legibility/readability terms

ralf h.'s picture

People keep asking me to translate my essays and talks about legibility into English. The translations and definitions of legibility and readability are fairly easy, but I use some addition terms in German, which I am not so sure about.

This is my theoretic legibility model:

Legibility is defined by properties of the layout (->typography) and by properties of the used typeface. And here I use three German terms which I need to translate:

German: Erkennbarkeit
Direct translation: recognizability - the characteristic of a letter to be perceived as such. Recognizability is probably okay, isn't it?

German: Unterscheidbarkeit
Direct translation: distinguishability - The characteristic of a letter to be easily told apart from other letters. For example one-storey a vs. two-storey a.
“Distinguishability” seems to be used rarely. Is it okay or is there a better word for that?

German: Lesefreundlichkeit
Direct translation: reader-friendliness
This is probably the most tricky one. It describes the characteristic of a typeface to be readable in continuous texts without causing the reader to get tired or distracted. One typeface might be perfectly legible (in terms of recognizability/distinguishability) for a single shopping mall sign but it might still not be suited for a 400-page novel.
Is there a good term to describe this feature of a typeface? Or does the “reader-friendliness of a typeface” make any sense to a native English speaker?

doubledaggers's picture

Perhaps a better choice for recognizability would be discernibility. I feel like recognizable is something we hear often, but for some reason, to me, recognizability "klingt falsch."

In regards to distinguishability and reader-friendliness, both sound find to me; I doubt either would cause any trouble for comprehension, both sound natural.

Although, I've usually encountered the quality of reader-friendliness described as readability, in conjunction with (as you've already stated) legibility. I think the difference between the two is understood (at least among typophiles).

hrant's picture

Looking forward to the English version!

1: Consider "decipherability". It's a nice common term.

2: Maybe "distinctiveness".

3: Just "readability". Please. For one thing something with "friendly" in it plays too much to the consciousness, which is largely absent in immersive reading.

hhp

ralf h.'s picture

Thanks!
Discernibility, decipherability and distinctiveness all sound fine to me. Anyone want to support any of these terms? I find it hard to decide what works best.

Concerning readability: I already use legibility and readability in their broader sense (perception vs. comprehension) so I can't use readability again for a distinct typeface/layout feature.

hrant's picture

Readability: well, terms can (and often need to be) "overloaded", but I certainly agree that in a single document it's best to avoid that. On the other hand, *not* using the right term because of that is no good... Maybe you should resort to qualifiers, like "typeface readability" and "text readability"? It's cumbersome, but probably the lesser evil.

BTW, John Hudson has coined "readerability" as well! :-)

hhp

dezcom's picture

How about "extended readability" or "endurability" or "sustainability" ?

eliason's picture

Would "comfort" fit the reader-friendliness slot, or would it suggest more than you intend?

FWIW, to me, the "re-" in "recognizability" stresses that one is matching the experience to past experiences. "Decipherability" suggests an inentional "puzzling out" on the spot. "Discernibility" is more about merely sensing a thing than about interpreting or understanding it.

eliason's picture

^"intentional"

processcamera's picture

1. Familiarity
2. Distinctiveness
3. Reading productiveness

Mat Lucas's picture

Can't wait for the english versions.

kentlew's picture

“Distinctive” has gained a different sense than “distinct” — the former tends to imply a unique stylistic quality, as opposed to mere differentiation: “The Galliard Italic lowercase ‘g’ is quite distinctive.”

That is to say, it is possible for something to be distinct from others of its class without necessarily being distinctive.

So, in my opinion, if you were to forego “distinguishability” (which works rather well for me, frankly), then I would recommend “distinctness” over “distinctiveness.”

William Berkson's picture

Ralf, here is a pretty careful definition: "'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."--from Types of Typefaces, by J. Ben Lieberman, 1967.

These meanings are somewhat established. For example, Tracy uses them the same way in his Letters of Credit. I think the terminology was developed in the '40s, by a scientist hired by Linotype, but I haven't nailed it down yet.

Basically, I think your "reader friendliness" is just "readability" in English. I'm not sure whether there is a need for a separation between "recognizability" and "distinguishability," as so long as you know it's supposed to be a letter, it amounts to the same thing. The time factor is important, which is covered by Lieberman's "ease" terminology.

So I don't see the need introduce a third term beyond the readable/legible distinction. Note that legibility refers to letters and readability to words. It might be useful to distinguish readability in individual words—such as on signage—and readability in extended text. Ultimately, the viability of such distinctions will depend on demonstrating their reality in experiments.

hrant's picture

William, I'm pretty sure Ralf is also talking about the readability of how a text is written, which is why the term becomes too overloaded in one article.

