Know any good legibility tests for typefaces?

Double Elephant's picture

The tests need to assess the legibility (& perhaps readability) of typefaces for print-based instructional texts (not continuous).

Nick Shinn's picture

Seeing all that as inevitable, as you seem to, is what I’m calling paranoid.

If I'm paranoid, you're naive.

it also seems that you’re saying that there is no possibility that there will ever be tests that account for the variables that we’ve all identified...... Even though we’re here virtually designing just such tests.

Who's this "we"? I'm not designing tests. Are you working on any such projects as a typographic consultant, or are any other typographers?

No, I don't believe that it's possible to account for all, or even very many of the variables; typographic, demographic, and textual.

I agree with you that it is better to at least have some typographic intelligence in reading research, but that's not my bone of contention. It's the absurd notion that readability is an inherent quality of typefaces, which can be measured. IMO, readability does not begin to exist until the graphic designer, art director or typographer begins to work on a layout. For analogy (this is for William and Eben), as Maria Muldaur once put it, "It ain't the meat it's the motion".

ebensorkin's picture

Nick, in fairness I think you have climbed down slightly from your original doom and gloom outlook on all science/font nexus'.

I’m not designing tests

Not designing them soup to nuts - no. But you have begun to state what might start to look like a reasonable set of parameters to be considered if you were attempting to examine one face vs another. You wroteAll in all, for an index of typeface readability to be meaningful and useful, a standards manual would have to be published in the form of a type specimen, showing the exact setting which had been tested.

When you say No, I don’t believe that it’s possible to account for all, or even very many of the variables; typographic, demographic, and textual. I can help but think that okay not at once... but in small steps, bit by bit a picture might emerge of what is going on & eventually testing methodologies can get better & better, and meaningfully include more & more variables ( typographic, demographic, and textual and others too perhaps). This might sound like I am building to the dramatic "all" of your statement but I am not. Instead it's the bit by bit aspect of building an increasingly cogent but always incomplete view over time that matters. That is why an absolute/authoritative list can't really be drawn up by scientists or anyone. Opinions we can always have though! And how much better to have them be increasingly informed opinions?

I don't think that anybody would disagree with your notion that type outside of the context of use cannot be considered fully/properly. That said I don't think that you have to test the full battery of possible uses & possible demographics etc ( which is infinite ) to notice meaningful things. If you did you could never do meaningful research.

So instead of saying "readability is an inherent quality of typefaces" which is a bit too 2-d for reality (I agree) you might well do better to admit "readability is a potential quality of typefaces which could be described albeit imperfectly with some decent scientific tests". No?

Dan you wrote “What typeface and Why, and How to effectively convince your client” Would you make the book you describe given a 1k advance? 5k? 10k? In other words; "what price self respect?". ;-)

John Boardley's picture

Carl, I don’t worry about shampoo anymore.

Priceless :)

I think mention of ranking, rating, or establishing specific, literal metrics that define readability are all figments of paranoia.

But how else would this 'science' be used?

Dan Gayle's picture

@Eben
"Would you make the book you describe given a 1k advance? 5k? 10k? In other words; “what price self respect?”. ;-)"

Dude, sign me up. I have school debt I need to kill.

abattis's picture

dberlow wrote:
> Sheedy, J., Y.-C. Tai, et al. (2008). “
>
> Where, please? Must keep up to data.

Visit http://www.sciencedirect.com and search for author:sheedy :-)

--
Regards,
Dave

John Hudson's picture

Eben: “readability is a potential quality of typefaces which could be described albeit imperfectly with some decent scientific tests”. No?

Either you can measure something or you can't, so 'describing something imperfectly' isn't really science, although it may be anecdotally useful (and the plural of anecdote is data). I think legibility is probably an inherent quality of a typeface, determined by the legibility of individual glyphs, as individual forms and as distinct from each other. But readability is a measure of a document: we read typesetting, not typefaces. Choice of typeface is one variable in the readability of a document. If one were able to isolate and make equivalent all the other variables, then perhaps one could measure the degree to which the typeface contributes to the overall readability of the document. But this would still be something other than a readability index for the typeface, because I'm pretty sure that if the other variables were different, even though equal for the purposes of comparison, the contribution of the typeface to readability would also vary. For example, typeface X might be determined to be more readable than typeface Y in a document set in 12pt, but typeface Y might be determined to be more readable than typeface X in a document set at 8pt. Isolating the other variables in a single document only indicates which typeface is more readable in the context of those variables, not which typeface is inherently more readable.

Rob O. Font's picture

"Visit http://www.sciencedirect.com and search for author:sheedy :-)"
Thanks!

"Within 5 years you will be proven wrong, is my bet."
How much is the bet?

Cheers!

eliason's picture

Either you can measure something or you can’t, so ’describing something imperfectly’ isn’t really science

Seems to me like Eben's talking about a kind of "proxy" measurement. For example, there's no clear way to measure the effectiveness of my teaching directly, but one could make inferences about it from evaluating student evaluations of it. The assumption is that there is some reasonable (albeit "imperfect") correlation between the student evaluations and my unmeasurable (but not ipso facto nonexistent) teaching effectiveness.

ebensorkin's picture

Describing something incompletely is might be said to be imperfect. Incompletely & precisely are not at odds. For instance I can measure very precisely the lumens a light bulb gives off. This doesn't mean I have perfectly described the light bulb. Or even the light. So how about "readability is a potential quality of typefaces which could be described albeit incompletely with some decent scientific tests”?

Isolating the other variables in a single document only indicates which typeface is more readable in the context of those variables, not which typeface is inherently more readable.

Yes. Absolutely. But, what if you do a wide range of tests? You could see trends. Or maybe not I suppose depending on the shape of reality. But I bet you would; and it would be the shape of those trends across a wide enough range of variables that would start to show what works better & in what contexts. Sort of like digital photo is made up of layers of RGB or CMYK color. One dot is pretty meaningless. 12 megapixels may not be.

