Bad type = better analytical thinking

gthompson's picture

The July 2012 issue of Scientific American (Advances: How Critical Thinkers Lose Their Faith in God) points out that a hard to read font "...promotes analytic thinking by forcing volunteers to slow down and deliberate more carefully...". People in the study discussed in the article expressed less belief in God compared to those who read material in a "clear" or easy to read font. Maybe we have been doing this all wrong.

Nick Shinn's picture

This is becoming a bit of a meme amongst the scientific set.
Eat your own dog food, I say.
Who will be the first to publish their research in 8pt Brush Script?
That should scare off the intelligent designers.

R.'s picture

Here is the Science paper the article in Scientific American summarises. It shows (but does not say) that the clear font was upright black Tahoma, the unclear one slanted gray Courier in a smaller point size.

blank's picture

This is becoming a bit of a meme amongst the scientific set.

More like among hack science journalists.

Anyway, the real problem here is that nobody has noticed that readers do better with engaging content than bland content. Typography doesn’t have to be bad to be engaging. And I suspect that good writing would solve the problem even more handily—as the success of J. K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin at getting young people to read long books shows us.

oldnick's picture

James,

I suspect you're right. Just as it is a poor workman who blames his tools, it's a poor scientist who concludes that making a task more difficult somehow makes it more meaningful. If that were the case, why not print all of our school textbooks in Chinese? That ought to keep the little bastards engaged: make reading a Sisyphean task! Puh-leeze…

William Berkson's picture

We've been through this before. Comprehension is going to be affected by visual readability of the text, interest of the reader, effort of the reader, quality of the writing, and time on task. As I believe those who did the study don't control for time on task and other variables, it is worthless to tell us about type.

Mark Simonson's picture

...the success of J. K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin at getting young people to read long books...

I've known kindergarteners who read J. K. Rowling. In the case of George R. R. Martin, I hope you mean a bit older than that.

jabez's picture

Prior research has shown that a difficult-to-read font promotes analytic thinking by forcing volunteers to slow down and deliberate more carefully about the meaning of what they are reading.
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-critical-thinkers-l...
----

We can finally recognize the designers responsible for junk mail and ransom notes as the brilliant masterminds they truly are.

quadibloc's picture

Look on the bright side.

This study, plus the other item which formed the title of the "Advances" column for the month, means that religious publications will pay more attention to having quality, easy-to-read typography! An employment opportunity!

Nick Shinn's picture

I may mock reading science, but I do like the idea of “visual priming”, which is an important part of graphic design.

Té Rowan's picture

@quadibloc – One would hope so, but this is after all the lot that wants us to believe that a tome on how something happened is a denial of it happening.

dberlow's picture

"...a hard to read font "...promotes analytic thinking by forcing volunteers to slow down and deliberate more carefully...".

Are not most people with time to volunteer for studies attention challenged to begin with?

"People in the study discussed in the article expressed less belief in God compared to those who read material in a "clear" or easy to read font. "

It's news that God is a type designer?

"Maybe we have been doing this all wrong."

You don't believe what's good for most people is all right?

Iranon's picture

Would those results hold outside a controlled environment, where a likely reaction is "annoying to read, didn't bother"?

The fetish for hard data prompts researchers to ask dumb questions and jump to the first conclusion that presents itself, because everything else is hard to test for.
It gets really annoying when the supposed way forward is making things better by making them worse, in a way backed by such evidence.

There are slightly less dumb questions about the effect of type on comprehension that could be asked. E.g.:
Will large and commanding capitals improve recollection of names and proper nouns in an unfamiliar subject?
Will they disturb the flow and hinder the understanding of underlying concepts?

