Seeking clarity on counters and boumas

blank's picture

Do the counters within a word make up part of its bouma, or is the bouma the shape formed by the upper strokes of the letters? I am a little confused about this—in part because typography texts tend to explain the phenomenon with simplified diagrams of boxy shapes of words and/or the negative spaces above them.

Reed Reibstein's picture

I've never seen the counters included in the bouma -- it's always that ascending and descending box around the words. In Kevin Larson's paper on reading, he defines bouma as the word shape/outline.

EDIT: ... and then goes on to say that it's not how reading psychologists believe reading occurs.

ebensorkin's picture

I am curious: what are you reading?

However - the simple answer is yes. The Counters are part of the Bouma.

It is worth noting though that depending on who you talk to Bouma will likely to mean slightly different things. There is an effort to make these terms more precise but it should probably be seen as an evolving term.

Still, if you like I will have short stab at it in layman-ish language & then give you some links.

It is a little hard to talk about Bouma without giving some context I think. So... For the sake of argument let's say that on a Neurological/Perceptual level there is a 'sensory impression'. When we start to investigate what that is and how it's sensed by the body we will notice that the sensory impression has two areas of interest for us - the part is in focus on ( the Foveal ) & the part outside of focus but which is also in fact 'seen' in the sense that it is part of seeing ( the Parafoveal ). These are anatomical and also Neurological distinctions. The Fovea has a greater density of light receptors.

So then back to the Bouma. Hrant once wrote "According to my lectures in cognitive science, the combined outer *and* inner outlines (but in blurry, para-foveal form) of a word is what we rely on the most; and that’s in fact the bouma.” This emphasizes the Parafoveal use of the Bouma. This emphasis is why I bring up the Foveal & Parafoveal.

My understanding is that in some sense the Bouma exits in both but will be differently available to be perceived and differently emphasized by the brain.

The term 'Bouma' is a way of describing the stimulus provided to vision by the counters, all the black parts ( assuming a 'black' text on 'white' ), and the white around glyphs. I am deliberately avoiding the term word here because it seems to be agreed that the Bouma is not limited by words. Instead it is the Bouma that helps to identify what is a 'word'.

It might be useful to look at the term Notan as well.

I encourage the Bouma oriented here at Typophile to correct any mis-assertions I may have made.

I hope this helps.


This might help too:

and this

And for Notan

blank's picture

Thanks for the great response, Eben. As for what I’m reading, well, that’s a long list. There’s the usual roster of design textbooks—Thinking With Type, Stop Stealing Sheep, Typographic Design: Form and Communication, A Type Primer, I’ll stop there—along with all the various articles written for laymen and designers that I have come across, and now I am getting into Unger’s While You’re Reading. For me the confusion comes from most of this stuff just glossing over the concept and never bringing up the details, aside from mentioning that big counters are better, and I don’t know that I’ve yet spotted the term bouma outside the Typophile forums.

But I am doing my senior thesis work, and it involves highly legible typefaces designed for use in a variety of media, so the more I know about this stuff the better.

ebensorkin's picture

I am glad it was helpful. BTW it is even possible I suppose that Kevin's notion of the bouma does not include counters... the best thing is to read & ask. The people who are really concerned with this theory stuff are not numerous - and ideas about the ways in which it might be applied to type design vary a great deal too.

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