So while I agree it is stupid or perhaps more charitably overly simple to say in a blanket way one face has better potential readability than the other, it would not be nearly so silly to describe a pattern of relatively greater or lesser success in a series of specific contexts and then interpret the data to help choose a type face for some project or purpose ( say way finding signage or a novel ) or to take conclusions away in order to try to design a better font for contexts tested.

John your post suggest that you doubt that data you would get back could be meaningfully interpreted. Is that correct? Also, is this formulation at odds with your legibility/readability distinction? I don't think it is but I am interested to hear what you would say.

If you can test cars & cameras and draw meaningful but specific conclusions you can take things a few steps further and test a typeface.

John Hudson's picture

Eben: So while I agree it is stupid or perhaps more charitably overly simple to say in a blanket way one face has better potential readability than the other, it would not be nearly so silly to describe a pattern of relatively greater or lesser success in a series of specific contexts and then interpret the data to help choose a type face for some project or purpose ( say way finding signage or a novel ) or to take conclusions away in order to try to design a better font for contexts tested.

But this is what we've been doing for five hundred years, only we called it typography, not reading science. We have been building the data set, and we have these meat machines call typographers who interpret the data and develop new hypotheses and experiments based on that interpretation.

ebensorkin's picture

John, of course I agree. :-)

We have to trust ourselves; especially as we start out with a new design.

On the other hand, I think it's not a bad idea to see what other meat machines say about comfort - especially if they will actually be using our design. That could be anecdotal or scientifically measured. A spirit of service need not belittle ourselves. Agreed?

Also, what do you make of my point about many small specific tests potentially building up an incomplete but maybe still very useful picture of a font's potential performance?

John Hudson's picture

That could be anecdotal or scientifically measured.

Practically, I think the science, at least what I have seen to date, is itself anecdotal. That is, the only way to relate the science to design is to treat it as further anecdotal data, to combine with existing practices. It is, perhaps, a matter of how we interpret the data: in a hermeneutic of continuity, in which scientific knowledge of reading is interpreted in combination with typographic experience and practice, or in a hermeneutic of rupture, in which scientific knowledge of reading is interpreted as overthrowing and replacing typographic experience and practice.

Peter Enneson's comments in the legibility and comfort thread are worth reading again. Peter has probably read more of the actual science than the rest of us, with the exception of Kevin, and I think he has a good handle on the limitations of generalising from the data.

Also, what do you make of my point about many small specific tests potentially building up an incomplete but maybe still very useful picture of a font’s potential performance?

I think that's what typography is. If you can quantify the data, I suppose you have a mechanism to help non-typographers do typography or, rather, to do a kind of typography minus inspiration. That's not a bad thing, because a lot of text is being produced by non-typographers these days, and if it can be made more pleasant to read with some help from data collection and quantification that's welcome. But that's not the same thing as turning a non-typographer into a typographer.

John Boardley's picture

Also, what do you make of my point about many small specific tests potentially building up an incomplete but maybe still very useful picture of a font’s potential performance?

Yes, I have no problems with tests, whatever their form, whatever their foundation; what troubles me is how the results of those tests will be misused and misapplied. Attach 'scientific' to anything and it all too quickly evolves into that ugliest of beasts, dogma. However, I do think there's something in John's comment,

...because a lot of text is being produced by non-typographers these days, and if it can be made more pleasant to read with some help from data collection and quantification that’s welcome.

That sounds reasonable to me--tempered by the above caveat.

ebensorkin's picture

But that’s not the same thing as turning a non-typographer into a typographer. Agreed. Let alone a designer of type... But you seem to be saying that a built up picture made from many tests cannot help a font designer. Am I reading into what you are saying accurately? I think I am but I would like to be clear about it.

Practically, I think the science, at least what I have seen to date, is itself anecdotal. Would you expand on this? There are waaay too many ways of reading this. When you say I think that’s what typography is. it does make me laugh a bit because of course yes on some level that's right. We try things. We observe the result. We keep going. We gain experience. We start to generalize & so on. This has some properties in common with science to be sure. But saying that they are much of a muchness is simply not accurate. There are important differences. These differences are both limitations & strengths.

I think he has a good handle on the limitations of generalising from the data. Very probably yes. I don't feel qualified to say despite my respect. But that is maybe a side issue because it's today's data. We are talking about what might happen in the future. What might be possible.

John B, you said, Attach ’scientific’ to anything and it all to quickly evolves into that ugliest of beasts, dogma.

Must it? Is in inevitable? I don't think so at all. Maybe with people who don't know what Science is. But those people will do that with anything. Arts, Etiquette, Politics, Religion and yes, Science. It's that is the fault of rigid and small minds. It's not the fault of Science per se. It seems like you have a small axe to grid here. What's it all about?

Dogma is best avoided. That we agree on.

eliason's picture

Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.
-- Bertrand Russell

Not sure where that leaves us, but it seems apropos...

John Boardley's picture

Eben
No, no axe to grind. I had a feeling that this thread would come to this: science vs whatever. Science is not the problem; attempting to scientize typography is the problem. Therefore, the only axe I'm grinding is the one that defends art from science. If 99% of all texts produced in the past 500 years were unreadable and illegible, then yes, bring on the scientists, but...

So, to reiterate, I am most certainly not anti-science; I just don't like this obsession with attempting to codify and rationalise and pigeon-hole everything--just employ a good typographer.

Must it? Is in inevitable? I don’t think so at all. Maybe with people who don’t know what Science is.

As the majority know little or nothing about science and its methods, then I fear that it is indeed inevitable; men in white coats selling shampoo and diet pills comes to mind yet again.

By all means test away, but doesn't science best begin with a theory--a testable falsifiable theory? It's the theory that you need to concentrate on; not the testing (that's step 2).

