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).

William Berkson's picture

Peter, Eben, I don't think you are understanding correctly the relationship between observation, scientific explanations of the observations, and scientific theories. I'm not optimistic that I can explain it to you briefly, so it will have to wait till we meet Rochester, if you are interested.

>“Throwing the baby of technology & science out with the bath water of industry is no solution.”
>Actually, it is the perfect solution, because it tests the resolve of those who wish to hoodwink you.

Well, my cousin has William Morris's old press, so I can hook you up with that. It is hand pulled, and that way you, like Morris, will avoid the evils of science: electric motor driven presses, and now the computer, and so on.

No doubt you'll do some lovely work, but we'll miss your new digital types :)

ebensorkin's picture

Bill, I can wait until then. That's fine.

enne_son's picture

Bill, I'm not sure to which post you’re referring when you say you don’t think I understand correctly the relationship between observation, scientific explanation of the observations, and scientific theories. I can wait til TypeCon, but for the sake of this thread I’d rather be given a little clue.

Perhaps you mean to say that by varying single parameters one at a time on the stimulus side in a bank of tests, and observing the result in terms of speed (for instance), I can do more than just tell which is faster. I can build up a picture of what affects perceptual processing in reading, and gradually compile a total picture of how they interact.

Of course I'd agree with that. It's implicite in the majority of my posts.

William Berkson's picture

Peter, you wrote, "What is being resisted is an explanation of the form: 'x or y is actually objectively more readable because reading using x or y is faster or less tiring.'"

That's not an explanation, that's a definition, the meaning of readability. Highly readable *means* that people can read it with relatively good speed, comfort and comprehension. Less readable *means* people can read it with less comfort, speed and comprehension.

Speed and comprehension can be objectively measured, though comfort is more dicey as of yet. So what a scientific theory of readability should be looking for is theories that would explain why some texts are more readable than others. Part of the challenge of that development and testing is to objectively distinguish the more and less readable texts. So you are going to need objective measures that will reflect the fact that, eg. people prefer to read extended text in print rather than on screen. Of course there will be individual variation, and this needs to be taken into account in the measures--eg that over 45 are generally going to have more problems handling small type.

Then the theory is going to have to explain why those measures turn up the way they do. The theory may be about the reading process in general, and not specifically readability, but it will need to have logical consequences that predict the differences in the objective measures of readability.

In principle, so far as I can see there nothing scientifically objectionable in the testing I described. It would only need to be better specified to carry out the tests. The theory of reading would need to explain whatever the results are.

enne_son's picture

Bill, perhaps what I should have said is “[w]hat is being resisted is an inferential judgement of the form: : ‘x or y is actually objectively more readible since reading using x or y is faster [more accurate], or less tiring.’”

Whether it is or not depends on the definition, and a definition is a social contract. What you propose is, it seems to me, a proto-scientific formalization which I think confuses what something is a function of with ways in which it manifests itself. Science needs formalizations to get its investigations going. Ole Lund in his Reading PhD dissertation on legibility research rasied issues of ‘construct validity’ and characterized the kind of formalization you propose as ‘easy operationalism.’

The definition I might propose defines readible text as text in which rapid automatic visual word-form resolution is not obstructed, but actively afforded. (This presupposes of course that something denominatable as ‘visual wordform resolution’ in fact exists.) I think that when type designers talk about readability, this way of tying it down for investigative cross-examination is more representative of what they're after and more cognitive-scientifically sound. That it is closer to the intentions of typographical practioners is reflected by the orientation to making optico-grammatically integral words rather than simply nice letters.

In any case science shouldn't be making the kinds of inferential judgements I described until it has a relatively accurate idea of what in actual functional terms is going on.

Nick Shinn's picture

Highly readable *means* that people can read it with relatively good speed, comfort and comprehension.

That's not how I would describe readability.
I'd say it *means* people find the combination of content plus presentation interesting enough to start reading, and meaningful enough to continue. Limiting "meaningful" to the kind of comprehension that concerns deciphering words from letters and recognizing grammatical structures that look logical enough to not cause too many regressive saccades -- that's a pretty basic concept of meaning. Surely there's more to it than that?

William Berkson's picture

Nick, the Oxford concise gives two definitions: "1. Able to read; legible. 2. interesting or pleasant to read."

