legibility vs. comfort

paul d hunt's picture

Today at Reading, we had the first part of a series of seminars looking at typeface legibility. In it we presented two papers and discussed them, the first one being Kevin Larson's "The Science of Word Recognition" and the second being "ClearType sub-pixel text rendering: Preference, legibility and reading performance" by Sheedy, et al. The Sheedy paper is the one that sparked my interest. In it 5 legibility studies on CT are discussed and if I understand correctly, the results have thus far been inconclusive as to whether legibility is improved with the aid of CT technology. However there was 1 study that asked subjects to self-rate factors of comfort of reading. It occurred to me that comfort may actually be a more important factor to consider than legibility or speed when speaking of reading. It seems less important to me to discuss whether people can read something as opposed to do they want to read something based on the degree of comfort or discomfort created by the type. Of course, there are some situations (such as highway signage) where legibility and speed of reading is important, but I believe that in a majority of situations these factors are less important. When focusing on the factor of comfort, the problem as it seems to me, is that it may appear to be a soft target when compared to legibility/reading speed. I have heard talk of studies that are looking at the effects of patterns created by type and certain patterns actually creating discomfort, even at the level of causing stress and fits in the reader. Personally, I think that this aspect of reading is the more interesting one. If any of you have opinions or can shed more light on this topic, I would love to hear what more can be said in regards to the comfort or discomfort caused by type.

Tim Ahrens's picture

I totally agree! This quest for speed always seemed to me a bit modernistic. Form shouldn't only follow (supposed) function but other things as well.

ralf h.'s picture

In my understanding "readabilty" and "reading comfort" are the same thing.
In German we don't have separate terms to describe legibility and readability, so I use "Lesekomfort" (reading comfort) to translate the word "readability".

So with reading speed you directly measure the comfort. It's not like you could read something fast, but feel uncomfortable doing it. It's because of the comfort that you can read it fast.

William Berkson's picture

>It occurred to me that comfort may actually be a more important factor to consider than legibility or speed when speaking of reading.

Paul, I have been arguing for three years here on Typophile the same thing. I guess you haven't been interested in those threads.

'Ease of reading' is the 1960's definition of readability that I cite in the typowiki. I have repeatedly proposed in these threads that decline in comprehension with time, or speed with time, or both, be used to measure mental fatigue. Eye fatigue is probably another matter.

I am reading more about this now, but am about to travel. I'll post more when I get the chance.

blank's picture

I think that reading comfort is important because it breaking through a readers comfort zones can be a great way to manipulate them. For example, if the Harry Potter novels had been set in Eureka Serif and not whatever traditional Aldine they were set in, it would have fought against the warm fuzzies feelings Rowling uses to pull readers into her story. But in books that come at a reader from a deeper or more radical perspective, it can be useful to deliberately use something unexpected; good examples would be Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Talents and Warren Ellis’ Crooked Little Vein, both set in modern faces (Didones IIRC) that keep the reader from settling in effortlessly. Of course one has to be careful not to go too far; I’ve gone through a book about the Bauhaus set entirely in Futura and wanted to kill the designer by the end.

This approach is not limited to books, of course. If a signmaker passes over Arial/Helvetica for Meta, the most generic sign suddenly becomes a lot more eyecatching, especially if there’s a g in there somewhere. The NYT article on ClearviewHWY noted that ATT became much more successful at spreading its message after a switch to ClearviewHWY. At the Dallas/Fort Worth airport I noticed people staring at the letters in the signage, just taking in how good whatever typeface it was really looked; good luck pulling that off with Helvetica.

At the end of the day it all comes down to remembering to break Typographic rules now and then.

paul d hunt's picture

In German we don’t have separate terms to describe legibility and readability

That's the great think about English, we have terms that split hairs infinitely. I don't think that the comfort i'm referring to here is the same as legibility. I think something can be perfectly legible and may yet be uncomfortable, but I could be wrong. Maybe what I'm interested in boils down to personal preferences, as what is comfortable for one person may not be for another. In relating to CT, I think it's great to have a tuning tool that allows the user to tune the rendering to their greatest degree of comfortable reading. The studies I cited above show that there is not a significant difference in legibility for differing levels of CT adjustment, but they do show that there is a clear preference by users for certain settings over others. It would be interesting to try to find out what unconcsious factors affect making decisions about what type readers find more or less comfortable.
In regards to the studies written about by Sheedy, they were funded by Microsoft. My understanding is that Microsoft's goal is to make the reading experience of reading on screen as comfortable as reading on paper. The fact is referred to that people often prefer to print out documents rather than to read them on screen. I doubt that printed documents are that much more legible than screen documents. I think this is due to the fact that it's simply more comfortable to read the printed document than the on-screen version.