Also, I know you're partial to Lieberman because he's your uncle, but his definition's inclusion of "message" can only help to muddy the waters. At the font level one need/should only worry about the words being absorbed. Also, "[these] meanings are somewhat established" is certainly not true.

> I'm not sure whether there is a need for a separation
> between "recognizability" and "distinguishability,"

Depending on the level of detail that Ralf wants to attain, there might or might not be a need. His approach does seem highly detailed and comprehensive however.

> The time factor is important

To me (and Larson) time and comfort are equivalent (assuming the text is understood and not merely skimmed).

> It might be useful to distinguish readability in individual
> words—such as on signage—and readability in extended text.

I don't think so, because the former is pretty much covered by parallel letterwise decipherment (which is where Larson's model -unfortunately- runs out of steam).

hhp

William Berkson's picture

Hrant, "readability" is ambiguous as it can refer both to a quality of the writing and a quality of the set type on screen or paper. But I think that is usually clear from context—whether you are discussing type and layout on one hand, or rhetoric, on the other.

I don't think it should be presumed that time and comfort are equivalent. I don't think they are. I think you can push yourself to read something quickly, even when it is more taxing. The comfort shows itself over time as fatigue sets in and comprehension will go down. My proposal has been to use SAT reading tests, over long enough an interval for fatigue and diminished reading comprehension to set in. Then comparing different fonts and settings will differentiate greater and lesser readability, including both comprehension and speed as measures.

Richard Fink's picture

I'm with Kent on "distinguishability". Unusual, but I think it hits the nail on the head.
"Distinctiveness" would be misleading - the connotations are wrong.

eliason's picture

So I don't see the need introduce a third term beyond the readable/legible distinction.

I can see a value in the further distinction. Take these sixes, for example:


The Helvetica bold six is, I would argue, more recognizable (to stick with Ralf's original terms) than my Ambicase Modern swash six, which has an unconventional open counter.
But with its smaller aperture, the Helvetica six might be more easily mistaken for an eight (as squinting at it, or viewing it from across the room, might confirm).
So Helvetica's six has relatively higher recognizability but relatively lower distinguishability than Ambicase Modern's swash six.

hrant's picture

Very lucid example, Craig.

hhp

William Berkson's picture

Nice example, Craig. You've made the case for the value of the distinction.

froo's picture

I don't agree.
Helvetica's 6 may be mistaken for 8, but not for G.
Ambicase Modern's 6 may not be mistaken for 8, but it might be mistaken for G.

John Hudson's picture

A good attempt, Craig, but I am not convinced. Distinguishability and recognisability seem to me so closely linked in reading that I can't see grounds to separate them at the reading model level. Yes, they can be conceptually differentiated, as you demonstrate, but distinguishability is relative recognisability, and since, outside of glyph legibility testing, we are always seeking to recognise signs in context of other signs, relative recognisability is the normal circumstance of legibility. In your illustration, the numeral eight provides the context that enables you to differentiate distinguishability from recognisability in the two sixes. But what if you add an old Welsh letter V (U+1EFC) in the style of Ambicase Modern to the illustration? Suddenly both sixes have comparable distinguishability problems.

eliason's picture

I intended it as a "conceptual differentiation." As to whether in practice these are effectively distinguishable, I look forward to seeing what Ralf's essays say.

ralf h.'s picture

'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.

Sure, that is fine by itself, but these terms are also used differently in other areas. For example, some weeks ago I read Romedi Passini's great books about wayfinding and he talks about the legibililty and readability of floor plans, buildings and whole cities!
So I rather use a broad definition of legibility and readability that work across different disciplines and then I explain the details in type design and typography. I figured that works better than starting off with terms everybody might understand differently.

Would "comfort" fit the reader-friendliness slot, or would it suggest more than you intend?
It actually used the German equivalent Lesekomfort (reading comfort) in my first draft two years ago. I like that very much. I later dropped it, because some people which had seen my draft, didn't thought it to be appropriate. They thought of comfort mostly in the sense of the comfort of a chair or something like that …

enne_son's picture

Ralf, my project has been to try to find functional-ontological grounding for type-critical terms within the cognitive-scientific and perceptual-psychological domains.

A consequence of this might be to relate both Erkennbarkeit [recognizability] and Unterscheidbarkeit [distinguishability] to categorical perception. Categorical perception is the psychological tendency to accommodate an specific instance of a form to a base-level category we are familiar with, like for instance the letter a, even though the specific instance has it's own individuality.