The first definition clearly refers to the visual aspect of reading. The second has to do with the quality of the writing. Of course "there is more to it," as the reader's overall experience will involve both. But with a little cleverness we should be able to study the typographical dimension on its own.

Within typography a sophisticated but still pre-scientific definition of readability I quoted earlier: "the ease with which the eye can absorb the message and move along the line."

"Absorbing the message" clearly refers to comprehension, to understanding meaning. And 'ease' is some kind of comfort, or lack of resistance. Since we can decipher nearly illegible writing by slowing down, I think an idea that we can have some speed along with comprehenseion is implied or understood.

Yes, there's more to it, but the first, narrower typographic meaning is worthy of scientific study in my opinion.

Peter, I don't see that I am making much of any inference here about the underlying mechanisms of reading--of how we go from the printed page or screen to understanding. The only thing I pointed out is that two aspects have been operationalized: speed and comprehension. The third, comfort, has not been operationalized successfully yet. I suggested two possible measurable correlates of the subjective experience of discomfort or difficulty with the visual aspect of reading: reduction in comprehension with time and decline in proof-reading accuracy. One would have to test to see whether either of these is any good. I have proposed no short-cut or 'easy operationalization' here. It's difficult, but if achieved would be enlightening.

Then once you have such measures, you have the challenge of explaining their behavior in different circumstance. But at least you have something measurable, beyond the general self-report of comfort or discomfort. That I think would be a plus for further research.

As you know, I think that technical terms should be introduced only when necessary, and then with clear definitions. When you write your definition of readability as "readable text as text in which rapid automatic visual word-form resolution is not obstructed, but actively afforded," your technical terms smuggle in assumptions that may not be correct.

1. It may be that part of good readability, is having short words, such as
a, an, the, that have sufficient markers that the brain is able to skip and never read them. The meaning may be derived from a sub-set of words in many sentences.

2. Secondly, it might be that we can go directly from letters to meanings of whole phrases--the 'bouma' extends over multiple words. I don't think this is true, but your terminology assumes it rather than investigating it.

3. Finally when you nominalize and use the term 'affordance' you are creating something that seems to be a single variable that may turn out to have a number of independent processes going on, and the single term is not useful. I greatly respect your insights into the reading process, as you know, but I do think that introducing technical terms quickly is a serious obstacle to communication and may even muddy the waters conceptually .

You may object that 'readability' also implies a single variable, but that's not the case, because it is not being used as a technical term. As a general rule, terms that emerge out of peoples' experience represent something real, and that's why science would do well to respect them as a starting point, and only replace them with a very good reason.

Rob O. Font's picture

1. It may be that part of good readability, is having short words, such as
a, an, the, that have sufficient markers that the brain is able to skip and never read them.

And, how 'bout dem Germans, they must have some hell of a time reading all those long words.
There are a variety of opinions, but none say we skip the and never readlittle ones. But you must think there is something between, skip and read-each-letter, then.

In any case, we've been through all this, it's like freshman readability orientation week — day one, (each and every day).

When is the actual Groundhog's Day?


William Berkson's picture

>none say we skip the and never read little ones.

I can't cite the article--I bet Peter or Kevin can--but I believe that is exactly the currently most accepted view--we 'preview' in the parafovea, and often skip small words for the next saccade, never reading them, and fixate on later large ones.

>When is the actual Groundhog’s Day?

As you can see, above I tried to get out of this movie, but resistance was futile :)

>But you must think there is something between, skip and read-each-letter, then.

Yes, I started by arguing against Peter's rhetoric, and then but then I actually had to try to understand him. In the end, he converted me to the dark side--believing in the 'bouma'--and now I am stuck in this movie. Help!

enne_son's picture

Bill, you are right in saying “terms that emerge out of peoples’ experience represent something real, and that’s why science would do well to respect them as a starting point.” For me the vital question is who is doing a better job: you in your seemingly innocent formalizations or me in my apparently unnecessary elaborations.

