gosh! That’s profound research isn’t it? But actually as you read on you begin to see that the sentence has a serious meaning, it’s just (inadvertently I’d guess) put in a way that sounds funny.
Kevin Larson’s paper talks about experiments in word recognition in terms of overall word shape and letter identification. It is very English-language oriented, and I would have welcomed some indication of experiments undertaken using subjects who did not know the meaning of the words they were being presented with, to see how much difference there would be in the findings, but all-in-all it does seem, from the experiments that have been done, that fluency of reading is much greater, when the subject is familiar with the content. Note that this doesn’t mean that they understand the words necessarily, more that they are familiar with the contextual content – you really need to read Kevin Larson’s paper for an explanation of what I mean here.
The implications for readability by people with a reading disadvantage are not touched on in Kevin Larson’s paper, but much may be inferred from it.
But then you read on and see that they say that serifs are ‘found in traditional print fonts such as Georgia or Times New Roman’, and you think, oh dear, those aren’t traditional print fonts, but Microsoft fonts. It’s the old story, someone has got a new computer and they think it’s really shiny.

There has been some research recently (in 2010) on techniques on how to make a page of text easier to read by dyslexic people, see a discussion on this at Monitor on Psychology interview with Kevin Larson on typofile.com. This is the same Kevin Larson referred to in the boxed text.
As a synopsis of the discussions and the research that has taken place, in a phrase, nothing has been shown yet, but it’s good these things are being looked at and it throws up some issues that are worthwhile taking a look at.
Next, go down the local bookshop, or if you like take a look at Amazon, and look at a few books. See if you can find one set in a sans-serif font. You may do, but if you do it will be in a very niche market somewhere. Why is that? Are book publishers so ignorant that they don’t know that NO ONE can read serif fonts comfortably? What bollocks! The opposite is true in fact, as you will see when you do manage to find some dense blocks of text such as in a book that are set in a sans-serif font. Try it for yourself and see! The reason you will find serif fonts in a book easier to cope with may be simply because the format in a book is one that you are used to, but who cares? If it works, it works.
Whether that observation, that a serif typeface suits the text of a book best, applies when a dyslexic person reads a book, I couldn’t say. Maybe a person with dyslexia requires a special print run, with novels set in a sans-serif typeface that the majority of people would find it more difficult to read than the usual format, with double sections in every bookshop, one with books for people with dyslexia and another for those who are not so afflicted. That would be equal-opportunity compliant would it not? Of course it would also be stark raving bonkers, but then we have to listen to these experts who know, you know.
Longish passages of text in regular patterns certainly can look jiggety in a sans-serif font as opposed to a serif one, see my Arial Creates Optical Illusions page. Notice that these experiments (that anyone can do at home) would tend to point in the exact opposite direction to many of the supposedly expert guidelines, indicating that it is the SERIFED fonts that are EASIER TO RESOLVE, though I have not, I must confess, tried out this page on people with dyslexia.
The b’s d’s
Read Regular is a typeface designed by Natascha Frensch at the Royal College of Art in London, specifically for dyslexic readers and has gained some level of notoriety.  (www.readregular.com). The claims for the Read Regular font as being better-read by people with dyslexia do not appear to be backed up by any independent evidence. Natascha Frensch has tried to make each letter a different shape from any other, so for example, d is different from mirror-image b.  But it’s not the only typeface to do that by any means. It appears that you cannot buy Read Regular but have to have the typesetting done in the studio of Natascha Frensch. Clever, eh?
In fact that feature much shouted about in Read Regular (and about some other fonts touted by www.dyslexic.com:80/fonts), that the shape of a letter b is not a mirror image d, applies to lots and lots of fonts. If you look at Myfonts.com and type ‘sans’ into the search box – I just did this and I can see from the results that the sans-serif fonts with non-mirror lower case b and d include: Alinea sans, Vista sans, Priori sans, Fedra sans, Benton sans, Ela sans, Relato sans, Freight sans, LTC Goudy sans, Placebo sans, California sans; etc etc etc, hundreds and hundreds of them, most of which you’ll never have heard of and the reason you haven’t is because they have not had a weight of marketing behind them. (And this is one of the reasons that I can confidently say that www.dyslexic.com:80/fonts is full of nonsense).