Using this strategy it becomes apparent that recognizability relates to within-category membership and distinguishability to between-category differences. Discernability of within-category membership and the magnitude or gradient of between-category differences go hand-in-hand.

On the within-category membership front we are confronted with issues of role-architectural conventionality or prototypicality and role-architectural norm-violations. On the between-category differences axis we confront issues of perceptual distances between optically-grammatically or role-architecturally related items. Perceptual distances are gauged by confusion matricies.

ralf h.'s picture

here is a pretty careful definition: 'Readability' is the ease with which the eye can absorb the message and move along the line."

I still have trouble to grasp the true meaning of that. It is still pretty vague. How would you explain it in different words?

Of course the eyes move (or better jump) along the line. But why is that stressed here in the definition of readability? The legibility of letters is also directly connected to the way the eyes move along a line.
What does “absorb the message” mean? Does it mean “to understand the given information”? This would be pretty much my definition too. But “absorbing” sounds very different than “understanding”. The first sounds rather passive to me, the latter is a rather active process (like interpreting, guessing, ...). Absorbing sounds like “picking up“ which I find is more connected to legibility. Compare the Latin origin of legibility: “legere” (gather/collect/pick out).

dezcom's picture

Perhaps the eye (since it acts like a camera) can absorb the light data or image but I would think "perceive" makes more sense since the eye does not interpret meaning, the brain does that. I don't buy the "move along a line" thing. It implies some smooth linear path. Since we know there are saccades as well as regressions and have theories on what may happens there, I don't see how "move along a line" helps a definition--it may harm it though.

Readability may describe the relative ease a reader has in pursuing the task of reading a given text sample, I don't know if we should include comprehensibility in this though since I am not sure comprehension and all the myriad of variables that surround it, should be included in the definition. If we are using the term "readability" as a trait regarding the form of typography, comprehension might make it more confusing since there are so many factors surrounding comprehension which have nothing to do with typographic presentation.

William Berkson's picture

Hi Ralf, Chris. Since the exchanges in this thread, I've found out a lot more about this issue, and my findings will be published in the next issue of Printing History Magazine. I don't want to step on my own story at this point, but more later this summer.

dezcom's picture

Perhaps it is more like electricity where impedance is a variable. If we were ever able to establish a uniform measurement system that would operate in the manner of IQ, we might have a way of looking at the amount of impedance a certain typeface adds to the reading task. This would involve some way of finding an agreeable X score for neutral, normal, or better standard readability. If we call this score 100 and use the typical standard deviation method to determine how a particular type setting fits. Any score below 100 may be viewed as the impedance of the type specimen.

John Hudson's picture

Ralf, I'm still having trouble understanding what you are trying to achieve. You've made some very nice graphics, but why is it an onion model of legibility instead of e.g. a sandwich model or a cake model? That is, I don't see the grounds on which you've built the model you have made instead of a different model. I can produce a theoretical model of legibility that is quite different from yours, and yet be no more convinced that my model is correct than I am that yours is. You say that now, having made your model, it is possible ‘to easily talk about different aspects of reading and legibilty’, but if the model is wrong then all you've done is made it easy to talk erroneously about legibility and reading. I'm not saying that I think the model is wrong, I am saying that I don't see the grounds for building this particular model, I don't see the foundation, and I hope you won't be offended if I say it looks like you are begging the question at every stage of your process.

ralf h.'s picture

Basically, it was just my personal “framework” I used when I started to dig into signage and legibilty. But a lot of people found that part extremely helpful—in contrast to the vague and contradictory textual definitions of the usual terms. (It is even worse in German where legibility and readability are usually mixed under one term: “Lesbarkeit”.)
I certainly agree that the used layout (or onion structure) is not something that is really inherent to these terms. It just developed in this way while I was working on it.

Rob O. Font's picture

JH>I can produce a theoretical model of legibility that is quite different from yours [...]

Draw the picture then, I dare you ;)

RH> Basically, it was just my personal “framework” [...]

I think "model" was the appropriate word, as a "framework" already exists for not only discussing, but practicing the whole onion.

John Hudson's picture

Ralf: It is even worse in German where legibility and readability are usually mixed under one term: “Lesbarkeit”.