In response to Nick perhaps I'd say: maybe “efficient saccade planning” should be added to my definition. And I might need to add “and epiphenomenally enhanced” and change “actively” to “effectively.” so my definition reads “readible text is text in which rapid automatic visual word-form resolution and efficient saccade planning are not obstructed, but effectively afforded and epiphenomenally enhanced,” by which I mean helped out by more than strictly visual wordform resolutional virtues. Examples of directly visual word-form resolutional virtues are perfect spacing and distinctive cue values for criterial role architectural features. Examples of epiphenomenal virtues might be gestural atmospheric propriety, and clarity of presentational logic (at the very least).

Yes my definition makes assumptions. Don't yours?

Do you think visual word-form resolution is not real? Or should I have used “visual word-rocgnition instead?” Or is that less precise? Do you have a better sense of what word recognition is than you do of what visual word-form resolution is? Instead of “afforded,” should I have used “made possible?” Or is that kess succint?

Anyway, I apologize for the trouble I've caused. I am not a deliberately evil man.

John Hudson's picture

And, how ’bout dem Germans, they must have some hell of a time reading all those long words.

And how 'bout dem Thais, they must have some hell of a time reading without separating the words at all.

enne_son's picture

I hope readers of this thread will allow me another addition to this thread, just in case it is of use.

I could simplify my definition somewhat by saying “readible text is text in which holistic processing, efficient saccade planning and robust sense-following are not disrupted or obstructed by the particularities of type-design or the specifics of the typesetting, but effectively afforded and epiphenomenally enhanced.”

(Legible writing then, is writing in which the discrimination affordances necessary for accurate wholistic processing and sufficient for reliable analytic processing are not compromised by peculiarites in or degredations of letterform or the mis-management of letter-form-design parameters. The discrimination affordance will need to be perceptual, and of cue-providing role-architectural information)

Holistic processing in this complex has to be thought of in ‘bouma shape’ and ‘form resolutional’ terms, rather than ‘envelope structural’ and ‘lexical access‘ terms.

The reason to insist on more challenging definitions is because I believe this leads to the search for and the emergence of more discriminating tests of value. New tests to gauge for value might be in the realm of testing for the robustness of the word superiority effect, or in the realm of attentional effort, or in the realm of gauging sustainability of immersion with comprehension and delight. Perhaps Kevin‘s corrugator muscle and eye-fatigue research relates to the second one of these.

William Berkson's picture

>Do you have a better sense of what word recognition is than you do of what visual word-form resolution is?

Yes, because 'word recognition' is English; that's my native tongue :)

What does the longer phrase 'visual word-form resolution' add? I don't know until you explain it, and that's why such phrases are a barrier to understanding. What I gather you think it adds is that it includes some of your theories about how we read. But the theories are not in the verbiage, which obscures rather than clarifies. If you first explain the your theory of word recognition, then when you write further I will know what you mean when you use the phrase 'word recognition'. And you don't have to pile anything on for me to understand each time you mention it. When you pile term on term, the whole thing becomes impenetrable.

For example, above you wrote:

“judgements of readability and legibility are possible because affordance varies complexly across many factors, and yes some typefaces compromise discrimination affordance of criterial role-architectural parts in certain conditions of use by reducing the formal grammer through a reduction of stroke contrast or the size and the distinctiveness of counters, for instance.”

I'm sorry, but that's just impenetrable without a lot of explanation, and when you have the explanation you can make the point or points more simply.

> I am not a deliberately evil man.

Ha! You have a pure heart, and good ideas on reading, I know. It's just that there's this demon called phenomenology that has possessed your keyboard. I'm trying to exorcise it :)

What is bad about this way of writing is that it obscures. At worst it gives a false impression of precision and depth that covers up a lack of ideas. At best--and that is in your case--it just makes a writer much hard to understand. Just as in graphic design, in writing prose lucidity is a fundamental virtue. It can be compromised on occasion for a reason, but the reason had better be a damn good one.

enne_son's picture

Bill, I don't have rough and ready explanations for all the words I use. Some are of my own creation. Often they are cobbled together from terms I meet in things I read. They form because of things in my reading that resonate with my awareness of science and my knowledge of type and type-making. This resonance often has to do as much with the everyday ordinary meaning of these words, as it has to do with their assigned meaning in the specific contexts in which they appear

I don't choose them just to be obscure, but because I find them to be descriptive and precise. I guess I depend on the fact that the same resonance will occur in the minds of my readers. Perhaps I am foolharding in expecting that it might, and too undiscipline to not let them out until I can give a full account of what they mean.