And in all of this, there’s something else. Do people who speak a language that doesn’t use Western scripts have more or less problem with dyslexia? Does someone who speaks both Arabic and English, of which there must be thousands, and who is dyslexic, of which there must be some among those thousands presumably, do they have more or less problem with Arabic script than they do with Western script? And the same applies to Urdu, Hindi, Thai, you name it. After all, you can’t get Comic Sans in Arabic.
Take a look at this article. It would appear that certain young people can find they are effectively dyslexic in one language but not in another, even when both languages use the same script. Oh. Where does that leave your expert font theories then?
And if you look at serif fonts, they nearly all have a ‘d’ that isn’t a mirror of ‘b’, including Times New Roman: b d.
Do yer Edin
There are a number of fonts said to be designed to help dyslexic readers to read better, another of which is to be found at Project Dyslexie and its effectiveness is said to be backed up by research from the University of Twente. But I have to ask the question, that presumably the university researchers didn’t: Can you imagine a tabloid newspaper set in only that font. Do yer head in, wouldn’t it?
Reading hand Writing
I’ve often heard it said that people with reading difficulties or disabilities find the letter forms that more closely relate to handwriting easier to deal with. This is especially significant in the lower case letters a and g. In a serif font like Times New Roman, say, a and g typically look like this:    a g. Or at least they do in their regular or Roman form; in the italic form they look like this:   a g, and there are some serif fonts, for example Bookman and Microsoft’s Georgia, where the Roman forms of a and g look like this: a g, and the italic forms look like this: a g. Notice that in the regular or Roman form of Bookman and Georgia the lower case a has three tiers. In the italic form, by contrast, the a is like an o with a line to the right, and the g has a tail rather than a loop.
(Note than in the above I’ve used text rather than graphics, so if you don’t have Times New Roman or Times, or Bookman or Georgia on your machine, you may just have to imagine it and believe me).
Sans-serif fonts vary. Some have the three-tier a (as do Microsoft’s Arial and Verdana) and some have a calligraphic-style (sometimes called infant-style)   a. Sans-serif fonts typically have a non-loop, tailed g, but not all of them do. Again a random selection from Myfonts.com, the following fonts have a looped g like you typically find in Roman serifed fonts: Priori sans, Leitura sans, Relato sans, Freight sans, LTC Goudy sans, California sans, Alinea sans, etc etc etc. Lots and lots of them. If you keep your version of Windows XP up to date or you use Vista, then you’ll have a font called Calibri and another called Candara, which are sans-serif fonts with a three-tier g.
And are Calibri and Candara good or bad for reading by people with dyslexia? Who asked that? Get to the back of the class!
Haze and Hose
Read Regular is one of those sans-serif with a calligraphic-style lower case a that is, as with Comic Sans, very similar to lower case o, (a and o in Comic Sans) and is one of the fonts that makes pretty much zero distiction between an upper case I (I) and a lower case l (L). That may be an advantage for dyslexic readers, if the authorities say so then it must be. Seems a bit unlikely, but there you go.
Does it strike you as you read this, that websites such as dyslexic.com, together with those people who maintain that this or that font style is better for people with reading difficulties, still have a bit of mugging up to do?
Strange typeface to use, with the lower case a looking very similar to o, when your strapline includes the word ‘banking’. Perhaps the van will get more customers than it bargained for.
