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The Academic Evidence Base for Typeface Readability

Some academic studies on typeface readability.
This page gives a summary of some academic studies on typeface readability. It is related to my Typeface Readability page.
First, someone has done a much better job of this than I ever could: The Science of Typography by Ellen Lupton. As Ellen Lupton says, ‘Science leaves the designer more or less at sea in terms of font choice’. Quite so.
In addition to the studies identified by Ellen Lupton a number of academic studies have been undertaken on font readability and legibility over a range of reader age and abilities.  These include:
University of Wichita Department of Psychology
Experiments with children aged 9–11 on font readability (see http://www.surl.org/usabilitynews/31/fontJR.asp)
bizarre research from the University of Witchita
The experiments found that Comic Sans and Arial were the easiest to read and most preferred by the children taking part in the experiment. However this experiment can fairly be treated with extreme caution, not to say derision, because:
1. The researchers compared Arial and Comic Sans with only two other fonts, Courier and Times New Roman.  The source data was therefore extremely limited.  Something would no doubt come out on top.
2. The experiments were done using a computer screen and then extrapolated to print.  Unforgivable.
3. The children taking part in the experiment all had 20/20 vision were 96% familiar with reading text on screens.
There are a number of readability-related research papers from the Software Usability Research Laboratory at Wichita State University that can be found at   http://www.surl.org/ usabilitynews/az.asp and scroll down to ‘Font Type/Size’. They’re all a bit kind of weak-bridge in nature, like when you’re driving along and you see a sign that says, Weak Bridge, and you think, I wonder what I’m supposed to do with that information.
 The University Of Calgary Department of Psychology
Legibility and Readability of Small Print (www.psych.ucalgary.ca/PACE/VA-Lab/gkconnol/Thesis.html)
A thorough and detailed paper, looking at the legibility and readability of small print
Summary of the conclusions of this research (with my comments in [] brackets):
University of Calgary – young see better than old & serif fonts better on small print
1. Elderly participants required larger letters than the young to achieve legibility.
2. Reading difficulty approached a significant relationship with clarity of type for elderly readers, but not young ones.
3. Serif fonts, eg Times Roman, proved easier to read than sans-serif fonts [this accords with the general typography principle that large areas of small text tend to be easier to read in a serif font]
4. Condensed fonts should be avoided for blocks of text.
The University of Reading Department of Typography & Graphic Communication
Thorough research from the University of Reading (ie city of Reading, UK) into the readability and preferences of reading age 6 on text styles.
Quoted from the research, except for my comments in [] brackets:
Research – real research
1. There’s not a lot of difference in font readability but slight preferences for non-serif fonts with ‘non-infant’ characters.  [eg the children prefer the printer-font style ‘a’ compared to the ‘infant’ ‘a’ of, for example, Sassoon and Comic Sans]
2. We acknowledge that there are many kinds of children’s book and that there could never be any one children’s typeface. It is likely, however, that the following typeface characteristics will be helpful to young children’s reading:
• tall ascenders to help emphasise the word shape
•  a clear distinction between characters so they are not confused: a’s and o’s are an obvious example
• no unusual or quirky letters
3. Does it matter whether reading books for young children are set in serif or sans serif type?
• there is no research that says that either serif or sans serif typefaces are intrinsically more legible
• teacher opinion, generally, favours sans-serif typefaces because of the simplicity of the letter shapes
• but children encounter a wide range of letterforms in their day-to-day environment
• publishers tend to listen to teachers because they influence the book-buying policy in schools
• children are seldom asked what they think about the typefaces in the books they read
4. In finding out whether children found serif or sans serif typefaces easy or difficult to read the Typographic Design for Children project took into account:
• expert opinion, designers and publishers’ tacit knowledge
• performance testing use of miscue analysis to see how many and what kind of errors children make when they are reading
• children’s opinions, what children think about typefaces, and what words they use to describe them
5. Our findings suggest that there is little significant difference in children’s reading performance when Century (a serifed typeface) is compared with Gill (a sans serif typeface).
The Micro Foundry
Experiments on foggy text (www.themicrofoundry.com/ss_read1.html)
Experiments suggest that pronounced modularity and diminutive ascenders [as in typefaces such as Avant Garde, Futura, and Comic Sans] render a word ambiguous when it isn’t seen clearly.
University of South Australia, Design Research Group
An analysis of letter shape identified in letter groupings (no longer available on the web, written by Stuart Gluth with reference to the typeface he designed called Roxane):
According to this research, legibility is enhanced by:
1. making the differences in the negative spaces as great as possible in the spaces inside the letters
2. maximising the differences in size and shape between left and right, between top and bottom and between open and closed spaces
 The ‘optimal’ typeface for legibility from this research forms part of the recommendations of the research and comes out looking rather like the font that is called Frutiger.
Next page in this set: Newspaper Typography Strategies .
 

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