Scattered throughout my posts on these subjects are various attempts at explanation of why and how I use my terms. I don't pretend what I write is easy to understand, and I try to be as lucid as I can without ressorting to formulations I'm uncomfortable with, or writing longer dissertations.

My only hope is some things will get through, and that the things that do won't be fool’s gold, but have legs.

Nick Shinn's picture

the reason had better be a damn good one.

I'd say it is.
There's more in the cupboard than crystal goblets. Some of us like to tipple from ornate beer steins.

William Berkson's picture

>There’s more in the cupboard than crystal goblets.

Yes, I should have qualified that to extended text and expository prose--of course clarity can still be compromised in these, but good reasons are more rare than in display type or fiction.

ebensorkin's picture

When it comes to being curious about how to improve type I have keep being interested in that crystal and in Peter's fantastically garbed ideas. When it comes to use I will always be willing to choose a stein if it fits the tone I require. The instances where maximum clarity are crucial are pretty few & far between. These are not contradictory things to say at all.

William Berkson's picture

>where maximum clarity are crucial are pretty few & far between

Eben, do you really mean to say that? Newspapers? Text books? Non-fiction? Lengthy fiction?

I would say rather that clarity and having different 'voices' with different aesthetics and moods are not in conflict. The goblet should be clear, but it can be beautifully shaped and decorated.

For a writer--an I speak as a writer first and a designer second--my interest is in having the visual clothing of my words be as inviting as possible to the reader and as easy as possible to understand. In other words, visual design that is both inviting and transparent.

ebensorkin's picture

Where public safety and visually impaired folk and a variety of other related situations are concerned then yes I think that doing absolutely all you can is crucial. The greater the dangers the more thats the case. Highway signs fall into this category as well I think.

For general wayfinding on foot you have comparitively waaay more leeway. It's not a question then of safety so as much as wasted time and the sense that the makers do or don't care about you I suppose.

For texts: the longer the text and the longer you might reasonably need/want to keep reading the more important it will be. But Crucial? Maybe not. Too strong a word. If I am setting a novel I might legitimately choose something with a tad bit less readability in my eyes if the voice of the font was right. For magazines I would be willing to extend the lead further.

I am not saying the issue of Readability isn't important - far from it - I am saying there are degrees of importance.

The phrase maximum clarity are crucial is pretty strong wording isn't it?

By the way the word above is "garbed" as in robed or clothed. Not "garbled" as in unintelligible.

Nick Shinn's picture

Bill, to return to the goblet/stein analogy (perhaps one should also include tea cups, coffee mugs and drinking straight from the bottle), and apply it to writing rather than type:

Isn't it reasonable to assume that complex ideas may best be expressed by complex grammar?
And precise meanings by long words?
And new ideas by new words?

Surely the alternative is dumbing down.

ebensorkin's picture

Isn’t it reasonable

Quite right. And this is why specialist language comes about in all areas. We need new words so we make them. Or borrow them. Or we recycle them.

It is true that to understand Peter you have ask him what he mans by these things. But he is very nice about answering questions.

William Berkson's picture

My view about good writing is similar to what Einstein said about a good scientific theory: it should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

I think one should always be reluctant to introduce new terminology, though there are times when it is useful and desirable. Complex grammar is is not a requirement expressing for deep or complex ideas, and is best avoided as a disservice to the reader. Bertrand Russell, for example, wrote about very difficult and complex philosophical issues with admirably clear prose.

Lucidity is a wonderful achievement, whether in graphic design or in writing. It is by no means the only virtue in these fields, but it is one of the highest in both.

ebensorkin's picture

I think you you should cut him some slack Bill. He is getting the ideas together. Not presenting them as fait accompli.

Besides, a lovely lucidly explained mistaken theory is no more accurate for it's being lucid.

enne_son's picture

Eben, I'm okay with Bill’s remarks about the way I present my ideas. I try to formulate compact stand-alone and all-inclusive one-sentence definitions, but recognize they're often not good prose or easily navigatable. And than I don’t generally give readers what they need to unpack them. That’s not right, even though I think readers should be able to find their way into my ideas by exploring the ordinary-language and dictionary usage of my terms.

I make myself and my ideas vulnerable to readers throwing up their hands, thinking sooner or later readers will come around to my thickish brew.