I guess you haven’t been interested in those threads

I used to read them, but found that they often get bogged down quite rapidly. I guess I should expect the same here.

crossgrove's picture

Legibility means it can be deciphered; decoded. It's more elemental. Readability does imply something about comfort; it can be read at length without discomfort. 2 different things, Paul.

ralf h.'s picture

I think something can be perfectly legible and may yet be uncomfortable

Of course! I didn't talk about that, because I was assuming the people here would all agree on that.

In relating to CT, I think it’s great to have a tuning tool that allows the user to tune the rendering to their greatest degree of comfortable reading.

I think this is just about what everyone is used to. I startet to use ClearType as soon as it was available and soon after that, hated it to look on screens without it. Now I am on a Mac and don't like to read text on Windows anymore. I don't think the Mac rendering is better, I am just more used to it.

dezcom's picture

I agree with you Paul. Too often, readability threads get into pißing contests that become more about opinion clashes of the posters than just helpful discussion.
I think that reading comfort, as you describe it, is different than the typically cited number of eye movement regressions definition of readability. What Paul is talking about is more the social science way of seeing preference of reading rather than the physiology measure of eye movements. That is not to say that there may be some degree of correlation between the two. What the correlation means, however, is still a matter of opinion. For me, there is great value in examining the user preference angle. I do feel it is a moving target by demographics or specific intended audience. My mother's type preference is not the same as my daughters no matter what the Larson studies say.

ChrisL

blank's picture

Now that I think about it, how do we make Adobe aware that some of us might be more comfortable with the option to not use the rendering engines built into Adobe’s software?

Edit: I’m not trying to derail this thread into Adobe rants, but it raises the idea that giving users options in this area is probably beneficial.

dezcom's picture

Perhaps much of it is about definition. Perhaps what I mean is "User defined preference in reading comfort" as opposed to physiologic measure of reading comfort.

ChrisL

paul d hunt's picture

2 different things, Paul.

yes, i know.

Readability does imply something about comfort

i think that what i'm trying to address is less about "readablility" that takes comfort into account as one factor, as much as it is about pure reading comfort. Personally, I feel that these two concepts warrant distinction, if others don't agree, i'll drop the issue.

enne_son's picture

Paul, I think things become bogged down because we assume that everyone has a basic undestanding of what legibility and readibility are. And to a great extent we do. When we cannot read something because of how the characters are formed we say the writing is illegible, and when we cannot navigate a text because of how it is set or layed out we say the text is unreadable.

The problem arises when science introduces measures — like frequency of regressive saccades, or reading speed — to precisely gauge these largely lived-experiential matters. Science tends to use metrics that don't fully encapsulate the reality it tries to investigate.

The solution is to not generalize data about small differences in the frequency of regressive saccades or small differences in words per minute to bald statements about large issues. That a serif type performs better than a sans across a wider range of trackings is not necessarily a statement about relative legibility. It might just mean that sans serif types are more sensitive to bad spacing.

You ask about the importance of comfort relative to legibility. To me they are countervailing pressures. Legibility is a basic requirement, so should be fully understood. Comfort a human need that promotes the engagement a text seeks.

John Hudson's picture

Peter's last post should be read and re-read by everyone involved in this and other discussions on legibility and readability until it is fully absorbed: a clear and succinct description of the experiential and experimental context of these discussions, with some sensible advice re. generalisations from data.