I ought to look through my old schoolbooks some day and check whether the ones set in bright colours and sanitised sans serifs truly sucked compared to the legacy ones, or whether the aesthetics automatically made me think "dumbed down and uninteresting".

quadibloc's picture

Incidentally, it has also occurred to me that there is no need for people to start using wretched typefaces for science textbooks. After all, such tomes usually feature a large number of equations, and these will slow down the flow of reading enough that even the most beautiful, legible, and readable typeface will not result in the absence of opportunity to pause and think analytically along the way.

gthompson's picture

Once I had great difficulty reading a particular book. It was well designed, set nicely in Baskerville and it took me awhile to figure out what the problem was: fuzzy surface paper made the type very hard to read, so much so I gave up. We should get some grant money and follow up these various studies with our own and show the scientists up.

hrant's picture

I think if you need to force people to read boring and/or poorly written content it probably makes sense to slow them down to deliberative reading with a low-readability font. But you can't do that for a long period - it's physically too tiring.

Content that a reader will enjoy is what separates the real text fonts from the pretenders, and it's where type designers can push the envelope.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

I organized a beer-tasting at a party once.
The winning beer was a strong, sweet “amber” brew.
The kind of thing that tasted good to sip, but not what most people would drink by the pint.

hrant's picture

Exactly, display beer.

hhp

quadibloc's picture

If one wishes to promote analytical thinking, though, advocating the use of "ugly" typefaces won't get very far. People who produce printed materials, after all, are competing to get other people to read them in the first place, so they feel constrained to make them as attractive as possible.

Hence, we need some way of making reading more difficult that is an inherent feature of all reading materials, one that a specific publisher cannot escape from.

Unfortunately, as the essay at the beginning of The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy illustrates, there isn't really a practical way to write English using Chinese characters.

ldavidson's picture

How about the header font here at Typophile? Attractive, yet difficult to read. Making such fonts in a variety of styles should be no hill for the climbers around here.

Let historical romance novels continue to be set in fonts that let the content be forgettable. But bring out the sharp tools for the works where it is important that the content be comprehended and remembered, not just consumed.

dezcom's picture

Science is allowed an occasional whimsy ;-)

oldnick's picture

@Nick Shinn

I organized a beer-tasting at a party once.
The winning beer was a strong, sweet “amber” brew.
The kind of thing that tasted good to sip, but not what most people would drink by the pint.

How very true. I once bought a six-pack of Samiclaus Brown—because that's the only purchase option offered—because it is one very stout brew. How strong? 24% ABV strong—about as strong as beer gets.

Unfortunately, I really couldn’t swallow more than a sip at a time, which kind of takes the enjoyment out of the process, so I ended up making half-and-halfs with a pleasant smooth ale. Well, half-and-half was better, but not ideal, so I found an acceptable balance at three-to-one. The net result was more mixer than the star of the show, and a net ABV of 7-8% or so…which I could achieved with Moretti Birra La Rossa, which tastes mighty nice right out of the bottle—if you happen to like seriously malty brews with a great finish and a bit of a kick, which I do—and costs about a third as much.

So, you live and learn. I just wish that it hadn't cost me twenty-five bucks for "the good stuff" plus the cost of the mixer—another twenty-five bucks or so—to learn that, yes, you actually can get too much of a good thing. As I recall, this guy named Aristotle figured that out a long time ago. Hey, Lozos: what's up with you Greek guys, anyhow? How come you always seem to have the right answers? Except when it comes to paying taxes…

dezcom's picture

LOL!!! Greeks all study taxidermy by law ;-)

dezcom's picture

BTW, Nick, Taxidermy, in ancient Greek, means "The Art of Telling the Tax Man to Go Stuff it"

Té Rowan's picture

Don't forget Taxonomy: The science of telling which species of demon the tax 'man' is.

ldavidson's picture

I'll give this one more try, since there are people here who could make a real difference in people's lives.

Science is, apparently, breaking new ground in investigating how the type in which text is set can influence not only legibility and readability, but also finding that characteristics of the typeface can have a substantial impact, a significant difference, on the ability of the reader to "get" the content - to understand the meaning, to comprehend the ideas being conveyed – and to remember it.

