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TYPE DESIGN · September 10, 2009

How We Read

A common maxim among type designers is that drawing a typeface isn’t about drawing beautiful letters: drawing a typeface is about making beautiful words. A typeface is a collection of separate parts that have to work together in every possible combination to form unified words.

Words can be very different from each other. A word can be as short as a single letter, or a word can be incredibly long. A word can be all lowercase letters, or a word can be all uppercase letters. A word might be a combination of both upper and lowercase letters. A word can include punctuation, like a hyphen or an apostrophe. A word might even contain a combination of all of these.

Let’s look at how the reader perceives words and some of the basic ways the typographer influences this process.

How We Read

Reading is a complex phenomenon. Both typographers and scientists have studied it in attempts to figure out what exactly is going on with our eyes and brains when we are reading. Their conclusions don’t always agree.

For example, a typographer will most likely tell you that readers don’t like uppercase text. A common theory is that uppercase is too monotonous. Conventionally, text is set in lowercase. Lowercase text seems easier to read because the reader recognizes the word shapes formed by the ascenders and descenders.

In contrast to this, a scientist might tell you that all-uppercase text is just as readable as lowercase text. In the lab, it has been proven that a reader can get accustomed to reading all-uppercase and read it with as much ease as lowercase.

The problem with the scientific conclusion is that it doesn’t take into account a reader’s expectations and preferences. Readers aren’t used to all-uppercase text and will find it harder, or simply annoying, to read. They prefer lowercase text. But human guinea pigs in the lab are not very likely to put down a page because they don’t like the way the type is set; they’ll do their best to accomplish the task. Typographers take into account readers’ preferences and typographic tradition when deciding how to compose a document.

Relying only on tradition, however, will give you a limited understanding of typography. The theory of word-shape recognition sounds good and seems to make sense visually, but the scientific conclusions suggest that something important is going on inside the words also. This shouldn’t be a surprise to typographers, who know from experience that there are many important factors involved in making something easy to read, including font choice, point size, and spacing.

So what is going on when we read? Try watching someone’s eyes as they read. You might expect to see the eyes scanning smoothly across the page, following the lines of type. But if you look closely, you will see that they are flicking back and forth in very small movements. You don’t need scientific instruments to conclude that what is going on is more complex than just processing the letters sequentially from left to right.

What’s Going On?

When we look at a drawing, we see the whole thing. Our eyes move around the image, taking it all in. Different parts might attract our attention first, and the composition will direct our eyes around the page; but in our minds, we think of the drawing as a whole.

A word is like a drawing. Our eyes move around to take it all in, but we perceive it as a whole thing. Reading is much faster and less random than looking at a drawing though. The eye movements are more practiced and unconscious.

In fact, when we are reading, our eyes are constantly jumping around in discrete, irregular movements. Back in the 1880s, a French ophthalmologist named Émile Javal observed this phenomenon and coined the term ‘saccade’ to describe it.

Thanks to saccades, our eyes take in the word they are reading, while flicking ahead to get an idea about the next word, noting the first one or two letters, and even flicking further ahead for clues about how long that word is. Our eyes may quickly flick forward and backward across the letters, but the image of the word in our mind is stable.

All this action takes place within a small area of focus which is limited by eyesight and how much practice one has reading. The job of the typographer is to set the type so it works well within those limits. Two of the biggest factors to consider are the point size and the spacing.

Point Size & Spacing

Point size and spacing determine how much is going on inside the reader’s area of focus. With experience, the typographer learns how to get the right balance between too much and too little.

The type shouldn’t be set too small. Every reader has experienced being unable to read something because he couldn’t see the words well enough. If the type is too small for our eyes, we cannot decipher the letters and the words are illegible.

Type can also be cumbersome to read when it is set too large. When the text is set too big, the words don’t fit comfortably within the area of focus. It is like viewing a large painting from only one or two steps away. You cannot see the whole thing at once. For most text faces, a comfortable size for people with average vision is around 10 points.

If there is too much space between letters, the structural integrity of the words deteriorates. Letters that are spread out too far will fall outside the area of focus. Resolving the letters into words becomes difficult and slows down reading.

Letters that are too close together can also make it hard on the reader. When too many things are crammed into the area of focus, the eyes can quickly tire and the reader will become overwhelmed.

The built-in spacing in a good text font, where the inter-letter space tends to be slightly smaller than the counter space, usually provides a comfortable overall spacing. This may be adjusted for certain circumstances by adding or subtracting tracking, but generally keeping the tracking set at zero is a good starting point.

The Typographer’s Job

The typographer’s job is to work within the limits of the reader’s preferences and eyesight so the words go smoothly into the brain. With experience, the typographer is able to judge what settings will be the most comfortable for the reader.

It is similar to judging the right volume and speed when talking and listening. Some people speak too softly, while others shout. Some speak so fast it’s hard to understand them, while others speak too slowly. Usually, we can figure out what a speaker is saying; but if it becomes too much work to listen, we lose focus and don’t receive the message.

The reader can usually still decipher a poorly set text, but he might not receive the author’s message as well. The typographer’s job is to set the text in the appropriate tone — not too big or too small, and not too tight or too loose — so the message comes through perfectly clear.


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