John Hudson's picture

There is only one crucial measure of readability, and that is comprehension. All other measures -- speed, comfort, pleasure -- are meaningful only relative to comprehension, because if one hasn't taken in what the text contains (which is not necessarily the same thing as understanding the text, which depending on the nature of the text may take years) then everything else is worthless. We read in order to comprehend text; everything else -- the pleasure or pain the text gives us, the things we do with the information therein -- is secondary. One can go further: comprehension is reading, reading is comprehension. If you read without comprehending, you are not really reading, you are just going through the mechanics, when what matters is the result. Most discussion of readability focuses on the mechanics, rather than on the result.

I want people to be able to read comfortably because, as Peter says, comfort is a human need. So in other words I want people to comprehend text while in a comfortable state. There are other human needs that can be typographically addessed: aesthetic pleasure, cultural connectivity, a sense of both history and progress. Unfortunately, the most common experimental measure, relative to comprehension, is none of these things, it is speed. Capital makes speed a virtue, because 'time is money'. But speed is not a human need.

Nick Shinn's picture

Comprehension, yes.
And beyond that, will it change your life?

Colin Weildon's research, which, as he's an ad man, is in a somewhat different league than Kevin Larson's, asked readers questions about facts buried in the text, to see which type layouts work best. Sans vs. serif, that sort of thing. The goal was to find out what best gets readers deep enough into the text to respond to the "call to action" in an advertisement, which appears well into the copy, if not at the end, urging them to call now or clip the coupon.

The sense in which a comprehension of advertising copy may become actionable is similar to whether the ideas in a novel "stick" with the reader, because it's one thing to comprehend the grammar, another to get what writer is saying, something else to be moved by the writing, and something else again to read words that change your life -- whether it's buying something new or changing your political viewpoint.

Type can do all that.

gerry_leonidas's picture

Very strange to make this comment here, but anyway.

I have heard talk of studies that are looking at the effects of patterns created by type and certain patterns actually creating discomfort, even at the level of causing stress and fits in the reader.

The main research in this area is from Arnold Wilkins, from the University of Essex. He has identified a narrow range of frequencies which cause discomfort (or may trigger worse effects, such as epileptic fits). The periodicity he has identified can be seen in any modulated image: from a floor pattern to a painting; of course, typeset text was a prime candidate to look into. He has had some interesting results, well worth looking into.

Oh, and he was in the Department last week: we are looking to test the effect across scripts, and we have some ideas about the contribution of counter shapes to the onset of visual stress or its absence.

See you tomorrow!

ebensorkin's picture

Nice thesis' Paul, Peter, John

I think it could be useful to make subjective reported comfort something we look at seriously. It's squishy as hell as a "measurement" but it's also super duper cheap! If it turns out as suggested that that it correlates well to things that are objectively testable ( but whose tests are expensive/tricky to do ) it might be just the crutch needed while we wait for enough type research to occur to really be helpful. Maybe I am wrong but I expect to be waiting a long time.

eliason's picture

My daughter's teacher just told me today her reading facility is many grades ahead of her actual grade, but her reading comprehension a couple of years less so. Maybe the type in her books is too fast!

Nick Shinn's picture

Do we really need measurements to tell us that Helvetica is the most comfortable typeface?--which I'm sure they will.

John Hudson's picture

but her reading comprehension a couple of years less so

Did you ask them to define what they meant by comprehension? I presume they are linking comprehension to vocabulary, so if someone doesn't know the meaning of a word they are judged not to comprehend the text even though they may have a perfectly sound grammatical comprehension, i.e. they understand the structure of the thoughts but not all the content. That's fair, but vocabulary is something that facilitates reading comprehension: it is a resource that is used during reading, rather than being something intrinsic to reading as an activity (it is also used during speaking, writing, and a good deal of thinking).