The science is rough. So far, all that is clear is that significant improvement is possible. The body of knowledge will be refined over time to more specific statements about what characteristics a typeface should have.

This is an opportunity for type designers to "move up the value chain", to use business language: from legibility, readability, and appearance; to include comprehension, understanding, and retention. It is an opportunity that some type designers will not miss. Yet I get the impression here is that people are not interested – to the point of ridiculing the concept.

The question for a designer is, do I commit to create typefaces that promote the ability to learn? Or do I ignore the opportunity (some might say "and responsibility") and do as I please?

hrant's picture

Among type designers there's the Art extreme of the spectrum (which tends to ridicule Science) and the Tool extreme (which tends to be too enthusiastic toward Science). This is normal, but what does remain is for scientists to at least not alienate the designers who lean towards the Tool side. Sadly there are few scientists who seem dedicated to understanding typography enough to give us faith.

hhp

dberlow's picture

Ldavidson: "The science is rough"

There are four things that nearly every reading study has in common: it does not involve actual reading, it tests a single script, the number and diversity of the subjects is challenged, and there is no typographer involved in the composition of the test materials.

How do you define rough?

I think we're, well, most people here, are being kind. And quite a few give generously of their time away from their curves, lines and clients to study and discuss these studies and discussions.

"...there are people here who could make a real difference in people's lives."

Could you elaborate on this, please?

Cheers.

oldnick's picture

Sorry, Chris—

I missed your great gag about Taxidermy. That one definitely deserved a rimshot. I wish this place had somewhere to set up a drummer. But, it's the internet…which is good and bad, depending on a lot of things.

I have a great story to tell about my misadventures in and around Annapolis—where mine goodly wife and I went to attend her nephew's wedding—but I will have to save them for another time. There may be some fonts in serious need of identification, and I gotta poke my nose into a whole lot of other stuff before I can actually do anyone else any good.

Yazoo!

dezcom's picture

Nick,

If you live in the DC area, perhaps we can do lunch some time?

oldnick's picture

Chris,

If you know a joint that would let both of us through the door at the same time, this place HAS GOT TO BE either very dangerous, or full of a lot of really screwy people.

Which some folks might think is just another way of saying the same thing, except for the fact that there REALLY is such a thing as "crazy good"…

I figure you, me, Hrant and a couple of other guys whom I shall not incriminate are on the RIGHT side of the fence.

Otherwise, this crazy idea I just came up with to bust up a certain monopoly by giving stuff away might go untested…at least, in theory. It is simply WAY too crazy to actually work. Unless there REALLY is such a thing as "crazy good"…

I hope that you are comfortable talking in circles, as well…

quadibloc's picture

@Old Nick:
Linux. Or, in the other direction, Internet Explorer.

But so many fonts are already free or very cheap that I doubt that any further efforts of that nature in this area would have much effect, even if the idea in general is not crazy.

oldnick's picture

John,

What you say is true; HOWEVER, if you HAVE to buy something to GET SOMETHING FREE*;
AND, the free* stuff is REALLY GOOD STUFF;
But you have to BUY SOMETHING to get the free* stuff;
Then, I think I just might be on to something which would make "FREE*" mean precisely the same thing that is does in MOST AMERICAN ADVERTISING—which ACTUALLY means "*free ONLY if you buy something else. And quickly. Limited time offer.§"

But, you're Canadian, so you are probably relatively immune to all this downcountry B.S.

Of course, "unlimited" is completely off the table; nobody really believes that anything like a calling plan that calls itself unlimited COULD BE ANYTHING OTHER THAN unlimited, could they?

Sorry: I forgot you were still Canadian…

P.S. Chris—I am trying to con Gene Weingarten into our proposed get-together, which would be fun and quite a coup for you: you would—quite possibly but not for sure—be the sanest guy in the bunch. If Gene can con Dave Barry into showing up, you are definitely a shoo-in for the guy with the fewest bricks shy of a load.