Dan Gayle's picture

The fact is, science can study anything and produce useful results, because science does not start with a capital S. It is nothing more than observing cause and effect, and trying to make a clear distinction between the two.

Employing the scientific method isn't the opposite of fine craftsmanship. In fact, it might be an inherent, if seldom recognized or acknowledged quality of a good craftsman.
Whether or not Big Science, PhD can publish an article about readability and legibility has no impact on the careful observations of centuries of typographers.

And vice-versa.

John Hudson's picture

Eben: But you seem to be saying that a built up picture made from many tests cannot help a font designer. Am I reading into what you are saying accurately?

No, I don't think I every said that. What I'm saying is that this gradually built, imperfect, incomplete picture, insofar as it is useful in making decisions about type design, has to be made up of a lot more than what specifically scientific methodologies provide. This is what I mean when I say that at the point of usefulness scientific data and other kinds of information are basically at par, i.e. I think it would be a mistake to privilege new scientific data in the context of a humanistic craft with a developed wisdom of several hundred years. Instead, one would need to interpret that data within a hermeneutic of continuity with that wisdom, which means putting the scientific data and anecdotal data and experience and inspiration -- and everything else that makes up typographic wisdom -- into the same bucket and giving it a good stir to see what floats to the top.

We are talking about what might happen in the future. What might be possible..

We are? I'm not big on speculation, so I'd rather look at where we are now and consider what might be likely, not what might be only possible. Of course, I'm always ready to revise my analysis....

The way I see it now: reading science is providing some good insight into how we read, but I'm looking for a lot more, especially with regard to readerability, i.e. insight into why we're so darned good at reading such a diversity of systems, styles, etc. and what the tolerances or limits are. I don't yet see a complete description of how we read, and that makes me very wary about trying to draw practical conclusions in terms of 'doing things differently' in type design, which is what we're all concerned about isn't it? If the science ends up confirming everything that we're already doing, that's interesting and reassuring, but it doesn't have a positive impact on the development of new type design. The tantalising notion is that the science might one day give us a clue how to make type better, and that's what makes it sexy or scary depending on one's proclivities. At the moment, I don't see anything in the science that is being done that suggests I should be doing anything different. Put another way, if you put today's science into the bucket with accumulated typographic wisdom it just gets absorbed: it isn't significant enough to contribute to the mix.

There are narrowly defined areas in which scientific study is presently useful, e.g. reading at low resolution, but the same limitations that make scientific study useful make type design correspondingly less significant. The science is more useful for rendering engine developers, screen manufacturers and document creators than for type designers.

ebensorkin's picture

John H,

I think you have sunmed up the state of affairs extremely well. And Maybe now your Paragraph should be read & re-read as well. Specifically:

At the moment, I don’t see anything in the science that is being done that suggests I should be doing anything different. I haven't followed the science closely enough to suggest otherwise. And certainly I am not suggesting that you should.

which means putting the scientific data and anecdotal data and experience and inspiration — and everything else that makes up typographic wisdom — into the same bucket and giving it a good stir to see what floats to the top. Yes. Absolutely.

The science is more useful for rendering engine developers, screen manufacturers and document creators than for type designers. And maybe given time they can be useful to Typographers and type designers as well. We shall see.

Craig,

If what you mean by your quote is that we should remain curious then I certainly agree.

John B,

I agree that there is a part of our culture that would just assume as you put it attempt to codify and rationalise and pigeon-hole everything that is certainly anti-craft, anti-art and incidentally; anti-science. You cannot defend art from science because art does not need defending - from science. It needs defending from that culture of pigeon holes. And incidentally science needs protection from them too. And as a side note i am not sure typography, font making or even letter making is just an art. I think you are still so to speak setting aside intellectual homelands. This canton for Typographers that one for Scientists... Is that correct? If it is, I can't think that's healthy. Different ways of looking at things is a bit like different tools; my saw should have no cause to envy my hammer even if they both work on wood.

As the majority know little or nothing about science and its methods, then I fear that it is indeed inevitable; men in white coats selling shampoo and diet pills comes to mind yet again. It's time for you to stop holding the wrong party accountable. This is marketing.

It’s the theory that you need to concentrate on; I am busy working on this now. And I am keen on it's being tested in the fullness of time. And in the meantime if the culture of type wants to bury it's head in sand that won't help one bit.

the past 500 years Or even longer; 5000 years or more if you care to admit scribes and stone carvers to the group!

Dan,

It is nothing more I think it's a little more...

Whether or not Big Science, PhD can publish an article about readability and legibility has no impact on the careful observations of centuries of typographers. If by this you mean that science must remain irrelevant then I cannot agree. If you mean that science is not a threat but merely adds it's offering to their observations then I agree.

enne_son's picture

”…has no impact…”?

Science does more than measure. In my reading I encounter terms like “salience,” “response bias,” and “cue value,” and because I am unhappy with the cognitive processing connotations of the term “word recognition” I propose “visual wordform resolution” to describe the perceptual processing component in reading.

My aim in doing this is to give type designers new and useful ways of seeing what they are doing when they manipulate proportions, contrast, weight and construction. That is, I want to expand the repertoire of constructs by which we channel our actions, or according to which we make our assessments. What I think we are doing (when we say we are improving legibility or enhancing readability) is manipulating cue-values, strengthening response bias, managing salience, improving perceptual discrimination affordances in such a way that the ease and automaticity of visual wordform resolution is enhanced. I want to expand — or diversify beyond the conventional, rather contentious ones we use — the repertoire of personal constructs we use to channel are actions or make our assessments. Metanoia

(I am also interest in “crowding” and “interfacilitation” because they seem to hold a key, but that’s anther story.)

I think of type design as both a fine art and an exact science. It is an exact science because, beyond the simple requirement of making a recognizable letter ”m,” manipulating salience and cue values is a game of tiny incremental adjustments in conformity with the laws of gestalt vision. The fine art is in knowing where to make the adjustments.

