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We’ve all had that tussle with clients or designers (whichever side of the fence you sit) about typefaces. Fact is, we all have favourites. Favourite food. Favourite colours, and it seems, favourite typefaces. Or more accurately, some of us have very unfavourite typefaces.

Fact is, typeface choice can have an impact on communication. And that’s a problem, because it doesn’t matter how interesting your material is, if it’s presented badly, communication is compromised. So how do you choose the right typeface? Are there typefaces that are illegible?

The answer is not really.

Some typefaces may look unusual or hard to read but research has shown that when people are given passages of text in different fonts, it only takes a short period of adjustment before they can read without difficulty.

Most legibility researchers (including Cyril Burt A psychological study of typography 1958) suggest we read best the typefaces we are most familiar with. In contrast, we feel uncomfortable with some typefaces – and there is usually a reason. It could be that it was used in a French text book that we were forced to study. And even then, it’s not comprehension that is compromised, it’s comfort.

How we read words

Most researchers now agree we read using word, not letter-by-letter recognition. Our brains see words as pictures. Recognising a whole word – rather than strings of letters that need processing – means we read quickly. In time, we recognise words much like we recognise faces.

The first and last letters of a word have spaces before and after, so each word forms an island. Our brain processes the first letter, and the last letter, and pieces together the other letters to help ‘picture-match’ the word. (The following example was found here.)

For emaxlpe, it deson’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod aepapr, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit pobelrm.

“Neurons in a small brain area remember how the whole word looks—using what could be called a visual dictionary.”

Maximilian Riesenhuber, Department of Neuroscience, Georgetown University Medical Centre.

So, choosing an unusual typeface that slows recognition of words can hinder communication but very rarely is a typeface illegible. Some typefaces are just not appropriate for some jobs but that’s more commonly due to aesthetics rather than legibility.

Bigger isn’t always better

Our eye fixates on two to three words at one time, and two to three times along a line. That means the optimum line length to read comfortably is 10-12 words per line. Bigger type means fewer words within the normal eye-span. That means more ‘fixations’ along each line and that’s not a good thing. Too many flickering eye movements and fixation pauses slows reading and causes fatigue.

So, spacing can be more important than choice typeface. Moderate rather than close spacing between words and more, rather than less space between lines is always better.

Summary

Clear communication makes information more accessible to more people. It means that instructions can be accessed easily and understood at first read. And that makes the delivery of information more efficient and more effective.

Here are simple guidelines that will help clear communication:

  • most typefaces used between 9-12 pt are all equally legible.
  • using a larger (instead of a smaller size of type) does not automatically increase legibility.
  • the amount of leading used (space between the lines of type) is just as important as the size of the typeface. The minimum required for text is 1.5 pt greater than the typesize (but I err on 2pt).
  • the optimum line length is between 10 and 12 words (around 60-70 characters).

About the Clear Communication Awards

Clear communication is having the tools and the knowledge to deliver the right information to the right audience. It’s knowing your market and understanding how they need information delivered to suit their needs. And it’s knowing your material so you can explain it with the least amount of words and most appropriate images to communicate quickly and easily.

That’s Clear Communication and that’s what we’re awarding.

The awards are a joint initiative of myself, Joh Kirby and Carolyn Alexander. They acknowledge information projects that combine excellence in design, communication and plain language. Because everyone benefits from being able to find the information that they need more easily.

The awards open in June 2019.

We’re releasing information regularly. Subscribe to our mailing list or follow our Clear Communication Awards page on LinkedIn to receive updates on categories, judges and lots of information on clear communication.


Carol Mackay

Carol is a designer and co-founder of the Design Business Council, an organisation founded to promote excellence in design and its role in a successful and sustainable business. Prior to the DBC, Carol co-founded and managed a successful graphic design studio: Mackay Branson design.

Her design career focussed on helping the financial, legal, insurance, superannuation and service sectors use design to add clarity to their often complex message. She now uses the same skills to help business understand design, and designers understand business.

Carol Mackay

Author Carol Mackay

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