Lucky you. Thank God Hrant lives three thousand miles away. I will keep you posted.

dezcom's picture

Thanks Nick,
Gene may find me one pun shy of a load but I am game :-)

PS: I used to play drums in a former life so I can supply my own rim-shots ;-)

HVB's picture

For NickC:

Rimshot

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Note to admin: I'll be glad to delete this content if it's inappropriate...

oldnick's picture

Chris—

You—but, especially your trap drum—are the answer to my dreams. How often does that happen to YOU, Bub? Unfortunately, I have not heard back from Gene yet, but I feel compelled to drop him ANOTHER line, because his regular piece in the WP Sunday Magazine was SO spot-on, it would be a crime not to praise him unduly. I figure I show up in his inbox on an annoyingly frequent basis, he is going to do ANYTHING to shut me the frock up, even if it means "doing lunch"—the hilarious implications of which are FAR too numerous to mention—with a COUPLE of loony type guys—who are at least partly, if not wholly Greek. Capisce?

BTW, what is the Greek equivalent for "capisce," anyway? I don't want to give all the credit for snappy sayings to the modern-day equivalent of second-rate Greeks. {insert Greek equivalent here}?

Anyhow, on topic—for a change—the only problem with the premise of this post is that it suggests—at least, to me, so you KNOW it is totally nuts—that bad booze may, therefore, be expected to give you a better buzz. A better hangover, maybe—which brings up the paradoxical question: is there any such thing as a good hangover? Other than a dead hangover? Why am I asking you this? I guess, it's better than talking to myself…

For sure…

HVB's picture

For NickC:

Rimshot

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oldnick's picture

HVB, if I may be so presumptuous as to call you by your acronym—

Thanks. If there is any possible way to put a shortcut to this file on my Firefox toolbar, I am going to find it.
THAT is how hilarious I find myself from time to time. Frankly, it's a little too often to suit mine goodly wife, if you catch my drift…

dezcom's picture

Nick, since it is idiomatic, the translation is not exact but here are a few ways the Greeks had a word for it:

καταλαβαίνis? (or κατανοεί) or: το 'πιασες?

The first one, "καταλαβαίνής? (or κατανοεί)" is literally "do you understand"
The last one, "το 'πιασες?" is perhaps closest to mean "do you catch my drift"

ChrisL

oldnick's picture

Chris,

The latter is more my style, since being adrift is more my style. When we actually do the lunch thing, you will need to clue me in on the proper pronunciation: my English is bad enough, having grown up in Texas…το 'πιασες?

dezcom's picture

"to piahsses?"

ldavidson's picture

@dberlow: "rough" in a couple of ways: in its infancy, with mistakes and gaps and the groping that usually occurs during that stage, and because the relationship is not being directly investigated, to be understood, refined, and used, at least in the few studies I've seen. Gray Courier on white is not where this will lead.

"Make a real difference" because I think the effect they see is real, i.e. there is a significant relationship between a typeface (and its setting, and page composition) and comprehension and retention. And the relationship is not pretty&smooth = better. Given that, people who love type could be:

1) engaging the (few) science-ish people active in this area: providing feedback, exchange of knowledge (I know, there needs to be funding for serious work), in general furthering the science to get beyond the very primitive position of today - like addressing the 4 items you mention.

2) once it's better understood how to support comprehension and retention by type design, embracing those concepts and applying them to at least some typeface designs and promoting their use when appropriate.

I would not be surprised if testing showed a 10-20% improvement in learning, given a design based on a sophisticated understanding of how type influences the mind. There aren't many occupations in the world that can do that much direct good for large numbers of people.

dberlow's picture

ldavidson: "in its infancy, with mistakes and gaps and the groping that usually occurs during that stage, and..."

Oh, I thought it's been going on for 125 years or so.

..."because the relationship is not being directly investigated, to be understood, refined, and used, at least in the few studies I've seen."