William Berkson's picture

I'm back, so some responses:

>Bill, reading is not an ailment.

I didn't say it was. That's a red herring. But there are indeed reading ailments, known as dyslexia. Your view here seems to be that scientists should not research reading, because their work is never going to be of help. And that I think that any restriction on scientific research--except for ethical issues of ill treatment of human research subjects, etc.--is a bad idea. It is opposed to the growth of knowledge, which can help us all.

>How much is the bet?

David, I would say a good 'stakes' would be a good lunch for all the participants of this thread at a type conference five years from now. And say Eben could be the referee on whether there has been any significant advance on readability.

I personally doubt that future discoveries in reading are going to discover that classic type faces, printed on paper at the usual sizes, have something fundamentally wrong with them. However, I do think that the progress will be able to tell us more about the limits of readable type: what screen resolution is needed, what spacing becomes dysfunctional, and so on. So I do think they will be able to guide the creation of new type faces, though more than readability will always be involved.

>manipulating salience and cue values is a game of tiny incremental adjustments in conformity with the laws of gestalt vision.

I very much like Peter's phrase here "the laws of gestalt vision". We are able to "resolve", as he puts it, marks on paper into meaningful words, and I am sure there is law-like process in our brain that good theory can describe and good testing reveal in the future. My bet, as I said is five years. We'll see.

Nick Shinn's picture

Your view here seems to be that scientists should not research reading, because their work is never going to be of help.

I'm all for the science of reading, and for incorporating typographic expertise into that research.
But I don't believe that readability is a scientific concept.
It's too soft. Which is to say that there are too many cultural variables: typographic, environmental, demographic and textual.
There is also the issue of what yardstick to use: speed is too trite, while comprehension and retention of anything other than simple grammar and facts is the preserve of the humanities, is it not?

Scientizing typography will do more harm than good: it's a job for designers, not technicians.

ebensorkin's picture

But I don’t believe that readability is a scientific concept.

I don't believe that concepts are there to be balkanized; in other words they don't necessarily belong exclusively to one area of information or study rather than another.

I am unclear on what you mean by Scientizing but it does sound catastrophic. Even without know yet I suspect that scientizing typography isn't going to happen. I am fairly certain that's a straw dog.

Instead; if we are lucky we typographers & type makers might have a situation a bit more like another deeply human and sensorially rich activity: cooking. For the cook there are nutrtionists, agonomists, biologists, and culinary anthopologists. None of which stop me from cooking any way I like. On the other hand I do draw on their observations from time to time. How is food any less complex than Typography? Moreover there is no rush to displace cooks from their jobs by the dreaded white coats...

As you know I don't think that Science is all good all the time. It can be used for "bad stuff" the same way Typography can. So I am happy to point out the obvious counter-argument of all the heavily processed food made with the help of "food scientists". It's a hell of an counter example. Maybe this is the kind of thing you mean when you say Scientizing.

But the counter-counter argument might be increasing use of composting and also the food experiments of Ferran Adrià. Having eaten at the restaurant of one of his proteges, Jordi Butrón's Espai Sucre in Barcelona I can say that I was definitely getting the sense that in this case science was being used to enhance the humanities.

William Berkson's picture

>Which is to say that there are too many cultural variables: typographic, environmental, demographic and textual.

Um, we are talking about type here. Yes, one can write unreadable prose, but we are talking about the contribution of type. Good experimentation separates the influence of different variables. The idea you seem to be assuming--that in principle the influence of different variables can't be separated--is just wrong. It isn't easy, but it it is done all the time in science. If you couldn't separate the influence of different variables there would be no successful scientific research, which is clearly not the case.

>while comprehension and retention of anything other than simple grammar and facts is the preserve of the humanities, is it not?

No, it's not, in so far as typography is also an influence. You can have a text book on a difficult subject, and a good typeface and good typography can help make it more readable. Of course, how well the writer writes is critical.

Eben's analogy to the influence of science on cooking is superb: science helps the cook, but isn't going to make a mediocre home cook a great chef. It can help both, though. For example, Julia Child turned to food scientist Shirley Corriher. And I cook a little better because of her science-based advice also.

Same with advances in readability of type and typography. It would help the amateur and the expert, but not turn one into the other, because so much more is involved.

Rob O. Font's picture

Bill: "David, I would say a good ’stakes’ would be a good lunch for all the participants of this thread at a type conference five years from now. "

I'm much more interested in targeted cash, and not at all in a bunch of freeloaders getting in on my winnings.
You wanna put your money where my mouth is, that's fine, the rest can make their own bets.

Peter: "The fine art is in knowing where to make the adjustments."
I agree, with the even finer art knowing where not to make the adjustments. ;)

John: "I don’t yet see a complete description of how we read, and that makes me very wary about trying to draw practical conclusions in terms of ’doing things differently’ in type design, which is what we’re all concerned about isn’t it"

It's already been done. The renderings of the OS all went to doing things differently without letting the type or the designers 'at it' properly. A year ago you were in utter denial, now... crappy 'variations' will be brought to us by.... 'filtering expertz'.

Cheers!

Nick Shinn's picture

I don’t believe that concepts are there to be balkanized; in other words they don’t necessarily belong exclusively to one area of information or study rather than another.

Phrenology, graphology, the ego and the id have been banished from the scientific sphere, as has the study of race and intelligence.

By the same token, realism lost its credibility in art long ago. Art students don't study life drawing any more, or even drawing. Representation is the preserve of photography.

scientizing typography isn’t going to happen. I am fairly certain that’s a straw dog.

OK, how do you implement a disability policy that provides access for the reading challenged to important documents? Do you pass a Legibility Act that stipulates only certified typographic practitioners may produce such reading material, or one that stipulates certain physical criteria for typography?