Looped g’s and tiered a’s for the teacher
All that said, though, if you were to lay out some text to be read by a person who has a reading difficulty, and you used a font with a looped    g, you can be sure that some expert educator or another will tell you that this is not correct, that the target audience will not be able to read it easily. The research from the University of Reading, Typography for Children, is interesting in this respect, it found that there is no evidence that says that either serif or sans serif typefaces are intrinsically more legible, but teacher opinion, generally, favours sans-serif typefaces because of the ‘simplicity of the letter shapes’, by which they presumably mean the similarity of the letter shapes to those that the teacher uses when presenting handwritten words to their pupils. (For as you can quickly establish from a look at, say, Myfonts.com, there is no specific letter shape that is exclusive to a sans-serif font, except perhaps for the absence of serifs, which might be considered to make the letter shapes a bit more simple, possibly, sometimes.)
There may be something in the argument that letterforms that look rather similar to those that have been taught, will be better received by people who have a learning disability. I would imagine that this does not apply to someone with dyslexia, but for a person with learning disabilities, it may be a point to bear in mind. So far as I am aware, no real research has been done on this. And it begs the question, what typeface looks like the teacher’s handwriting, when you do not know what the teacher’s handwriting looked like?
Comic Sans is a fancy font in fact
But we’ll take a guess. Here are two passages, the first in a font called Architect Small Block, and the second in Comic Sans. These are graphic images so the fonts will be accurate and not dependent on what is on your computer (for more details on the rendering of fonts on a web page, see my page on Fonts on the Web).
Now while Comic Sans is much beloved by many teachers and self-promoted readability experts, in fact you’ll see from the above passages that relative to the font to its left it has quite a number of fancy letter features, the other passage is more like what you imagine the diligent teacher would have written on the board. Probably, the belief you hear sometimes about Comic Sans being highly readable is really that the teachers, well, they just like it.
And now, in colour.
Coloured Spectacles
Evidence seems to indicate that many people, not just those with dyslexia but also others who find reading to be a harsh experience, find a passage of text easier to read through a coloured filter or coloured spectacles. This is especially associated with a condition known as Irlen Syndrome. I have a separate page that discusses this.
Colour Blindness
I should say here something about colourblindness, which is a form of disability I suppose. http://colorfilter.wickline.org is a mighty clever and useful tool that lets you look at your website – or someone else’s – through a colourblindness filter. Very useful for testing one’s website indeed. You may be surprised, or not I hope, to find that the majority of web pages that are hard to read with a filter turned on, are also hard to read with it turned off. This is not to deny that those with, say red-green blindness cannot distinguish between red and green, rather it is that red on green at too close a brightness level to each other, while perhaps impossible to distinguish by someone with a colour perception deficiency, are also pretty hard to read by anyone at all. The following two pairs of blocks are in red on green, and I would make bold enough to say that someone with red-green colourblindness can read one of each pair easily enough, but will have a lot of difficulty with the other. It’s to do with relative brightness. In the first pair of blocks, the red is in fact identical in both the darker and lighter samples, even though it probably doesn’t look the same.
Read me well, sister!
Read me well, brother!
And here’s another example, where the green stays the same in the two samples but the red changes. The relative brightness has the greatest effect on readability, for as you can see, where the relative brightness of the colours is close, it’s not easy to read, even if your colour vision is 100%. Obviously more difficult if it isn’t, though with the second of each of the examples, everyone can read it OK, yes?
Read me well, brother!
Read me well, sister!
You can see more about type in colour on my text colour readability page.
Next page in this set: Capital Letters Rule ok .

Capitals Rule ok

Capital letters, what’s wrong with capital letters?
This is part of my pages on Typeface or Font Readability.
illustration by Geoff Adams
Some people, who know all about these things, say that sentences entirely in capital letters are what you don’t do; they’re supposed to be hard to read.
That may be right sometimes, but not always. Have you ever seen a comic book? Hard to read? Surely not. (Comics are traditionally done with upper case in the speech bubbles.) The use of upper case in comic strips is not so universal as it once was, but looking at the cartoon picture you can see the sense of it. Here I’ve used Comic Sans to look rather weak and pathetic and it works quite well in that way. The gangster’s speech bubble is in a traditional, strong, comic book face, and if I hadn’t told you that, I’ll bet you wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. I find the all-upper much easier on the eye, though again I must stress, in this circumstance.
