A Legibility Test and a Readability Test

Thomas Levine's picture

I just read this, so now I want to perform such a legibility test. Actually, I really want to test readability.

I'll set the same word in different fonts, have subjects read through them in random order, record how long each took. I still have to decide what "reading" means here; I'll figure out the details over the week.

I could also do the same for longer texts to test readability, but there are obvious problems with this: The text would need to be really long in order to measure legibility properly, so I'll have to come up with some way to account for the memory of the previous readings of the same text.

I already know I need help determining how to account for differences in width among fonts for testing readability. How do you suggest that I account for this? Here are my only ideas so far:

  • Adjust the width of the column such that the number of characters per line is equal for all fonts.
  • Do not adjust the width of the column, but stop each line at the same place.
  • Do not make adjustments to account for the different widths of characters, but test different column widths to see which fonts are best at which column widths.

All of the fonts should be set in whatever way is best because that's how anyone who cares about readability is going to set them, so, ideally, I should to adjust column width, leading, margins, &c. where such adjustment is appropriate.

I'm also wondering what English words and text to use. Any ideas?

EDIT: Cool, people already do this, except it seems like font hasn't been tested so much as general layout.

ebensorkin's picture

Before you create a experiment I suggest you talk a bit more with the folks already doing this kind of research so that you get an idea of what research has already shown so you can better understand what it would take to do a meaningful piece of research. Peter Enneson & Kevin Larson might be willing to talk to you. I applaud your enthusiasm; But as they say, "Festina Lente,” the Latin phrase meaning “hasten slowly”.

ralf h.'s picture

I’ll set the same word in different fonts, have subjects read through them in random order, record how long each took. I still have to decide what “reading” means here; I’ll figure out the details over the week.

Those test are done for decades. You should do a little research before you start your own survey.
Also, I guess you need to set yourself a particular goal. "Testing legibility" or »Testing readability« is way too broad. You will not get any useful results when you don't focus on single parameters.

Nick Shinn's picture

When I'm developing news text faces, I pick an existing face as a benchmark and try to match the character count, with identical leading, column width, and h&j settings.

I then try to match the apparent size of my new face to the benchmark.

This approach is necessary because my clients always compare my new face to their existing face, and want it to look "as big" -- which is code for readability -- if not bigger, and they don't want to lose words.

It's sometimes difficult to get an exact match, and the comparative settings may involve fractional point sizes and leading sizes. However, the main thing is character count.

Having done this, it's still not unusual for a client to nuance the setting once they have the finished font. For instance, I had optimized one typeface for 9 on 9.5, and my client bumped it up to 9.3 on 9.5. Another client decided that their face needed negative 10 tracking. Yet another likes to horizontally scale 95%!

Minute changes to the polyvariant complex of size, leading, scaling, tracking and h&js can have a huge effect, which is why the idea that typeface readability can be reduced to a simple measurement is completely banal.

Thomas Levine's picture

I didn't do much research before I posted this. Now that I see that this has already been done a million times, I'll just play around with it so I can see the difference myself. I won't worry too much about whether the methodology is rigorous. I think I'll print some random phrases in different faces and sizes and see how hard they are to read from different distances. Later, I may also try setting random texts in different faces and timing myself to read them, but I still have to figure out how to choose suitable texts without reading them.

ebensorkin's picture

I think it would be good to choose a text you can read because otherwise your are not - reading. It might be a good idea to keep reading about methodologies as well. If your goal is not to compare readability though go with what feels good & maybe read Lawson's "Letters of credit". And Bringhurst. See the books area in "resources" up above.

John Hudson's picture

Eben: read Lawson’s “Letters of credit”

You're confusing two (very good) books, Eben:

Walter Tracy, Letters of credit.

Alexander Lawson (with Dwight Agner), Printing Types.

ebensorkin's picture

Ah yes. Thanks John! Notwithstanding my confusion re: attribution, it is wonderful how both books repay re-reading. So make that ( at least ) 3 books.

eliason's picture

Alexander Lawson (with Dwight Agner), Printing Types.

Or, Alexander Lawson, Anatomy of a Typeface.

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