The latter is what's happening, and, as has already been pointed out, scientific claims have been made in the marketing pitch for faces such as Read Right and Tiresias, which do not stand close scrutiny.

With regard to the food analogy, this is something I've considered, but I wish you guys would stop making analogies, there's nothing like type!

Good experimentation separates the influence of different variables. The idea you seem to be assuming—that in principle the influence of different variables can’t be separated—is just wrong.

You're assuming I'm assuming. What I actually said was there are too many variables. As Peter put it "...a decontextualized descision based soley on simple or generic affordance micro-advantages [is] short-sighted."

And again, I would ask you to make the distinction between studying reading, and studying readability.
Certainly, the variables can be limited in tests that are designed to address particular aspects of the reading process.
However, the putative study of typeface readability is impossible, because there are too many extraneous factors which skew the results.

OK, here comes an analogy: manners.
Science can study manners--anthropology or sociology --but it's not its job to offer etiquette tips.
Readability is like manners, typographers use certain types and "style sheets" for different kinds of publication.
If the wrong typespec is used, readability will tank.
How can science assign a particular typeface a readability quotient when it is good manners to use it in one kind of periodical, but a faux pas in another? Sure, you isolate the variable and say, THIS quotient IF these circumstances. And so on, as you take account of all the variables--the reader's education and eyesight, where they're reading, what the writing is, and so on, not to mention the typographic variables of size, leading, line length, and paper stock. Do you really believe that the appropriateness of typefaces doesn't vary drastically against one another as such circumstances change?

William Berkson's picture

>too many variables

Nick, that amounts to the same thing. The point is that with good experimentation you can get the influence of one variable. Blood is incredibly complex--probably as complex as reading--but medical testing regularly isolates different components to detect and diagnose illness.

>OK, here comes an analogy: manners.
Science can study manners—anthropology or sociology —but it’s not its job to offer etiquette tips.

It may not be its job, but it can help those who want to be polite or to offer etiquette tips. For example, the book Questions and Politeness points out that there is a conflict between being clear, as is a priority in debate for the growth of knowledge, and politeness. The goal in politeness is avoid embarrassment to anybody in the conversation. For that reason vague, open-ended questions, such as 'How do you do', are standard polite questions. Pointed, personal, close-ended questions, like "How much money did you make last month?" and "When did you have last have sex with your wife?" are rude.

I think the lessons for etiquette tips are pretty obvious. As is the challenge of trying to have a debate for the sake of better understanding--such as this one--while maintaining politeness.

As Kant said "There is nothing so practical as a good theory." A good theory is true, and therefore has practical applications. I have no doubt the same would be true for advances in the scientific study of readability.

ebensorkin's picture

It’s already been done. Phooey. Not the same thing at all. Letting technical folk try to solve something outside of their base of knowledge is not the same thing as having something studied from a new angle or better put : using a different process; ideally with some input from Typographers. Being technical is not the same as being scientific, even if science is used for creating technology. But your point about it being a mistake to not let "designers ’at it’ properly" is a solid one.

The latter is what’s happening, and, as has already been pointed out, scientific claims have been made in the marketing pitch for faces such as Read Right and Tiresias, which do not stand close scrutiny.And what close scrutiny will show is that it was faux science if it is*. And actually, that will be more useful to say than simply "this is the realm of the humanities"! So if you had more scientists involved the faux science would be easier to debunk.

....the study of race and intelligence All of these turned out to be mistaken theories. "Race" for example turns out to be construct that doesn't hold up under scrutiny. It was just an over-fixation on one variable:skin. Instead; now a more complex reality emerges. So looking at genetics, environment, nutrition, behavior and abilities etc. hasn't stopped. If Readability turns out to be a flawed theory maybe the same thing will happen with type - a more complex reality can emerge.

* I admit that that I haven't spent time looking at either fonts of the marketing associated with them. Perhaps I will this week.

Nick Shinn's picture

Eben, here is the definition:

Scientism: The belief that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are applicable or justifiable in all fields of inquiry.

So phooey to you, because "technical folk out of their depth" are the very people most apt to be scientistic.

William Berkson's picture

>I’m much more interested in targeted cash, and not at all in a bunch of freeloaders getting in on my winnings. You wanna put your money where my mouth is, that’s fine, the rest can make their own bets.

But you're going to lose :)

In any case lunch will be a pleasure, whether I pay or you do, so that's fine with me.

The problem is finding the referee who's going to decide whether there was significant progress on 'readability'.

>the distinction between studying reading, and studying readability.

If you can study reading, I don't see why you can't study readability. As I said, you aren't going to capture everything, particularly in the beginning, but I don't see why you can't identify factors that contribute to or hurt the ease of reading, which is what readability is. I expect that researchers will be able to identify thresholds where bad leading and spacing start to significantly hurt ease of reading, and these will be quite objective.

enne_son's picture

Perhaps a better way to describe what we should oppose is the illusory belief or expectation that adequate or fitting decisions about the right or best course of action can or should be based principally or exclusively on naked evidential knowledge of cause and effect.

enne_son's picture

…ease…

The problem with studying readability under your definition is, the researcher has to propose an understanding of ease in order to isolate and investigate. Is ease to be thought of as the sustainability of immersion with comprehension over large periods of time, or is it to be thought of in terms of the lightness of the computational load in neurological processing terms, or is it to be thought of in terms of the rapidness or automaticity of visual wordform resolution, or is it to be thought of in terms of perceptual attentional demands, or is it to be thought of in terms of the abscence of physiological stress.

All these are somewhat more tractable than ease, and probably related, but none of them really covers all we mean in ordinary, everyday terms, by ease, so a result derived from only one of it's more quantifiable dimensions can't bring us to where we want to be. And there is a naturally tendency for that to happen.

