Readability

hrant's picture

John Butler mentions the "illegibility myth" that blackletter suffers from. I feel it's not just a myth, it's actually very much wrong, and this is based on my research into the true nature of readability. I was part of a panel discussion about the revival of blackletter during the ATypI conference in Leipzig (2000), and the following page on my site is an attempt at encapsulating my stance:

http://www.themicrofoundry.com/ss_fraktur1.html

Anyway, this isn't a preaching session, so questions, feedback and even opposition are highly valued.

hhp

johnbutler's picture

Hrant, I generally agree with what you've got there.

At first glance, many of those letterforms are similar and easily confused. But some quick and careful study makes them soon legible. Modernization attempts like Fraktoer are welcome, but in my opinion not absolutely necessary. The fact that Fraktoer is a gorgeous, balanced design that stands on its own is another matter. I'm also quite fond of Noordzij's Burgundica--technically not a Fraktur, but definitely in the broken-script family.

Helzel offers two excellent free fonts that one can download, install, and experiment with. I find that the ambiguities quickly clear up when you take some familiar pieces of text in your word processor and change the font to one of these Frakturs, then gradually move into less familiar pieces of text. I think lots of non-German speakers find Fraktur unreadble more because of the actual language than the letterforms.

We read better what we read more, one might say. :-)

It's also important to evaluate these on a font-by-font basis, really... just like any other font. Some of the older designs are just as easy to read as these recent modernization attempts--indeed, efforts to improve on a perceived illegibility are not new at all, some occurring as early as the 1800s.

Also I consider Fraktur letterforms an extremely divergent example. Other kinds of broken scripts, e.g. Textura, have quirks of their own. The lowercase k, for instance, is not an issue in most Texturas.

hrant's picture

> If I'm not well familiar with Fraktur, is it still going to be "more readable" to me?

The mechanics of familiarity are even less understood than those of perception. I myself have some grasp of the latter, but only vague ideas of the former, mostly because there have been no empirical studies on it, at least not in a field close enough to typography for me to have noticed (yet).

The two factors I mention play into my perceptual model of reading, but they both have caveats: in the first one, too much narrowness can in fact start hurting readability, and no adequate empirical research has been done to find what a good amount of narrowness/width is*; in the second, there are two factors that act against it:
1) The kind of divergence matters: a glyph shouldn't stand out too much from the texture, otherwise it will cause errant fixations.
2) The speed and nature of gain in familiarity affects how much you can stray from the "conventional" structures. Nobody knows. Nobody even talks about it, not even the "Familiarity is all that matters" crowd.

* Which would be so easy with something like Minion-MM.

The only thing that seems safe to say about familiarity is that it exists and has an effect. So sure, when you're exposed to blackletter for the first time, there's no way you'll be able to read it as quickly as a decent Garamond. But my view is that eventually you will in fact be able to read faster in blackletter. The question is, is that in hours, or years?

> Modernization attempts like Fraktoer are welcome, but in my opinion not absolutely necessary.

It's hard to quantify necessity. But I think you have to gain a critical mass for blackletter to join the mainstream, and I think you can only do that without requiring "active learning". What I'm getting at is, for example, that you can't get blackletter into the mainstream without making individual glyphs easily decipherable: the caps have to change, no long-s, etc. Once you've cleared that, you can shoot for better reading performance by flying under the radar.

BTW, Burgundica is so beautiful.

> I find that the ambiguities quickly clear up when you take some familiar pieces of text in your word processor and change the font to one of these Frakturs, then gradually move into less familiar pieces of text.

This is interesting -if anecdotal- insight, and maybe an indication that familiarity is gained pretty quickly? But it's hard to say, because readability performance cannot be consciously appreciated. In fact the illegibility myth arises directly from the lack of conscious grasp of readability.

> We read better what we read more, one might say.

Yup!

> It's also important to evaluate these on a font-by-font basis

That's a very good point. In fact I thought blackletter was just a funky archaic beast until I bought this German novel from 1910 with a nice, light blackletter, and suddenly it hit me. Then I read Bain&Shaw's wonderful "National Identity" book, and that gave me the critical context.

What was very rewarding was when after my bit in that panel discussion, I was on the shuttle to the museum location (you remember that mess, John?), and Colin Brignall was sitting across the isle, and out of the blue he said: "You've changed my mind about blackletter." That was nice.

> Also I consider Fraktur letterforms an extremely divergent example.

Right, and it's hard to get a handle on the variants. And in my informal studies, I've come to favor the structure of Fraktur but the finish of Schwabacher. Does that make sense?