John Hudson's picture

Eben, do you really think we need a crutch? It seems to me that, as a species, we've been making language visible and reading it for many centuries now, and if anything we've demonstrated extraordinary facility at it. When you consider the range of linguistic systems, writing systems, spelling systems, and the range of shape sets and styles within which humans read effectively and comfortably, the idea that we need reading science to help us seems perverse. I am very interested in reading science, but I don't really expect it to be practically useful to typeface design. I think it might be able to explain the why of some things, which interests me, and one of the things I would like it to explain is that extraordinary facility with which humans read. That's worth knowing because it would tell us something about what we are. I'm not sure that it is worth knowing that test subjects read X typeface fractionally faster than Y typeface in document setting A. If I think about everything that makes typography compelling, delightful, significant, that kind of information barely registers. Indeed, the factors that might influence a typographer to use typeface Y instead of typeface X, despite the demonstrated readability advantage of the latter, are all more interesting than that advantage.

eliason's picture

I presume they are linking comprehension to vocabulary

The anecdote the teacher related was my daughter reading aloud flawlessly and fluently a passage, but then being unable to answer questions about its content. It wasn't so much a matter of vocabulary, I think, as that her attention was on performing the pronunciation, not on getting the content.

Maybe choices of typeface should be "throttled" to the reader, allowing him or her to go no faster than he or she can digest mentally! Or maybe they should be throttled to the text. Can't speed through the bold sans serif of your copy of "Critique of Judgment"? Good! Kant deserves the time that that printing demands! And after that, check out this edition of Lacan's Seminars, entirely in Curlz MT!

dberlow's picture

Paul:
"...we presented two papers and discussed them [...] the second being “ClearType sub-pixel text rendering [...] by Sheedy, et al. The Sheedy paper is the one that sparked my interest [...] studies on CT are discussed ...

Are these Sheedy, et al studies, illustrated with examples of the fonts that were used in each study?

Thanks in advance, so I don't have to buy another one and find nothing to look at :)

Cheers!

paul d hunt's picture

Are these Sheedy, et al studies, illustrated with examples of the fonts that were used in each study?

The article is not greatly illustrated. There is one printed image of screenshots taken from MS Reader of Verdana 10 pt at each of the Clear Type levels, I didn't think that this illustration was that clear or helpful.

jupiterboy's picture

Do we really need measurements to tell us that Helvetica is the most comfortable typeface?—which I’m sure they will.

The Met's internal style guide for wall texts etc. states that according to research Helvetica is the easiest to read. I've often wondered about that.

To me the legibility vs. comfort issue is like barometric pressure vs. melancholy. One has the promise of scientific measurability, the other is some amalgam of sensory input, perception, two eggs, and fresh oregano if you have it.

blank's picture

Do we really need measurements to tell us that Helvetica is the most comfortable typeface?—which I’m sure they will.

The great thing about these studies is that they’re contradicted by the studies of features that make type easier to read. Just start contrasting them with all the studies that show the importance of legibility and counter spaces and the whole thing falls apart. Such an position might not actually get one anywhere productive, but at least it’s easy to shut down people who argue in favor of Arial or Helvetica because of some horrid study.

dberlow's picture

"The article is not greatly illustrated"
No Grey Scale to look at compared to the CT then, thanks, saved $30 for now...

John: "Peter’s last post should be read and re-read..."
I agree with you. But in my opinion, 'science' does not introduce measures. I think things become bogged down because we assume that anyone has a basic understanding of what legibility and readability are, and I think legibility is a personal requirement, so it can never, ever be 'fully understood.' When one removes the human element(s) from discussion as Peter does, it may word well, while in practical application, it's an infinite loop, unless, of course, it is a dead end instead.:)

Cheers!

paul d hunt's picture

there is a greyscale rendering of Verdana as well in the same graphic i mentioned above, i don't think the PDF article reproduced the distinction well enough in the illustration, but maybe it'd different in print?

ebensorkin's picture

You write a hell of a paragraph John! And for the most part I agree.

Also I would be very interested in even a very short description of what you think make typography or even just letters/writing compelling, delightful, and significant.

But having read your reply I also feel like I am in a semantic trap of my own making. The word "need" isn't crucial to the meaning I had in mind but it informs a good deal of what you wrote. To say need does, if you spin it as you have suggest that there is something very broken here. That's where I agree with you - there isn't. Quite the opposite. You wrote ...but I don’t really expect it to be practically useful to typeface design. And there again we agree. I don't either - especially any time soon. But if it was useful at some point, and you could actually make use of it to make a clearly more comfortable engaging design, then I think we would also agree that would be wonderful. Am I mistaken?

* I can't expect a tome can I?

ebensorkin's picture

David, I don't think anybody is say "fully understood".