But, see, to assume that this is ‘worse’ is begging the question, because quite a lot of the cognitive psychology literature on reading uses the term legibility for most of the stuff you are talking about, and doesn't talk about readability at all, except sometimes in reference to higher level document criteria including prose style, vocabulary, document layout (macrotypography). A letter-wise word recognition model, as now accepted on the basis of experimentation -- rightly or wrongly -- by most psychologists studying reading, favours this simple conflation of concepts that you are keen to differentiate, because they must consider legibility of the letter unit as the whole key to word recognition. And until someone produces an experimental result that cannot be explained in the context of the letter-wise word recognition model, I think most psychologists are going to take Occam's razor to concepts of readability distinct from legibility.

[I'm anticipating someone pointing to the ‘word superiority effect’ as such an experimental result, so remind you that this is precisely a phenomenon observed in letter recognition tests.]

I certainly agree that the used layout (or onion structure) is not something that is really inherent to these terms. It just developed in this way while I was working on it.

Which is what I reckoned. But diagrammatic structures suggest relationships, and an onion structure suggests encompassed layers. And when you explicitly call something ‘the onion layer model of legibility’ you are strongly suggesting that there is something meaningful and applicable about this relationship of layers. But there is nothing in your explanation that suggests to me an onion layer relationship of the phenomena you are describing and labelling. Is recognisability something that is somehow within legibility and itself, in turn, encompassing distinguishability? Your accompanying text doesn't suggest such a relationship: you just happen to have drawn it this way. I suggested sandwich or cake models as alternatives, since what you have represented as encompassing layers could just as easily and equally validly be represented as stacked layers. Or, indeed, one can imagine the cookie model in which each of the distinguished and labelled phenomena are quite distinct objects sitting together on a plate and not layers at all. And your conclusion remains the same: sometimes you only need to eat two cookies, sometimes you need to eat the whole plateful.

Which brings me to my final observation that, in your illustrative conclusion you have not shown any typographic circumstance in which legibility alone is a requirement. Your headline example involved both legibility and recognisability. So why are you insisting on these two being separate phenomena? Doesn't your model work equally well if legibility and recognisability are assumed to be the same thing? Then, as I wrote in February, while recognisability and distinguishability can be conceptually differentiated, in practice distinguishability is relative recognisability since, outside of glyph legibility testing, we are always seeking to recognise signs in context of other signs: relative recognisability is the normal circumstance of legibility and hence of reading.

William Berkson's picture

>Rightly or wrongly.

Interactive activation, as I understand it, has not been tested with specific predictions, but is just an interpretative framework or model, with which you can interpret facts such as the word superiority effect, ad hoc. Development of rival theories that make specific, testable predictions is what makes for progress, not the passive acceptance of whatever loose interpretative framework happens to be fashionable.

John Hudson's picture

Bill, what drives the development of rival theories? It seems to me that such developments should respond to deficiencies in the current working model, i.e. things that it fails to explain, or to the results of experimental testing of that model that reveal deficiencies. If, as you say, the current interpretative framework of previous test results has not been tested with specific predictions -- really? --, then it seems to me that we're still several steps away from grounds for proposing rival explanations.

[This is orthogonal to my comments to Ralf. My point was not that the letter-wise word recognition model is correct, but that he is begging the question by assuming that failing to terminologically distinguish legibility from readability is a bad thing.]

Kevin Larson's picture

I agree with the view that there are two distinct Reading components, but I would label them Decoding and Comprehension. These components are independent; it is possible to have one of these components but not the other. There are children who can name (decode) any word put in front of them, but not understand what is being read. Likewise, many people have perfect understanding of text that is read to them (comprehension), but are not able to decode a word. Both components are necessary to be a competent reader. R=DxC

Hoover, W.A. & Gough, P.B. (1990). The simple view of reading. Reading & Writing, 2(2), 127-160.

Kevin Larson's picture

> Interactive activation, as I understand it, has not been tested with specific predictions

As a computer program, the interactive activation and competition model is perfectly specified. It makes many correct and incorrect predictions, and has been widely built upon for 30 years.
http://www.stanford.edu/group/pdplab/pdphandbook/

William Berkson's picture

John, the issue here is that the methodology in experimental psychology, including reading psychology, tends to be too much what my teacher Popper called "inductivist". What that means in practice is that you expect theory to grow out of experiment, to come later. What happens in reality, in the absence of vigorous theorizing, is that you have a lot of experiments whose results don't fit together to make any coherent picture or broad, testable theory. People then make do with general interpretative frameworks—like interactive activation—that are loose enough to interpret the data, but not specified enough to make specific predictions that researchers could check, and see whether they are borne out or not.

If you have have bold, imaginative theories that make testable predictions, then you can seek experiments as tests, and you get results they are extremely informative on what picture of the reading process (in our case) is correct.

