17 January 2011

Good fonts bad fonts

Several people have asked me about the research that provoked Jonah Lehrer's 'demonstration' (on Radio4's Today programme) of the apparent enhancement of memory for text content by 'poor' legibility (i.e. less than typical text fonts). Lehrer's thesis: making the brain work harder to read these fonts increases processing and hence memory. Eventually I read the Cognition article that spawned Lehrer's blog post and subsequent appearance on Today (where he did, rather unfortunately, seem to present the science as if it was his own). As far as one can tell the research is intrinsically well-designed (without really seeing the materials, one's at a bit of disadvantage) but the speculation about the locus of the effect (along the lines of Lehrer's) and the implications for education are surprising. In the discussion there was no consideration of whether the supposedly less legible fonts were actually less legible or just 'different' and hence more memorable. And in the discussion there was no mention of the impact of typeface on assessment of the ease or difficulty of a text (see Song and Schwartz's review of type legibility on information processing) which would, in the long run, affect the real usability of unusual text fonts.  It's a great undergraduate project but I feel Cognition's reviewers should have been a little more exacting.

Here's a summary of some of the comments I made when initially asked for reactions to the Lehrer interview:
- a shame that the BBC didn't think this merited inclusion of an additional point of view to Lehrer's, and indulged (probably encouraged) his bad science demo
- not surprising the Beeb picked up on the story because fonts are easy and fun to tweak in order to change document appearance, but document design is about so much more than just typeface choice (a lot should follow from that choice alone)
- shame the corpus of evidence that might provide an alternative perspective was only alluded to but not presented. One Today programme interview will likely influence many more than decades of scholarly texts and manuals
- Lehrer's initial example of 'easy' design that (in his view) led to poor information processing was reading in Arial on the Kindle. Not many text designers would recommend that as an approach to reading
- If you look at modern text book design (both the original article authors and Lehrer make much of the implications for designing text books) in fact all sorts of techniques of highlighting, illustrating etc. are used to make elements of text more distinctive and memorable. And, historically, designers have used the less legible italic version of fonts to make small elements of text more obvious and memorable
- 'reading' covers many activities, not just reading to memorise: browsing, searching, quoting, referring back etc.
- if the researchers had looked at text in, say, shocking pink they might have found a similar effect (a shame they didn't do this, actually, since it would have added another, helpful, dimension to the research). Would they have then recommended that books were all printed in colour?

All this aside, looking at the type of text teenagers many learn and revise from now (maybe the typical Princeton entrant didn't), it's clear book designers have got there first.

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