Word recognition and typography

Hi there typohiles,

Long-time lurker, first post.

I'm looking into my report for my final year
at university, the topic I’m most interested to write
about is word recognition & typography. I think
there could a really angle with the new turns in type
with alot more of the "experimental" typefaces
being ultra-bold, nearly illegible & in alot of cases
lacking a proper family with no lowercase also
compared to say Gill, Helvetica, Futura etc.

In my first year I read a interesting article
on "The science of word recognition" in Eye 52, I’ve
gone back to that article and found Kevin
Larson's paper to be of real interest, the only thing
I’m struggling with now is finding the right
literature to reference from.

Any help on this would be great, I’m still on
the hunt now and not giving up.



Chris Dean's picture

Hi Mat, nice to meet you.

What school, what degree, and who is your supervisor?

I suggest you read the following (in thic chronological order):

Patterson, D. & Tinker, M., (1946). Readability of Newspaper Headlines Printed in
Capitals and in Lower Case. Journal of Applied Psychology, (30)2, 161-168.

Bouma, H. (1973). Visual interference in parafovial recognition of initial and final letters of words. Vision Research, 13, 762–782.

BEsNer, d. (1989). ON thE rOlE of oUtliNe shApe aNd woRd-sPeciFIC vIsUaL pATern in ThE idENtIFicatIOn OF fUNCTtiOn wOrdS: nONe. tHE qUaRteRly joURnaL of EXPErimEntal PSYchOLOgy: HUMAn exPErImeNtal PSYChoLOgy, Vol 41(1-A), 91–105.

Pelli, Denis G. and Tillman, Katherine, A. (2008). The uncrowded window of object recognition. Nature Neuroscience (11)10, 1129–1136.

Sorkin, E. (2009). The relationship of negative tracking to reading speed (Unpublished master's thesis — this may be in the publication process. I do not know). University of Reading, London.

As far as referencing other literature goes, the easiest thing to do is start with a good paper (like Larson's), go to the end of the document where the references section is, and find other articles that you think sound relevant. I'm sure your library will be able to help you conduct database searches. After a while, certain names start to become familiar and the process becomes significantly easier. This is a fun and rewarding process.

twiggy's picture

Tinker did a lot of research into this. Might be worth looking into his other texts also.

Mat Lucas's picture

Hi Chris, thanks a lot for that information,
that is a lot more than I expected to receive, not
that I doubted the prestige of you typophiles!

So thanks alot that will be a great asset
to my research, I have some really broad and
general research at the moment so the
specifics that you have given are great use
to me, thanks again.

I'm at the wonderful Staffordshire University
which in my opinion so far has been really good
experience. Studying Graphic Design BA(Hons).

Also thanks Twiggy I will definitely look into that.

Nick Shinn's picture

Studying Graphic Design BA(Hons).

Then what on earth are you doing dabbling in science?
Do you really want to fill your head with a lot of statistics and psychology?
Why not spend your valuable time at college studying and practising design?

Kevin Larson's picture

Hi, this is a reposting of an email that I wrote on the ATypI list:
Here are 10 recent letter and word recognition projects that I find interesting:

Sheedy, J.E., Subbaram, M.V., Zimmerman, A.B., & Hayes, J.R. (2005). Text Legibility and the Letter Superiority Effect. Human Factors, 47(4), 797–815.
Letter superiority: It is easier to recognize letters in isolation than in the context; likely related to crowding. 6 fonts were tested with a threshold size methodology. Sheedy’s lab has expanded this method to look at 12 legible text faces of different styles.

Chaparro, B.S., Shaikh, A.D., Chaparro, A. (2006). The Legibility of ClearType Fonts. Proceedings the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, San Francisco.
The first paper linked to here uses a time threshold measure to find the most confusable glyphsin the ClearType fonts, Verdana, and TNR. They also developed a visualization called a sunflower plot. The full paper with more data is going to be published in the Information Design Journal in May of this year. The second linked paper expands that method to 20 legible text faces of different styles to understand the letter features that reduce confusions. A full paper on this topic is being written.