[added “with studying readability under your definition” at the begining later]

William Berkson's picture

The definition I am using is the one from my late Uncle J. Ben Lieberman's book ‘Types of Typefaces,’ from 1967:

“'Legibility' is based on the ease with which one letter can be told from the other. 'Readability' is the ease with which the eye can absorb the message and move along the line."

Generally as there is progress in science, there is refinement in the meaning of terms, such as the distinction between 'mass' and 'weight' that came in with Newtonian physics. So I'm sure there will be further clarification and refinement in the meaning of 'readability' as more is understood of the reading process. What I am claiming is that there is more to readability than the ease of distinguishing one letter from another. These additional aspects of readability is what I hope and expect there will be progress on.

Any of the alternative description you put forward may win out, but they will all be about 'readability' in the sense that they involve more than ease of individual letter identification.

John Hudson's picture

David: It’s already been done. The renderings of the OS all went to doing things differently without letting the type or the designers ’at it’ properly. A year ago you were in utter denial, now... crappy ’variations’ will be brought to us by.... ’filtering expertz’.

I was talking about me doing things differently, not rendering engines. What a rendering engine does might force me to do some things differently, but that's different from reading science directly influencing design decisions. A rendering engine can make my life difficult whether it is based on reading science, focus group response, unfounded optimism about gains in screen resolution, or voodoo.

Is what the rendering engines do, in fact, based on reading science? I don't think it is. Retroactively, some reading science is being applied to figure out whether particular rendering models have advantages over others, and that may affect the future development of those models, but I think the decisions to ship ClearType, CoolType or Quartz, were as anecdotally driven as they come: they made it, they liked the way it looked, they shipped it.

Denial? I'm just a bit slow: slow enough to spend 18 months designing a typeface to address a conflicting set of requirements without really understanding how they are conflicting.

Nick Shinn's picture

Nonetheless, it must have been quite a ride.
But what I really want to know is, what's the scoop on Jelle Bosma's Greek and Cyrillic?
Did they fail the readability test?

ebensorkin's picture

Nick, under your definition of Scientism it appears that you might be as "guilty" as I of this "ism" because you appear to appreciate Peter's work -as do I. This is in part because as provided the definition itself is more charged than clear.

Certainly if by Scientism you mean that the investigative methods of the physical sciences are to be considered not merely potentially applicable; but further that they are priviliged; then I am am as ready as you are to condemn Scientism. Usually an "ism" supposes a privileged position for the thing being mentioned before the "ism". "Ism"s are just dogma, not theory; and they offer false certainty and stunt curiosity.

This is ( I think what peter is talking about when he says Perhaps a better way to describe what we should oppose is the illusory belief or expectation that adequate or fitting decisions about the right or best course of action can or should be based principally or exclusively on naked evidential knowledge of cause and effect.. Peter please disabuse me if I am wrong.

What worries me almost as much as Scientism though; is is reactionary Anti-scientism. It's no better.

Although I am no doubt flogging a dead horse by now I will say again: It isn't necessary that "the investigative methods of the physical sciences" be either subservient, equal or superior. What needed is mutual respect, curiosity and interest among the various "modes of inquiry" as they used to say back at my college during the 80's. All this bristling and fuming at "Science"* in the thread does nothing to help that along. Still from what I have read I wonder if we don't agree agree on far more than we disagree on. We both have significant respect for the caprices of the eye when making fonts for instance.

Perhaps what is left is mostly a question of how relatively worried or unworried we are about threats from faux-science being wielded by marketing.

* I am using quotes here because as often as not it wasn't Science per se but the claim that it was.

John, Bill & Peter thanks for your interesting posts!

enne_son's picture

[reacting to Bill’s] "Any of the alternative description you put forward may win out…"

I don't see them as alternative descriptions but functional-specification proposals. And the issue for me isn’t which wins out but what gets looked at, and how what gets looked at is named. They all need to acknowledged for what they are, and explored for how they function. My prefered genral category to describe the domain I’m in is perceptual processing in reading.

The danger with designating a science of legibility or readability as the research goal is the danger, in the case of readability, of turning a value into a number, and in the case of legibility, af creating a reliance on threshold statistics (in the domain of perceptual discrimination affordance) for relevant information about functionality at a plateau (in the domain of visual wordform resolution).

That being said, I'm all for constructing legibility quotients and readability profiles. I'm just sensitive to how they are constructed and used. If concerns for readability and legibility are included in the brief, these shouldn't be a threat. And they shouldn't be all there is to consider.

Rob O. Font's picture

"Phooey."?
I was at an early publication of the latest mass discontinuity between test type and user: first the dreamer gave his ideas, then the scientist gave his scientifically studied presentation, then the type designer showed how simple it was going to be to make fonts, and then the typographer showed beautiful stuff a bit too far away to see. Kevin, before he was Kevlar, gave the scientific explaination for reading, which he still believes and which still inspires this CT effort, I think. It revolves around letters, not sylables, words, or lines — people read letters. I got close to him at Typecon, not just because I like him, but also to make sure he would say it three times while I was right there. "Chinese?" "No," "the word 'a'?", "NO," "youth vs expertise?" "Noooooo, people read letters one saccade at a time!

So, unless 'Ready Rendering Skills' lead science to bad reading science, and influenced type design decisions, an unthinkable thing, then Science did it. ;) By, ready rendering skills, in this case I mean the ability, for better or for worse, to cleave the resolution into components, not triple the resolution, as is so often claimed. Read the MS 'white paper' on anti-aliasing type, which 'scientifically' led this off. It measures, prods and pokes around the solution without ever mentioning type, or typography. This last study, if Sheedy only lets MS change the filter, (and not the oil or driver;), it is not going to change the fundamentally saccade-hiccupic nature in low resolution text across the Windows universe. This is not my fault, who ever let that French guy name this bluddy eye movement? it's their fault.