In a personal not to Bill I wrote: “just so you know, 'visual word-form resolution' is my name for the visual or perceptual processing component in word recognition. Word recognition also has a cognitive processing component which has to do with connecting with meaning. Word recognition is also used in connection with contacting items in a 'mental lexicon' — basically a database of spellings. Contacting items in the mental lexicon is a grey area in theories of word recognition. It isn't really thought of in perceptual processing or cognitive processing terms. It's regarded as a post-perceptual, neural-computational thing. This use is very widespread. I feel the need to distantiate what I am talking about from it.”

William Berkson's picture

>I think you you should cut him some slack Bill. He is getting the ideas together.

I'm already a big fan of Peter's ideas, which I think have a good chance of being correct. In this case my criticism of his rhetoric comes from my valuing his ideas. I've never met Peter, but I also admire many of his qualities in our discussions: open-mindedness, independence of thought, hard work, and insight.

>Besides, a lovely lucidly explained mistaken theory is no more accurate for it’s being lucid.

Ah, here you've come to the heart of the matter.

A lucidly explained mistaken theory is just as false as an obscurely explained mistaken theory. There is, however, an all-important difference: the flaws in the lucidly explained are much easier to detect and correct.

In Popper's view the power of scientific method results from scientific theories being formulated in a testable way--they can be checked against observation and experiment. The result is that errors are detected and corrected, and knowledge grows by creative dialog and research informing that dialog.

More generally, any kind of critical discussion, including of politics and art, is furthered by clarity. Clarity enables people to correct and build upon the ideas developed by others. That's why clarity is a fundamental virtue in the critical tradition, a tradition that began with the ancient Greeks.

Popper rarely, and maybe never in print, discussed those he regarded as obscurantists, such as Heidegger. The reason is that he thought they had abandoned the critical tradition--a fundamental betrayal of science and of liberty in his view. He so despised them for the betrayal that he wouldn't honor them by criticizing them, or even mentioning them. I don't think his policy was wise, but I do think he was right about the importance of clarity to the growth of knowledge.

Often obscurity is a shield against criticism, and sometimes it's even a way to bamboozle people into thinking that your ideas are much deeper than they are. --That's what Popper thought about Heidegger. But even in the most innocent case, obscurity deters criticism. And that is not a merit but a liability for the growth of knowledge and the further enlightenment of humanity.

enne_son's picture

Here is a general point in relation to the subject of this thread:

A full discussion of readibility and legibility can’t only focus on the parameters of type and writing such as stroke contrast, letterform construction, length of ascenders, leading, size of counters, and how these interact and to what effect. These are items on what might be called the object- or stimulus-side of the equation.

Also such a discussion can’t only focus on speed, comfort and comprehension or what causes them to fluctuate. These are items on the response- or subject-side of the equation, even though they can be relatively effectively operationalized and thereby, in some sense 'measured.'

To make the discussion preductive, we also also need to sort out and talk about the real functional or structural components of the physical act of reading, such as saccade management and the contetious area of ‘holistic processing’ — if that’s a good term —, or ‘rapid, automatic visual word-form resolution’ — if that can be made to be less opaque. Once this is done an understanding of readability that moves beyond the approximations implicit in ordinary usage or the vagaries in it’s sophisticated ‘received’ sense might emerge.

William Berkson's picture

Peter, I agree with you that discovery of to what extent 'holistic processing' is happening, and how it happens, would likely be a great help in understanding readability. It will like help both to refine the concept and to test for the different aspects of readability.

I do think, though, that it may be possible to test for readability even before such advances happen. And the results might help point the way for theory.

enne_son's picture

Bill, to be perfectly frank, your second statement still raises red flags. But that’s not to say I don't see real value in conducting well-constructed tests of speed, comfort and comprehension. I'm not sure I can be clear about why the flags keep coming up.

Maybe when it comes to the term we need to distinguish between use, meaning and definition. ‘Readability’ has a common use and a widely accepted meaning, but no tightly drawn definition. If it refers to something real, it should. You try to work with it’s widely accepted meaning maybe a bit to long, I try to draw up a tight definition maybe a bit too quickly. The definition has to be cognizant of the widely accepted meaning, or show how it makes sense, and it has to be faithful to the use.