The other thing to consider, when someone says to you with such absolute confidence that passages written in all upper case are nigh-on unreadable by young people, is whether 140 million-odd Russians can be wrong. For while Cyrillic script does have a lower case, it’s conventionally written in books looking much like what we who are used to Western typefaces would call small-caps – from a readability point of view the lower looks quite like the upper, as in the example. (Click here and some text should appear giving more details about this.)
The example shows Russian lower case letters, consider especially the ‘e’ and the ‘a’ Some characters do not exist in an uppercase variant in the Cyrillic alphabet. Refer to line 3, word 1, last character: it is a so-called ‘soft sign’ (мягкий знак), which only exists as lowercase in the common alphabet. This is comparable to the German ß, although there is an uppercase variant for it now.
my thanks to Tobias Pape for furnishing this information
Do Russian children find it harder to learn to read than do Western European, Australian or American children? I dunno, ask your teacher. (There’s a technical discussion about Cyrillic lower case at http://www.typophile.com/node/16550).

The idea that passages in all upper case are harder to read than those predominantly in lower probably stems from the observation that passages in all upper can be slower to read than those in all upper. Slower is not the same as harder, as slower is only an issue where speed of reading is of significance, and will be of no or minimal significance in very short passages such as you find in a comic strip. For the references to experiments that show that lowercase text is read faster than upper, see The Science of Word Recognition from Microsoft Typography, under the sub-heading ‘Model #1: Word Shape’.
However, I also quote from that same paper, sub-heading ‘Evidence for Word Shape Revisited’:
‘The weakest evidence in support of word shape is that lowercase text is read faster than uppercase text. This is entirely a practice effect. Most readers spend the bulk of their time reading lowercase text and are therefore more proficient at it. When readers are forced to read large quantities of uppercase text, their reading speed will eventually increase to the rate of lowercase text. Even text oriented as if you were seeing it in a mirror will quickly increase in reading speed with practice (Kohlers & Perkins, 1975).’ (The Science of Word Recognition by Kevin Larson.)
So it does seem fair to say that those who categorically announce that all upper-case sentences are unacceptable in normal everyday human existence are categorically talking out of their backsides. You can tell them that when you next get an opportunity.
Next page in this set: The Bigger the Type . . . .

The Bigger the Type . . .

. . . the further away you stand
You sometimes hear that the bigger you make the type, the easier it will be for people to read. Rather like shouting at foreigners to make them understand better. If someone says that for optimum readability you need 12-point text, say, then you could point out to them that:
this and this and this are all 12-point, in different fonts.
This screenshot comes from www.me-and-us.co.uk/psheskills/bva.html, a page that promotes a book that is designed to help teachers discuss with students issues about their beliefs, values and attitudes to life. Notice that the text appears to get smaller as it goes down the page. This is entirely illusion, it’s actually the same in each paragraph. Larger font size for easier reading? Weeelll, it depends.
One effective piece of research on whether people who are not necessarily all that erudite can read things in small type sizes, you can do yourself, on any day, on any bus, train or street. Look at all those folks busily texting on their mobile phones. Tiny type, but no one seems to be finding a struggle in reading it. Of course, there will be those whose physical or intellectual shortcomings preclude them from being able to use a mobile phone, including those who temporarily are unable to do so because they have left their glasses at home, but of those who are using one, it’s fair to say that they are of all sorts, including some who look to be less than high achievers.
You can experiment with different fonts in different sizes on this page by switching on the font changer which then appears in the leftmost column. Or you can look at fonts side-by-side and see how they look to you, at TypeTester though when I last looked, this sets type sizes in pixels not points. There’s sense in doing this, but of course won’t help very much to convince those people who see type sizes in the word processing software in points (a point is one 72nd of an inch (0.0353 centimeters), while a pixel is whatever size it is on your monitor, there’ll be a number of them to an inch). Fun to look at TypeTester in any case.