" I’m just a bit slow:"
Me too, has something to do in my case, with having to ceaselessly pry into the seemingly endless 'overlays' upon the concept of text for readability. I'd give up, but that each overlay leaves such fertile ground for custom work...I'm just a busy bunch of monkeys in the orchestra of type.

"...is what the rendering engines do, in fact, based on reading science? I don’t think it is."
I great question, No, in the strictest sense rendering engines do not do anything based on reading science, they are non-sentient e-world objects. But, who, or what, are these scientific studies of CT done for, if not for the engineering staff(s) who render rendering engines? Kevlar just said, 5 filterings were tested in their scientific study, and 2 filterings were released to the developing public. Maybe he knows then? Is what the rendering engines do, in fact, based on reading science? Or, are the renderings which are released, released based on reading science?

Cheers!

Nick Shinn's picture

What worries me almost as much as Scientism though; is is reactionary Anti-scientism. It’s no better.

I am not a reactionary, I am progressive, and that has nothing to do with science. I just think we should move forward and leave a lot of past garbage behind (suitably recycled).

I am not anti-science, I am "anti-scientism", because I dislike all forms of totalitarian-ism.

which he still believes and which still inspires this CT effort, I think.

Well, if the folks in the Microsoft typography department want to stay busy and keep their jobs, they have to have something to develop. The boss will fund projects with measurable results; he is an engineer and runs a large-volume, small margin business, so that's understandable. Having a scientific readability component in a type-development project, one that is able to produce a result such as "5% faster", does the trick. This much I gleaned from the CT documentary video that MS published.

So although the people involved may be variously inspired, the CT project itself exists as a condition of the way the business works.

eliason's picture

So I am happy to point out the obvious counter-argument of all the heavily processed food made with the help of “food scientists”. It’s a hell of an counter example.

There was an interesting show on public radio this morning about how food science (and marketing, and journalism) encourage people to eat much less healthfully. I know this seems off-topic, but I think the analogy might have some legs, and indeed Michael Pollan (the author who was the guest on the radio show) seems to be identifying similar dynamics in the food supply world that Nick is calling out in the type world.

William Berkson's picture

Francis Bacon said: "Knowledge is power." Scientific knowledge is power that can be used for good or ill. It is up to us to use it wisely.

The romantic reactionary view of science always points to the misuse of science to oppose or limit science. Science is misused, but I don't think that's an argument against scientific research, unless humanity is hopeless at managing the added power that comes with science, and science-based technology. It is a serious question whether we can manage scientific knowledge for the good, but I don't see a lot of volunteers to become subsistence farmers.

I would like to see an effort to use science responsibly rather than abandon research.

Incidentally 'scientistic' according to the wikipedia article can mean pseudo-science or the misuse of science, and it can also mean the view that the methods of the physical science apply elsewhere, such as in the social sciences.

How far the methods of the physical sciences can be applied beyond their origins is an interesting question*, but in the case of cognition and perception I think the evidence is clear that it is possible to develop testable theories and test them.

*You can access my article on the subject here if you are interested.

Nick Shinn's picture

The romantic reactionary view of science

It is a serious question whether we can manage scientific knowledge for the good, but I don’t see a lot of volunteers to become subsistence farmers.

Enough already with the false dilemmas!
I'm not a romantic reactionary--I'm making a distinction between reading research: good, and readability research: impossible.

And you don't have to be a subsitence farmer to question the agri-business complex.

Kevin Larson's picture

David wrote: Kevlar just said, 5 filterings were tested in their scientific study, and 2 filterings were released to the developing public. Maybe he knows then? Is what the rendering engines do, in fact, based on reading science? Or, are the renderings which are released, released based on reading science?

The five filtering are all options that have been available in MS Reader for many years. Only the three most popular were made options in WPF, though I would have preferred all five been made available as options. The ClearType filtering option that was used in WinXP was selected by our typographers.

Our team now consists of two typographers, three engineers, and one scientist. We now have the ability to collect data from readers, which we use as an additional source of data for making decisions. As I wrote in the engineering magazine IEEE Spectrum, each of the three branches of our team plays an important role in improving the reading experience. There isn’t a fight between science and typography.
http://spectrum.ieee.org/print/5049

Cheers, Kevin

William Berkson's picture

>readability research: impossible

As I have already explained, your argument against readability research doesn't hold water. 'Too many variables' is not a good argument against further research into a problem because it can always be said, including about problems where it has already been proven wrong by successful solutions.

When there are new insights in theory, and new experimental designs, then important variables are identified, and their influence tested for.

Nick Shinn's picture

William, you can generalize till the cows come home, but it won't get you very far.

Do you really believe that it is possible to test enough of the variables involved in reading to create an index of readability for typefaces, which has any practical value?

The same is true for any of the variables.

Is 9 pt more readable than 10 pt?
--By people aged 16 or 60?
--With high or low IQ?
--For serif or sans faces?

Is 10 pt leading more readable than 12 pt leading?
--With old style or modern faces?
--With 8 picas line length or 28 picas?
--Ragged or justified?

Is Perpetua more readable than Times?
--On the bus to work, in bed, or in a reading lab?
--In bright daylight or poor artificial light?
--On newsprint or coated stock?

Is sans more readable than serif?
--for a novel or a technical manual?
--for paper or lcd monitor (and at what setting)?
--for short or long paragraphs?

And so on.

William Berkson's picture

>index of readability

Nick, I never mentioned anything about an index of readability. You are arguing against a straw man.

I argued that there would be scientific progress in understanding readability.

Your options are so primitive that you must think scientists are required to be stupid, which is not the case. You might just as well argue that we can't prescribe corrective lenses because there are so many different ways we can see badly, and so many causes of bad vision. But they do measure these many variables, and prescribe successfully.

As any one who studies typography at all knows, the different factors of type face, leading, spacing etc. interact to produce a product which is more or less readable.

Scientists can test for a combinations of these variables, or for other variables which they might be able to isolate.