Renaissance Man's picture

Maybe it's time to drag The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible out of the closet.

Nick - It's pretty rare that I see mention of Colin Wheildon in this forum. I was fascinated with the results of typography's affect on comprehension and retention.

enne_son's picture

David, in another place I tried to relate legibility and readability to affordance. This means that legibility and readability are ‘for us’ values. Perhaps instead of saying it should be fully understod, I should have said affordance ranges and thresholds, across what dimensions, and how much they vary, should be fully investigated.

ebensorkin's picture

But Peter they can't really be "fully" investigated. That suggest thats as a scienetist you might run out of questions. You won't because every result you get has potential to raise new questions & hypothesis'. Moreover it is that false sense that Science could be used to swallow up a field of interest & somehow answer all questions that seems to motivate the seemingly fearful reactions we have seen. Or that's what I think anyway. What do you say?

John Hudson's picture

Eben: Also I would be very interested in even a very short description of what you think make typography or even just letters/writing compelling, delightful, and significant.

I like reading.

John Hudson's picture

Eben: But if [reading science] was useful at some point, and you could actually make use of it to make a clearly more comfortable engaging design, then I think we would also agree that would be wonderful.

It would be exactly as wonderful as anything else that contributes to good typography -- that's the measure of usefulness after all -- and that takes me back to what I wrote, in the other thread, about scientific data becoming indistinguishable from anecdotal data at the point of usefulness. There is a risk that we -- or someone else, e.g. a customer, which I think is Nick's concern -- will fetishise scientific data in a way that weights it inappropriately, that treats useful scientific data as somehow more wonderful than other kinds of experiential data.

ebensorkin's picture

will fetishise scientific data in a way that weights it inappropriately

THis is well put. And I agree when that happens it is very clearly a mistake. It isn't that Scientific inquiry is better or as you beautifully put it "more wonderful". It's that it is differently wonderful. There is no reason that one kind of inquiry has to take up the space of another. Maybe when it comes to funding, but intellectually, no way.

That access to the benefits Science is not evenly or equitably available is on the other hand a legitimate gripe.

...about scientific data becoming indistinguishable from anecdotal data at the point of usefulness. Maybe. We won't know until they try though. Init?

Kevin Larson's picture

there is a greyscale rendering of Verdana as well in the same graphic i mentioned above, i don’t think the PDF article reproduced the distinction well enough in the illustration, but maybe it’d different in print?

The text being tested in this Sheedy article are five different forms of ClearType. ClearType figures out which sub-pixels should be turned on ignoring color, and then tries to diffuse the perception of color. The different forms are using different degrees of color filtering. At one extreme is nearly unfiltered text, which is very sharp, but very colorful. At the other extreme is a grayscale, which has no color but is less sharp. This is not a traditional grayscale as it doesn’t use a box filter, but a rectangular filter. The default form of ClearType that we’ve been using is the middle selection of the five options.

Unfortunately it’s very difficult to show these differences in print as they are dependent on LCD subpixels. The best way to see the differences between these text samples is onscreen using MS Reader. Three of these options are now available as tuning preferences in WPF.

Cheers, Kevin

Kevin Larson's picture

I agree with the sentiment of other posters that there are many way to misuse the data from studies, and care needs to be taken to not overgeneralize from the results of any study. Our goal shouldn’t be to develop a marketing/advertising literature, but to understand what makes a good (legible, readable, comfortable, pleasant, and engaging) reading experience.

Peter makes a very interesting point when he points out that the metrics that scientists use like reading speed, comprehension, eye movements, distance threshold, and preference don’t precisely match our intuitive understanding of a good reading experience. And the Sheedy study didn’t detect reading speed or distance threshold differences between the five versions of ClearType, but did find that version 1 had a higher preference with the 10 point text and version 2 had a higher preference with the 12 point text. People are able to see and prefer differences between the ClearType versions, but they didn’t result in measurable performance differences. In several other studies researchers were able to measure both reading speed and preference differences between ClearType and black & white rendering.