As I pointed out in a long-ago thread, directly investigation via strict scientific method is impossible. To summarize — if only one variable can change per read of the the same text by the same subject, then either the font can't change, or the reader must read the same thing twice. And then, comes the testing of comprehension and retention. No one has a study, or will. That's why it's the all-time typophile subject.

"And the relationship is not pretty&smooth = better."

What's pretty? where's smooth? who said it was = to better? and what's one study against 400 years of organic humano-typographic evolution?

"There aren't many occupations in the world that can do that much direct good for large numbers of people."

Oh I agree but I'd "ain't" instead of aren't. By-and-large, these issues started popping up in the realm of normal-people-reading screen fonts, screen legibility, screen readability and screen resolution — upon windows. What's been done there is a tragedy, as one former MS employee has clearly stated, and the type design community has spent millions of dollars helping windows users to, not comprehension and retention, but less gag reflex if they must read, and hopefully less printing of email.

In general, outside of the windows or any other resolution/politics-based tragedy, I'm pretty sure comprehension and retention is 00.01% a type design issue and 99.99% an issue of type selection and type composition. And I think those latter two activities just need smarter fonts and smarter apps, and not smarter studies, and certainly not smarter users.

hrant's picture

But type selection cannot be done well enough yet, because type design isn't there yet.

hhp

russellm's picture

... Bad type in place of good information design is what I think is being discussed.

dezcom's picture

There has never been a scientific study that indicated that "type design isn't there yet". Studies compare existing faces by "attempting [badly] " to isolate variables. Since science has never had a typeface that is the "dog-gonned best possible ever" to use as a benchmark for all the others, there is no way to know that the types we have available now are not good enough to read well. I think the best tests to do would be those that compared READERS to each-other instead of typefaces. Why do some people read so much better than others? If we could isolate the perception and comprehension variables that make people read better, then we might have a clue as to how type must be designed better for reading [if need be]. In medical science, we compare well rats with sick rats to see what makes them resist a sickness. Then, the knowledge gained is used to develop cures or vaccines. We don't compare collections of mixed diseases to see which is the least harmful to a given organism.
Other than dyslexia and other physical/neurological conditions, we really have done little to differentiate between perception/interpretation conditions that may exist in what we might call normal spectrum reading sample populations.

oldnick's picture

Yo, Chris—

Thanks for the lame attempt: no matter what, it's better than ANYTHING that I could have done.

Anyhow, bad design sometimes SIMPLY DOES NOT WORK. Like, the other day, when I am doing the crossword puzzle, whose clues are in a condensed sans-serif type. Which is a little too small.

I READ the clue as "Mail tenant," which makes no sense—even to me. However, later on, when I really need the right answer to finish up, it STILL makes no sense UNTIL I READ "Mall tenant"—which DOES make sense, and S-T-O-R-E makes PERFECT sense, and I finish up 1-2-3, and I am outta here.

So, screw what the studies say: sometimes, poor design simply does not help. Or, a better choice of typefaces—like a nice serif which disambiguates a bit better—would solve this stupid, unnecessary annoyance.

IMHO…

Nick Shinn's picture

Scientists and their adherents have a naïve view of typography if they think that psychological testing can be used to improve it.

It’s one thing to explore the physiological process of reading, quite another to attempt to optimize reading by applying scientific theory.

hrant's picture

But designers who are predisposed to rejecting Science even when there's a glimmer of merit aren't really designers at all.

hhp

John Hudson's picture

On the other hand, Nick, insights from the exploration of the physiological process of reading can suggest typographic experiments, i.e. not applying scientific theory to optimisation of reading, but applying new typographic hypotheses to design. And because design is not science in the modern methodological sense -- although, in the mediaeval sense, inter scientias non minima est typographica --, the experimental strictures are looser (hopefully tighter, though, than those of the 'experimental typography' of the mid-90s, which mostly lacked even hypotheses, let alone observation or conclusion).

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