For example Bill Hill of Microsoft mentioned at TypeCon that the reason for the 65 character line width of a single book column being ideal, and more than 75 a problem is that at normal reading distances we have to turn our heads, and not just our eyes for longer measures. I believe the argument was that we are less efficient at moving along the line or to the next line, This is a kind of thing you can actually check by seeing how the readers' eyes move, and their change in reading speed.

I don't know whether this has been tested, but according to you it would be pointless and worthless, I gather, because it is 'readability research'--it tests how measure affects readability.

ebensorkin's picture

To shift the debate into what I would guess might be more useful territory let me ask: What specifically would you be interested in having studied? Serif shapes? Contrast? Rendering schemes? What ( if any) studies if any have been most influential on you?

And to move away from dubious gladiatorial battles between fonts that we all seem to agree are not to the point - let me see if we agree instead to something else: That if something about type is to studied via a scientific process that the best idea is to take a single typeface as a control and then make a specific micro typographic adjustments to a version of it. A study could be serif oriented, or contrast or a whole variety of things. This would be a way of reducing variables massively but obviously not completely. But most important it would be a way of doing science useful to typographers. And not coincidentally it paralelels the way a type designer works. Of course it would be prudent/useful not note the variables you think are still in play as well, demographics for instance.

In a way I was a little hesitant to even mention the idea -it is no doubt the obvious thing. In fact I can well imagine Peter or Kevin rolling their eyes. Still, I am interested to hear if you do or don't agree.

Personally I would be interested in seeing individual examples contextual alternatives tested in this way because I am guessing that holds special promise to increase comfort. What do you think?

Nick Shinn's picture

Your options are so primitive that you must think scientists are required to be stupid,

What's your point, Bill? ;-)

And to move away from dubious gladiatorial battles between fonts that we all seem to agree are not to the point

Sorry Eben, that is the point.
Bill says we're not talking about the scientific production of an index of readability for typefaces.
But please explain how measuring the "whatever-ability" of a group of items does NOT result in an index/table of their relative merit?

Eben, the test you are suggesting is, as you say, appropriate for font development, where the variable is a feature of a particular typeface. If you varied the typeface, how would you know what realm of difference you were measuring? If typeface A has bigger serifs than typeface B, how do you know it is serif size and not some other difference you are measuring? If all that's different is one article of vocabulary, such as serif style, it's the same typeface.

I'd say you need at least two or three co-variant themes of a typeface to be different from one type to another, for it to be considered an original design.

John Hudson's picture

To shift the debate into what I would guess might be more useful territory let me ask: What specifically would you be interested in having studied?

Reading is a human activity carried out every day by millions of people who speak and think in many hundreds of languages and who read and write in dozens of different writing systems. This suggests to me that any understanding of the mechanics of reading that does not involve empirical data from multiple scripts and languages is not really an understanding of reading per se, it is only an understanding of reading a particular script (and most likely a particular language written in that script, given the limitations of most studies). So what I would like to see is studies that are designed to produce comparable data for reading in multiple writing systems.

I have an hypothesis, which is that word or phrase recognition is built up from recognition of the base distinct 'atoms' of any given writing system, with the latter recognition involving sub-atomic role architecture and/or molecular (multi-atom) compounds as needed by the individual reader encountering a given text.

The interesting aspects of this hypothesis, I think, is that for some writing systems I don't think we know yet what constitutes an atom. For the typical typographic Latin script I'm pretty sure the atom is the letter, and studies seem to confirm this. But what is the atom in Chinese? The ideograph or the radical? What is the atom in Hindi? The letter or the syllable? What is the atom in Arabic? The letter or the segment? And, for that matter, does the atom of the Latin script change depending on whether one is reading disconnected typographic letters or connected script?

I have another, contradictory hypothesis, which is that there are no atoms, there are only waves, and what we make use of in reading varies all the time depending on a large variety of in-textual and extra-textual factors.

ebensorkin's picture

But please explain how measuring the “whatever-ability” of a group of items does NOT result in an index/table of their relative merit? This is pretty vague.

If typeface A has bigger serifs than typeface B, how do you know it is serif size and not some other difference you are measuring? Serifs are particularly complicated. I won't say they can't be studied though. There are lots of aspects to break down if you were so inclined.

If all that’s different is one article of vocabulary, such as serif style, it’s the same typeface. Not the same. Very closely related.

I’d say you need at least two or three co-variant themes of a typeface to be different from one type to another, for it to be considered an original design. Ah yes. But that isn't how you build up a strong case for something scientifically. Science would be better off not making a new design - that's your job. Instead science must take little baby steps. And at last with many many tests perhaps enough data is collected & interpreted so as to be useful to you. Maybe a whole matrix of these co-variant themes could be built up...

Sorry Eben, that is the point. I think it isn't so much the point so much as it's your favorite bugbear. Maybe after I read more about scientistic typefaces & the marketing of them I will get more worried. But even if I do it won't make me think you can always save people or committees from seeking false security in scientism. You can try. But it isn't going to work every time. I will also doubt that can you always save them from marketing hype. And even if you could; neither goal is advanced by demonizing science's potential participation in type. Instead it is the thinness of the claims that is to be pointed out, and counter examples offered and criticisms made - ideally both humanities and science based.

I am interested not in listing the hot type for a all purposes but in understanding how to design better fonts for a particular purpose, in a particular environment for a given group of folks etc. But I think that willfully leaving the potential benefit/information that science might offer out my bag of tricks is simply nutty. There are aspects of type design that I would just assume not even ask a scientist about because my sense is they are not interesting questions. On the other hand I bet there are some aspects of type that have eluded the best efforts of the humanities to grip that might be better plumbed using scientific techniques. To reiterate; I am not proposing that we worship science in our design process', and nobody here is that I can tell. But I do think there is room for them to help or collaborate with us.

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