BTW, what are Kanzlei and Notula? I can't think of anything for the former, but is the latter a chocolate-hazelnut spread favored by Nosferatu?

hhp

andreas's picture

Hello,

Fraktur was the common font design (for not scientific books) in Germany till 1941. (After this date the German government prohibited the usage, because the design can`t be readed in the occupied countries. The official statement was "It`s a Jewish letter!" But this was totally nonsense. So the German type designers stopped developing fraktur designs.

http://www.deutsche-schutzgebiete.de/FRAKTUR.HTM

(So its no historical correct to use Fraktur only as synonym for "German type" in Nazi films.) :-)

Historicaly you should also find Blackletter design (Fraktur like) in France.

If you research for some specimen books try to get some German books published before 1941.
(D. Stempel Schriftgie

hrant's picture

Wow, Andreas, great stuff!
(Do you think this should be its own thread?)

hhp

andreas's picture

Hello Hrant,

yes it could... back to the thread Readability.

My grand mom can read both Fraktur and Antiqua. She said that most times the Fraktur faces provides better readability. I grow up without Fraktur designs - so for my eyes its hard identify some of the capital Fraktur letters fast from some designs. But this become clear if you understand the text you read. So its a question of practice.

Well, like in the Antiqua world some designs made for display only some are optimized for books and some are bad rips.

The first copyright lawsuit in type design or in design ever was held around 1853/54 in Frankfurt am Main. Johann Christian Bauer (Bauerische Schriftgie

rcapeto's picture

Andreas wrote: Fraktur was the common font
design (for not scientific books) in Germany
till 1941. (After this date the German government
prohibited the usage, because the design can`t
be readed in the occupied countries. The official
statement was "It`s a Jewish letter!"


If you're interested in seeing the original decree,
I have a fac-simile (probably temporarily) here:
http://www.rcapeto.com/etc/bormann.gif

andreas's picture

Nice Rodolfo,

its an important document, but also a terrible one. Its the death penalty for a whole design philosophy.

(The letter head is set in something Fraktur like.)

hrant's picture

(It just hit me: Colin Banks, not Colin Brignall - sorry.)

hhp

John Hudson's picture

Regarding readability, I think it is important to distinguish different classifications of blackletter. Hrant points out that in fraktur there is a healthy differentiation of forms, especially in ascenders, that might have a positive cognitive impact. Of course, only an empirical study would demonstrate whether this differentiation actually produces any significant benefit in reading.

Other styles of blackletter, particularly the textura book hand on which Gutenberg based his types, do not exhibit the same degree of differentiation. Indeed, the poor differentiation of textura letterforms was the source of a game in mediaeval scriptoria: inventing long sentences consisting of words in which the same basic pen strokes are repeated again and again. Here is a famous example (note that this type, Goudy Text, does not perfectly mimic the monk's traditional forms, in which the bottom of the n and m would have full terminals, further reducing differentiation.)

Scriptorium monks didn't get out much.

The best translation I've been able to come up with is The very short mimes of the snow gods do not wish at all that the very great burden of distributing the wine of the walls will be lightened in their lifetime.

hrant's picture

> only an empirical study would demonstrate whether this differentiation actually produces any significant benefit in reading.

If you want a highly specific study that pinpoints the benefit, then it indeed doesn't exist, and even I wouldn't hold my breath for one! But even if you ignore the basic "different = easier to tell apart" truism, many entirely empirical studies by Ovink, Bouma and others point to that being a very safe conclusion. Reading relies on contrast, of various forms, not least of bouma silhouette.

But certainly you're right that some styles don't exhibit a benefit. I guess my point is that blackletter (possibly because it's so misunderstood, especially by laymen) simply allows great freedom of design in the extenders. Quick examples: you can curl the ascender of the "b"; the "z" can have a descender. This can assume a certain anti-historical "mix-and-match" approach, but to me that's the kind of evolution that serves the reader best.

hhp

johnbutler's picture

In response to an earlier question, Kanzlei (literally "chancellory," meaning "office" in the sense of officialness) is an ornamented offshoot of Fraktur drawn with a pointed pen. Or sometimes with a pointed pen and a broad-tipped pen in combination. It's basically the ductus of Fraktur applied through a different tool. There are comparatively few Kanzleis.

Notula is harder. I have exactly one example of the style, and it appears to have a separate meaning in pal

andreas's picture

addition to my first posting:

Flisch = Flinsch

Jared Benson's picture

I'm prepared to be convinced. Show me what makes them more readable. On your site you mention two:

1. "angular strokes that conserve horizontal space, increasing the number of words we can can grasp through our field of vision" 2. "letterform structures are very divergent, making a given word's shape more distinctive"

Is this subjective? If I'm not well familiar with Fraktur, is it still going to be "more readable" to me? For example, I've always tripped over the similarities between the lowercase "b" and "h"

On the other hand, would someone who has grown up around blackletter (let's say, in certain Dutch immigrant communities of USA) might read it just as easily as I would read Helvetica?

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