Nick Shinn's picture

The reductionists are trying to annex the widely accepted meaning, and marginalize anything which doesn't support their world view and agenda of productization and automation, casting it as obscure epiphenomena, the aesthetic extras that play no part in "real" readability. Don't fall for it Bill and Eben. You're type designers, for goodness sake.

Simple language and behavioral experiments are great for banalizing.

William Berkson's picture

>The reductionists ...agenda of productization and automation

Nick, in my opinion your fears are quite groundless. Bogus claims, like those for Tiresias, will keep on happening, but they have nothing to do with real scientific advances.

When there are such advances, they don't marginalize creative people but rather empower them--as the computer, a feared advance in science and technology (see '2001'), has opened the path for you to build your successful independent type design business.

Though some scientists are reductionists, explanation doesn't in fact reduce. Reality is still there in all of its richness and most all of its mystery.

Newton, who made the greatest advance ever in the history of science, said he had only discovered a few shells on a vast unknown shore. A few shells in the field of readability will only help designers.

Nick Shinn's picture

[edit: replaced with bigger image file.]

ebensorkin's picture

Nick, I am sorry. I don't know what you mean by this image. What is it? What does it mean?

eliason's picture

What does it mean?

The filename clued me in. See here.

edit: That page's author linked to it with an explanatory caption that made me chuckle: "Blake's portrait of Newton, concentrating on his geometry while unaware of the heavens above him or his missing pants."

ebensorkin's picture

I did laugh. But actually's a poor choice. Newton got pretty far (supposedly minus those pants) as I recall. Thanks for the bigger image!

Nick Shinn's picture

What does it mean?

The random, surreal technique Blake used to create the rocks is a metaphor for that which escapes Newton's calculations.

William Berkson's picture

I've always been somewhat puzzled by Blake's great picture of Newton. It is supposedly a critique--as the comments point out, the scroll he is measuring comes from his own head, not nature. Yet the initial impression is Heroic, with the great strength and intelligence of the figure. I'd like to know more about Blake's view of it...

The most important anti-scientific Romantic was Goethe in his early years. He not only criticized the 'grey world of Newton', but tried to develop an alternative romantic way of doing science. And in particular he had a new and different theory of color. This in turn inspired the German Naturphilosophen, Fichte, Hegel and Schelling. The most interesting fact about this effort is that it was an abject failure, a failure of romanticism to produce an alternative version of science that actually could have predictive power in observation and experiment. This story, if I remember correctly, is in Emil Meyerson's book De l'Explication dans les Sciences.

In the next generation, the great Helmholtz made important discoveries in the physiology and psychology of vision, including color. Inspired by the discoveries that shadows are actually colored and that the eye sees sharply only at the center of vision, the Impressionists developed their new style of painting.

This kind of healthy interaction between science and art, exemplified by Helmholtz on one side, and Renoir and Degas, and so on on the other, is I think the right model. I expect the same kind of fruitful interaction between advances in the science of reading and type design and graphic design.

Nick Shinn's picture

Aren't you rather begging the question of "advances" in the science of reading?

They first have to be winnowed from the chaff.

Newton had a lot of dubious ideas (he was a religious fundamentalist whose biggest interest was mathematically interpreting the Bible), so a lot of his theories are in the dustbin.

He was a powerful man (and presented by Blake as such) who used his power to have his adversaries (counterfieters: his income came from being head of the Royal Mint) hung, drawn, and quartered. He was, like Blake, an intensely religious person, but of a quite different stripe.

Today, "Why most published research findings are false" is an issue.

So I think it's quite reasonable to question the limits of science, as I am doing, without being painted as a romantic, anti-social, anti-rational luddite. I don't have a problem with scientists studying reading, and they can study the occult mysteries of readability if they wish. But IMO it's so much phlogiston.

William Berkson's picture

>Aren’t you rather begging the question of “advances” in the science of reading?

No, I'm saying let's go ahead, and I anticipate useful results. I am for trying, but never promised success.

>I think it’s quite reasonable to question the limits of science

So do I, but that's not what you have been doing. You've been writing that we need less science, that science is a threat, and we shouldn't research readability. You put up Blake's picture that is supposed to be anti-Newton and anti-science. Now you've relented a bit and will graciously 'allow' scientists to research. That's an improvement.