There are some comments on type sizes on screen at The 100% Easy-2-Read Standard. This argues for using the default font size for the browser, stating that while it might look big at first, you soon get used to it and come to love it, though it stresses that the way you make a passage of text most comfortable to read is by using an airy layout, and that the font size and type are of secondary importance.
You will find that the professionals – those who’ve given careful thought to this – consistently back this up: that the font size and type have to be looked at in context, they are not of themselves an answer to readability (repeat that final clause to yourself over and over).
A small experiment shows the big-is-better theory to be hard to support. I’m rather long-sighted, so if I take my glasses off, I can’t read the text on this screen. I can increase the size of the text. But in order to increase the text size to a point where I can read it, I have to make it so large that I still can’t read it, for though the size of the text increases, the size of the screen does not, so the number of words on a screen becomes so few that reading is unrealistic. With my glasses on, there isn’t a problem.
There is the issue of poor readers, though I have my doubts about the extent to which a poor reader reads significantly better with larger text. I’d be much more convinced by the use of simpler language.
And then there’s dyslexia. Do people who confuse letter shapes, confuse them less when the text is larger? Some people argue that certain people with dyslexia find that discernment of letters improves when the letters are made larger. I daresay it does, though does that mean they can read a passage of text easier? Depends on the volume of text I suppose.
But surely, newspaper headlines are in large type, and it’s much easier to read a headline than it is the body text, and surely poor readers find this especially so? Yes of course that’s true, and a written piece presented entirely as headlines, if it can be done, is an excellent way of communicating information concisely. It’s like they tell you, write it all as bullet points. But a whole block passage in headline text wouldn’t be easy to read at all, can you imagine it? It would be quite the contrary.
I found this paperback book quite hard to read. Not the content: that was easy, it’s very well written, rather there are so few words to a line, and I read it in bed, I felt I spent more time turning the pages than I did reading them. It was quite disconcerting and distracting until I got used to it. Can you imagine what it would have been like with 14pt text? That would be bonkers wouldn’t it? Oh, no, wait a minute, I could have read it faster, for those clever people tell me I could.
You might point to something like the research indicated at http://www.unc.edu /~jkullama/ inls181/ final/font.html headed, ‘In search of the perfect font’ that says
“Research shows that larger font size increases readability, especially reading speed. Bernard, Liao, and Mills(2001) found that older adults read both serif and sans-serif fonts faster with 14 point font than with 12 point font. In a later study, Bernard and Mills(2003) found that their study participants, who were not segmented by age, preferred 12 point to 10 point font regardless of whether it was serif or sans-serif. In a later study by Bernard’s research group, the evaluators found again that the smaller the font, the slower the reading time (Bernard 2002).”
Now you can take all the research you like but that’s just nonsense. There’ll be an optimum, which will be related to the size of the page on which the text is to be found and the circumstances under which it’s being read. You can’t believe a word these researchers say, believe you me. Notice that the references don’t say how long the passages being researched were, and this is in fact highly significant. Again it’s the headline versus block of text issue. It can be a problem with research, of people applying the results of one circumstance to a much wider range of circumstances. And really they should know better.
There is the ecological question to consider too when a page might be printed, as larger type uses more ink. Studies have shown this can be quite significant.
You should also see my page about the theory behind the Guardian newspaper’s choice of font and type size. For optimum readability, 8 point on 9.5, said their research (for a newspaper, being read on a train).
One circumstance where large text makes considerably more sense than small, is in public notices, where a message needs to be got over concisely and quickly. Akin to headlines in a way. For readability, the type size needs to be related to the size of page on which it is located.
When you hear "font size should be a minimum of 12 point", or whatever, please do just ponder a while. Sometimes that might be true, at other times it is quite simply dumb thinking.