Sofie Beier (2009). Typeface Legibility: Towards defining familiarity. Ph.D. dissertation. The Royal College of Art.
The first half of this dissertation is concerned with testing the legibility of alternate letterforms in three newly created text typefaces. The first half of the dissertation has been turned into a journal paper and has been accepted by the Information Design Journal. It’s expected to be published later this year. (It just came out) http://www.benjamins.com/cgi-bin/t_bookview.cgi?bookid=IDJ%2018%3A2

Pelli, Burns, Farell, & Moore-Page (2006). Feature detection and letter identification. Vision Research, 46(28), 4646-4674. http://psych.nyu.edu/pelli/pubs/pelli2006letters.pdf
Letter recognition performance is inversely proportional to parametric complexity (perimeter squared over ‘ink’ area.

Majaj, Pelli, Kurshan, & Palomares (2002). The role of spatial frequency in letter identification. Vision Research, 42, 1165-1184. http://psych.nyu.edu/pelli/pubs/majaj2002channel.pdf
Letter recognition uses a narrow band of spatial frequencies dependent on letter size and stroke frequency per letter width; Large letters are identified by their edges and small letters by their strokes.

Fiset, Blais, Ethier-Majcher, Arguin, Bub, & Gosselin (2008). Features for Identification of Uppercase and Lowercase Letters. Psychological Science, 19 (11), 1160-1167.
By occluding letter parts at random at 5 different spatial frequencies found the letter recognition performance was hurt most by occluding letter terminals.

Arditi & Cho (2007). Letter case and text legibility in normal and low vision. Vision Research, 47 (19), 2499-2505.
They measured the minimum threshold size to recognize lowercase text and minimum threshold size to recognize uppercase text (Arial). When read at twice the minimum threshold size, readers read the uppercase text faster than the lowercase text.

Changizi, Zhang, Ye, & Shimojo (2006). The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes. The American Naturalist, 167 (5).
All orthographies show the same patterns of intersections, and that pattern matches those found in nature. Orthographies evolved not to match the performance of the hand, but to match what the eye was already good at recognizing. See also Changizi’s book The Vision Revolution.

Walker (2008) Font tuning: A review and new experimental evidence. Visual Cognition, 16 (8), 1022-1058.
We are faster at recognizing words if we know what font to expect than if we don’t know what font to expect. This was first demonstrated in the 80s by Sanocki.

ATypI 2009 talk: “Don’t we have enough fonts”
At ATypI I talked about some data demonstrating that people are faster at recognizing words if the meaning of the word matched the personality of the font. Many people are familiar with the Stroop effect where incongruency between word and color makes it harder to name the word/color. The same seems to be true of other characteristics of the word. The above paper was submitted to a conference, but not accepted. We’re doing more studies currently to get it ready for a future journal article.

Cheers, Kevin

William Berkson's picture

Thanks for the list Kevin.

Mat, you may find this thread interesting also.

Mat Lucas's picture

Hi Kevin, thanks for the repost of that email I’m sure it’s going to be a really big help with the research front, main my point of the report would to see what influence word recognition if any took on type designers when designing a face. My very limited knowledge leads me to believe that it differs from designer to designer, with some of the more experimental designers leaning more to form than function. But I suppose that will become clearer later on.

Thanks again for links to some of the papers, I have been looking for couple of the ones you have posted here, and really struggling!

Hi Nick, I do spend my time studying and practising design but also this is an area that interests me a lot, and we are required to submit a report on a subject within design of our choice. Having read an extract of
Kevin’s paper in Eye It’s always stuck in my head when looking at type, the shape that certain typefaces make, especially the contrast of some of the modern typefaces compared to some of the more accepted, legible faces.

William, I have also looked into that thread, a great discussion going on there! It will be good for looking at some faces that exclusively contain uppercase in my report.


JamesM's picture

> what influence word recognition if any took on
> type designers when designing a face

I'm not a type designer, but speaking as a graphic designer there are many factors to consider when designing something, and readability is just one of them. Otherwise we could just keep a few easy-to-read typefaces and throw the rest away. :)

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