Following Blake and the other Romantics' views, Helmholtz would have listened to Goethe, and would have never researched color perception. And the Impressionists wouldn't have happened.

But science and art can have a healthy, productive relationship, as this example shows.

ebensorkin's picture

Nick, on some level all of his theories are in the 'dustbin' in the sense that Physics has moved past a Newtonian model. So now you can say "Take that Newton!*"

But doing that shows the weakness of your argument so far. You are making a false claim that science is about capital T, Truth in some kind of absolute sense. This is a mistake. So there you are with your straw man of science - This time it's Newton - beating it down. Saying "here is your favorite son, and look how many mistakes he made!" It may make you feel better to celebrate the Humanities by burning a Guy Fawkesian style effigy of Science but it doesn't advance the conversation. And I don't think it bolsters the Humanities either.

* My understanding is that nobody did more in that period to advance our understanding of physics, light, and chemistry and more, than Newton. We don't need to bow down to him to appreciate that.

Bill, you have a pretty sweet argument going just now. Nice! Or I guess you could say it appeals to me. On the other hand I guess all this stuff about waiting till Typecon to explain how it is... is off. ;-)

IMO the biggest weakness in the arguments being advanced at this point is the failure of either side to agree on semantics. So Bill, you have your idea about what "readability" is & Nick, you have yours and as a result you are never going to get down to brass tacks. This is why Peter has been semantically inventive. Maybe too inventive for your liking - but his doing it was not without reason. So I suggest that you break things down a bit, name the bits, and go from there. Or learn about Peter's bits and use them.

Nick Shinn's picture

You’ve been writing that we need less science, that science is a threat, and we shouldn’t research readability.


So there you are with your straw man of science - This time it’s Newton -

Bill played the Newton card.
I replied with the Blake card.
One cliché deserves another.

Following Blake and the other Romantics’ views, Helmholtz would have listened to Goethe, and would have never researched color perception. And the Impressionists wouldn’t have happened.

Impressionism would have been different, that's all.
These broad analogies have very little relevance to typography and reading.

This is why Peter has been semantically inventive.

As I understand him, he also thinks scientific research of readability is a waste of time, because there's more to it than speed, comfort and comprehension.

Scalfin's picture

So should we just assume that a type is more legible because god destined it to be so?

ebensorkin's picture

As I understand him, he also thinks scientific research of readability is a waste of time, because there’s more to it than speed, comfort and comprehension.

Exactly. Now (maybe) we can get back on the semantically oriented path!

I have been meaning to ask David more about what meant when he said I only have issues with the tests and the results Eben. David, will you elaborate?

I am also still interested in exploring Bill's idea that you could do some testing - not of readability perhaps - but of specific things ( speed etc) by making variations of specific features of a font. What if anything might be worth testing & why. In our rush to defend or rebuke each other's notions of "readability" we have yet to consider these possibilities.

enne_son's picture

To some extent trying to construct a science of readability might be like calling physics the science of the fall-down-ability of falling objects, rather than thinking of physics as the study of the physical forces that play a role in this. In some sense it might be possible to say that physics is that science, but it doesn't get you very far. Does a MacIntosh apple have a better fall-down-ability score than a cherry tomato? Well, if it reaches the ground faster, maybe it does.

William Berkson's picture

>he also thinks scientific research of readability is a waste of time, because there’s more to it than speed, comfort and comprehension.

Nick, I don't think that's Peter's view, but he can speak for himself.

Since you seem so hung up on the word 'readability', let me avoid the word, ask about the substance of the research I am advocating.

Why is it a waste of time to do scientific research into the affects of type design and layout on the ease, speed and comprehension of reading?

Suppose researchers could ascertain that people can read 10% faster with the same comprehension on a 200 ppi screen, other things being equal, than on a 96 ppi screen. Would such a result be a waste of time?

Eben, I am glad that you like my idea of testing the effects of type on speed, comfort and comprehension, but am baffled why you this has nothing to do with readability.

William Berkson's picture

>To some extent trying to construct a science of readability might be like calling physics the science of the fall-down-ability of falling objects, rather than thinking of physics as the study of the physical forces that play a role in this.

I am not proposing to study only readability, or the 'essence of readability', or saying that everything to do with reading must be studied through readability. When did I ever say anything like these?