My intuition is that there is a (complicated) relationship between reading performance measures and a good reading experience. Of course I could be wrong. There is much still to be discovered, and new measures likely need to be developed. At ATypI 2006 and in Typo Magazine I talked about one measure we developed looking at affect and measuring the corrugator (frowning) muscle. At ATypI 2007 I talked about research into measuring eye fatigue – this work will hopefully appear in Eye Magazine.

dezcom's picture

"this work will hopefully appear in Eye Magazine."

What a perfectly named magazine to publish this subject matter in :-)

ChrisL

Nick Shinn's picture

the results of typography’s affect on comprehension and retention.

Right Steve, retention is the concept.

Related to that is re-reading.
I often reread text, for varying reasons. It could be a software manual, and that makes it painful. However, I'll also reread a passage that explains a new idea perfectly with a clever turn of phrase, just to enjoy the writing. I read several parts of Understanding Web Design by Jeffry Zeldman more than once, especially the section The Sustainable Circle of Self-Respect, man that guy can write, and I share his sentiments. If you find writing that puts your own thoughts or feelings into words, the clarity is worth wondering at. At the other end of the spectrum, I'll usually skip bits of novels I find boring. When reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, a novel written in the person of an autistic child with a penchant for maths, I must confess I didn't read a single one of the paragraphs containing mathematical formulae, which the author had tried so hard to integrate into the story.

enne_son's picture

Paul, to go back to the begining I wonder if you or the other participants of the Reading seminar are aware that my 2004 Thessaloniki presentation “Lateral Interference, Response Bias, Computation Costs and Cue Value: Perceptual Processing Touchstones for Typedesign and Typography; or Why Strategic Construction, a Well-Motivated Contrast Scheme and ‘Space Craft’ Still Matter," was a direct response to Kevin’s “The Science of Word Recognition?” Both were printed in the Czech design magazine Typo along with papers by Mary Dyson and Hran Papazian.

Essentially the paper questions the “science” of the “science of word recognition.” and in doing so draws inspiration from Ole Lund’s Reading PhD on legibility studies.

My focus was and is neither legibility studies per se nor human measures testing, but perceptual processing in reading, that is perceptual mechanics. It is meant to address the typographer or type designer's pre-understanding of what they are manipulating in the context of their making.

ebensorkin's picture

Paul, what are your thoughts?

paul d hunt's picture

my thoughts are that i still have a lot of reading to do... the second part of the seminar is coming up, i'll see if this article is on the agenda...

ebensorkin's picture

I think it would be interesting to divert this thread back to "comfort". Because I am thinking about Urbana these days I thought I would suggest that one reason Urbana works as well as it does is that it has a nice balance of soft & sharp shapes. It is neither soft and amorphous nor does it sparkle. Getting a nice balance between these is one aspect of comfort.

Got other variables that contribute to comfort?

Chris Dean's picture

Impressive thread. Have not read it all. I will try to contribute soon.

Richard Fink's picture

Gee. So what does a poor schnook like me do to make the stuff on his blog more "comfortable" to read?
As the guy who owns the domain names readableweb.com/readable-web.com, I'm more interested in presenting the "how to" aspect of this subject.

@ralf
I found your information fascinating. Is there a German word for "decipherable"? In English, it seems to me the word "legible", in ordinary usage, is interchangeable with "decipherable". Meaning a series of glyphs large enough and detailed enough so as to be able to distinguish one glyph from another.

Kevin Larson's picture

The article about eye fatigue that I mentioned above was published by Eye Magazine last year. The web version lacks the images, but all the text is there.
http://www.eyemagazine.com/opinion.php?id=157&oid=414

Eye strain caused by poor typography (small text and low contrast in this study) results in a different physical response than eye strain cause by an inability for the eye to properly focus (accommodation and convergence) or eye strain caused by poor transmission of text to retina (glare and astigmatism). For these two poor typography conditions the solution is quite clear: high contrast (black/white) and larger text than is used on the Eye magazine website.

aaronbell's picture

@kevlar. I thought that was a really good article and it had a lot of strong points, but I really wish they had made the font size bigger to make it easier to read! I ended up using Readability to get through it. Hahaha....

dezcom's picture

Economy meets readability when the publishing industry has to scale down the text size to reduce printing cost and make room for ads.

ChrisL

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