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I have what I hope to be a simple question: what is the smallest comfortable size for continuous reading for a type like Dante or Garamond?
Your question isn't that simple I'm afraid. All kinds of parameters influence readability, like medium (paper or monitor), light, colour (ink) et cetera.
Keep it no smaller than 9 points, no bigger than 12.
The scientific article by Legge and Bigelow linked in this typophile thread addresses this and will give you a detailed answer. If I remember rightly, below .2 degrees of visual angle for the x-height seems to be a limit for fluent reading. Since x-height varies with typeface, the minimum point size can vary a lot with typeface.
A decently crafted typeface of the classical style should be well-reading at 3 points for shorter texts, at 8 or 9 pt.s for longer ones.
Remember that the smaller the type is set, the wider, the lower the stroke contrast, the higher the x-height, and wider the spacing should be. These aspects help legibility and readability at small sizes. They are called optical size, and only very few typefaces have these.
I think Andreas's number of 3 points for short text is generally too low if you are talking about reading with comfort. The article of Legge and Bigelow give a range of 4 to 40 points as the general "fluent" range, but that includes I think very large x-heights, as the visual angle is more precisely .2 to 3 degrees for fluent reading. They give several convenient conversion methods, including that visual angle at 40 cm (16 inches) is point size divided by 20.
The x height of Adobe Garamond is a little less than .4 of the point size, and working from that I get 10 point as the smallest fluent reading size (.2 degrees visual angle of x-height) for Adobe Garamond. They define "fluent" as being able to read at maximum speed. Of course you can decipher letters at much smaller sizes than that if you stare at them in very bright light. But that's different from reading fluently, and with comfort.
To me that 10 point minimum of comfort for Adobe Garamond seems reasonable. Now typefaces designed for reading below 10 point normally have a larger x-height, so I would expect that Garamond Premier, which has optical sizes, could go smaller for the 'caption' optical size. By comparison, Minion "caption," which is intended for small sizes, has an x-height of 438 em units (of 1000). That pushes the fluent reading size down to about 9 point. I'm sure you can read it, maybe not at maximum speed, at 8 point. But 3 point? That's getting to the stare-and-decipher level, if you can even make it out.
The median age of your expected readers should also figure into the equation...
Well, not just median age, but the fact that most material is going to have readers over 45. Everyone over 45 has some limitation because of presbyopia and need for brighter light. So aided with glasses or not, larger type is going to be welcome for us old folks. So design not just for those with the best sight, but those with normal vision affected by age. Having 10 or 11 point type rather than 8 or 9 is not going to slow young people down, and is going to be a benefit for the older readers.
> larger type is going to be welcome for us old folks
Totally agree; as I've gotten older it's harder and harder to read tiny type.
And don't forget that some younger folks have bad eyesight. I have a friend in her 20s who has very poor eyesight, but most of her friends are totally unaware of it since she wears contacts and doesn't like to discuss it.
I have to think that "3 points" is simply a typo. I cannot imagine a typeface, however well-crafted, being readable except with difficulty at that size. Perhaps 6 points was meant.
In the past, of course, occasionally 4 1/2 points was put to use, but that was eye-straining small print... and so was 6 points, for that matter, but not as bad.
EDIT: I have to admit, though, that the rules text on Yu-Gi-Oh! cards seems to be smaller than 6 points. So sizes below 6 points still see some use, even today.
I cannot imagine a typeface, however well-crafted, being readable except with difficulty at that size
I have tested Bitstream News Gothic at tiny sizes and it reads down to 2 points, assuming that one can see well enough to make out the difference between letters and dirt at that size.
Of course, it's a completely impractical size and not worth worry about unless a client with a very special need comes along.
Note that the question in this thread is the smallest size for *comfortable* reading. The recent paper of Legge and Bigelow that I've referenced is about "fluent" reading ranges, which measure reading speed. So the ability to decipher 2 point type doesn't address that. In general, according to that paper the fluent range of type is twice the size of the minimum visual acuity.
The one who measured visual comfort, or visual fatigue, was Matthew Luckiesh, as explained in this thread. Luckiesh's work lay fallow for 60 years, and needs repeating, but as I remember he found large type to be more comfortable, with 12 point being generally more comfortable than 10 point. This was as measured by increase in blink rate, with the lower blink rates over time indicating more comfort and less fatigue.
p.s. note that caps are going to be decipherable at smaller sizes, probably around half the size of lower case, as generally the vertical visual arc will be at or above the .2 degrees down to a far smaller size.
The Legge-Bigelow paper spoke of type size defined by the amount of visual angle occupied by x-height, which they determined to be about half of the point size.
But this makes two assumptions.
First, that x-height is pretty standard relative to point size, and secondly that people hold the document at a standard distance.
Obviously, x-height varies; Dante, for instance, has a far larger x-height than Garamond (presumably not the ITC version).
More importantly, it's possible to use much smaller type on smaller pages—people will hold the book closer to bump up the angle-size. And this is something that those with normal sight can do, as well as the short sighted, who can just remove their spectacles and hold the document real close.
Centuries ago, many books were published at "pocket" size, with small type. I have many of these, and they are a joy to read as I am short-sighted—all I have to do is take off my glasses and hold the page six inches away. In fact, this bumps up the angle to practically headline proportion, which is a nice way to read letterpress text type, for me at least, slowly—and also to marvel at the detail of engraved illustrations.