If that's your view I what I have been proposing, I can understand your problem with it, but I've never proposed anything like that.

Taking your analogy, what I would be saying is that it is worth studying gravity. And Nick would be saying that you can't study gravity because there are other forces too. But in fact Newton studied gravity first, and understanding of electricity and magnetism came more than a century later.

To solve problems you need to break them down into parts. To study everything at once is a prescription for getting stuck on any investigation of anything.

I am saying that you don't have to understand everything about reading to study something about the affects of type and layout on speed, comprehension and comfort.

Is that clear, or is tomorrow groundhog day again?

Nick Shinn's picture

So should we just assume that a type is more legible because god destined it to be so?

Legibility is not the issue, it's readability.
IMO, readability is something which science is unable to address -- "that's not even a question".
We're talking about the readability of a holistic design--a page at the least--and seeing if we can pre-determine its readability based on data about its components. Or vice versa--seeing if we can predict the readability of a type design independent of the layout, or of the layout independent of the type design. Science can't do that, there are too many inter-related variables that will interfer with the predictable readability of anything but the most standard, clichéd formats.
It would be like trying to determine the liveability of a building or the driveability of a car, just from knowledge of the components.

So agnosticism would be the correct approach, not blind faith that the behavioralist method can be applied to any kind of human activity with favorable results.

Types and layouts evolve, which is why periodicals redesign. The readability quotient needs an upgrade.

Since you seem so hung up on the word ’readability’, let me avoid the word ... but am baffled why you [think] this has nothing to do with readability.

That was a brief respite!

Nick Shinn's picture

And Nick would be saying that you can’t study gravity because there are other forces too.

If you can isolate the variables, go ahead.

To solve problems you need to break them down into parts.

And put them together intuitively. That's design, and it shouldn't be reduced to a formula.

enne_son's picture

Nick, I said above that Bill’s statement put up red flags. But I feel as well that your negations are too strong. I can in fact predict that a page of text will be unreadable if the size of type is such that the counters are too small for my aging eyes to resolve them into distinct shapes. I make this prediction based on craft knowledge, and I test it by putting together a test setting. Experimenters might be able to confirm where my threshold is relative to a particular font.

Of course there’s more to readability than that.

enne_son's picture

Bill, I'm completely with you when you say that “you don’t have to understand everything about reading to study something about the affects of type and layout on speed, comprehension and comfort.”

Nick, in saying that your negations are too strong, I’m not saying that there isn’t something to much of what you say.

William Berkson's picture

>And put them together intuitively. That’s design, and it shouldn’t be reduced to a formula.

Yes, that's design, but its not science. Both can be wonderful in their own way. I think this gap between our views is because you are applying standards of art to science, and so finding science wanting--for the wrong reasons.

As Peter says, there is a core of truth in what you are thinking, but my view is that your application of that truth is misdirected.

Art is interested in the whole experience. If a novel reads like a clinical study of a mental problem, it is a failure. The goal of literary works is to convey a whole way of looking at experience, not to analyze particular problems in a way you can act on. Science, by contrast, is focused on specific truths. If these truths cover a wider range of phenomena, all the better, but it's not necessary. The main thing is that you can measure and test empirically whatever you assert.

Similarly to art, a good design needs to work holistically, and it's not important to identify or even understand all the ingredients that go into that experience. Much of the creative process is unconscious and intuitive, as you say--and almost all of the reader's. The important thing is the whole experience of the reader. And I agree that it is not a realistic goal for science to understand that whole experience, at least for a very long time to come.

It is not that either the artistic or the scientific approach is flawed, but rather that each has its strengths and limitations. And as I said, they can learn from each other. I already gave the example of Helmholtz and the Impressionists. But it also goes the other way around. Dostoevsky's novels portrayed emotionally distressed people as thinking in black and white: I am a hero, or no, maybe a villain. I am magnificant, or no, maybe a worm. You are my best friend, or no, my worst enemy. This pattern was picked up by psychologists Freud and Adler, and it seems to have survived into today's cognitive clinical psychology as a marker of distressed thinking.

So we can honor and learn from both approaches without seeing one as a threat to the other. Yes Newton analyzed gravity, but that doesn't stop people from dancing.

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