Letter Ambiguities, a Readability Conundrum

Certain Typefaces Have Similar Letter Shapes
From the BBC News website, 29 December 2013. The word that begins the title of the article is ‘ill’ with a capital i, i.e. Ill. The font is Arial, which as we are all told by those experts who know these things, is the most easy-to-read typeface ever invented. Capital I and lower-case l in Arial are of course easy to distinguish from each other, for the experts assure us they are.
But note . . .
The photo to the left is of the nameplate from a railway engine, and railway enthusiasts are of all sorts, including, it’s fair to say, a sprinkling of the slowish-witted (one has to be very careful here, but I think I can say that without final contradiction). Has anyone, from this range of abilities including the less able, said they find this difficult to read? I’ve searched on the web but can’t find any indication of anyone saying they do. In fact the nameplate doesn’t look ambiguous at all, does it? It says illustrious dunnit?
But hold your hand in front of the final eight letters and try and read just the first three. Eek! All those theories about sans-serif fonts being so much easier to read, dashed – veritably dashed!
I don’t know what typeface is used for the nameplate – it’s one of those high x-height sans-serif ones.
There are some comments about the letter i and the letter L on my Arial and Comic Sans page.
Nothing whatever to do with typefaces or readability, but on the topic of railway enthusiasts, my observations tell me there is a railway enthusiast ‘type’, at least in the UK. Not all people with an interest in railways necessarily conform to type, but a noticeable number do, and I found a website where certain people who do conform to it have kindly posed for the camera. The website is especially useful for those who might otherwise feel themselves alone and unloved in their study of the topic of Closed Railway Stations in the UK. That is to say, railway stations that are no longer open.
There’s a picture on that site’s front page where the people of pattern are posing. Isn’t it wonderful? One of my favourite pictures on the entire web.

Irlen Syndrome

This is part of my pages on Typeface or Font Readability and in particular the issue of readability of text for people with reading difficulties. This page is not really to do with fonts, it comments on the issue of Irlen Syndrome.
Evidence, see www.irlen.com, seems to indicate that many people, not just those with dyslexia but also others who find reading to be a harsh experience, find a passage of text easier to read through a coloured filter or coloured spectacles. This is especially associated with a perceptual condition known as Irlen Syndrome.
Those who treat reading problems using coloured filters or glasses consistently report encouraging results, though it seems that no one yet knows why it should work. One effect of the filter will be to reduce the relative brightness of text against background, and it may be interesting to know whether text in a shade of grey, as opposed to text in black, on white paper has a similar effect, or whether black text printed on grey paper, or even on coloured paper, is equivalent. So far I can find no indication that anyone has asked the question, it’s all believed to be due to colour.
There is an academic study on the use of coloured filters for reading at Ophthal. Physiol. Opt. 2002 22 55–60. As with many academic studies, this one is obsessed with the results of the trials and on being academically rigorous, without seeming to be able to to stand back and ask the question: why?
The assessment for the coloured filters is sometimes done by adjusting the background colour on the computer screen, but looking at text through a filter will adjust the foreground colour too, which adjusting the background colour on the computer screen will not. You can (with modern web browsers) simulate a transparent overlay. You should be able to do that on this page by switching on the font changer which then appears in the leftmost column. That is not doing exactly the same thing as placing a filter in front of a printed page, though the perceptual effect is fairly similar. Of course with the overlay simulation on screen you won’t get any ambient light reflection, which with a physical filter, however anti-glare, there will always be some. More questions then.
All this seems to point to a relative brightness issue, more than one that is specifically related to colour, though obviously if you are a questioning digger like me more research is still to be done.
As anyone knows who has sat and read a newspaper under a tungsten or fluorescent lamp – ie just about everyone – adjusting the colour of the ambient light is something we soon get used to and don’t perceive as especially different from daylight conditions. So the reading through coloured filters is awash with questions. Obviously if it helps, then that’s good, and perhaps it’s only mean logical teeth-grinders such as me who want to question the science.
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