Historically, as I documented for one story in my first book—on the development of field theory in physics—in the hard sciences you generally have this pattern of testable theories and testing. In softer sciences, like psychology, you've had more the inductivist methodology, based on the mistaken view that that's what the hard sciences have succeeded with. The result of the weak methodology is very slow progress, or stagnation.

By the way, when I told my views to my friend Nancy Nersessian, former president of the Cognitive Science Society, she emphatically agreed with me that there's not enough theorizing in experimental psychology.

ralf h.'s picture

A letter-wise word recognition model … favours this simple conflation of concepts that you are keen to differentiate

How so?
As Kevin Larson explained decoding and comprehension are connected, but very different things. I used slightly different terms, but this is exactly my point.

And when you explicitly call something ‘the onion layer model of legibility’ you are strongly suggesting that there is something meaningful and applicable about this relationship of layers.

I meant, I am not claiming this is the only way to show the relations of these terms, but I certainly think the way I drew it IS meaningful.
A legibile typesetting is necessary to be able to decode letters. That's why it is the outermost layer. If the character spacing is way too small or the constrast to the background too weak, there is nothing to decode, no matter which typeface we choose.
The letters of the typeface need to have a shape that can be decoded (recognisability). A high level of letter differentiation (distinguishability) is important in certain situations, but not a real requirement for decoding (see my example of one-story a vs. two-storey a). Reading comfort is again an additional/optional feature, that requires recognisability and distinguishability of the letter design, but is in turn no requirement to the outer layers … And so on. So the visual relations in this model are all intentional and the terms are not just put somewhere.

Your headline example involved both legibility and recognisability. So why are you insisting on these two being separate phenomena?

Mind my differentiation between typographic layout and typeface features. I embedded the recognisability of letters within legibility. So I don't consider them to be different.

John Hudson's picture

Ralf: As Kevin Larson explained decoding and comprehension are connected, but very different things. I used slightly different terms, but this is exactly my point.

I didn't see anything in your explanation that corresponds to what Kevin means by comprehension. It seems, rather, that you are trying to subdivide aspects of decoding as they relate to letter design. I'm not convinced that recognisability is something distinct from legibility, though, and since reading always involves relative recognisability, i.e. recognisability in context, I'm not convinced that distinguishability is significantly distinct from recognisability. Yes, it is possible to conceptually subdivide these phenomena of decoding, but I don't see that you gain anything much beyond simply referring to legibility of text. Your categories could be further subdivided -- as you do by listing different factors that you consider part of legibility (size, spacing, figure-ground contrast) -- and I don't see the rationale for considering recognisability of letterforms as distinct from either their size and spacing on the one hand or from distinguishability from other letterforms on the other hand. There are too many arbitrary ways to cut this onion.

John Hudson's picture

Ralf: Mind my differentiation between typographic layout and typeface features. I embedded the recognisability of letters within legibility. So I don't consider them to be different.

The notion of ‘layout’ is introduced only in the last paragraph of your document, and is not defined. Previous to that, you have constructed this onion model with reference only to ‘features of a typeface’, and you labelled legibility and recognisability as distinct things.

k.l.'s picture

Bill -- By the way, when I told my views to my friend Nancy Nercessian, former president of the Cognitive Science Society, she emphatically agreed with me that there's not enough theorizing in experimental psychology.

She might enjoy reading Selz then, criticised by his contemporaries for theorizing too much. ;-)

Nick Shinn's picture

The terms Readability and Legibility are type terms, related to the distinction between text and display type.

Or you could say they are design terms, related to the distinction between function and tone.

Both these distinctions are useful in collaborative design work (i.e. between client and supplier), to critique work which is wrong in tone or function, and in typography, settings which look inviting or impressive but are hard to decipher, or which are easy to read but unattractive.

In these practical circumstances, "readability" does not refer to the mechanical process of decoding, but is a humanistic, cultural term, fuzzy and soft in meaning.

Readability was coined to recognize that the be-all-and-end-all of type is NOT ONLY to be clear and easy to decipher (and sometimes not even that), but also to engage readers' pleasure centres enough to get them reading in the first place, and to hold their attention.

Perhaps researchers could measure dopamine reactions to typefaces?

A recent post in the Release section referred to a typeface as being "gorgeous", and that is certainly how I think of settings that impress me.

Typographic "readability" isn't that much different from "friendliness", a word often used to promote fonts.
You know, like "reader-friendly" and "user-friendly".
How do you measure friendliness?
This reality is not recognized in Kevin's reduction of reading to a process of Decoding and Comprehension.

It doesn't make sense to try and interpret this quality in mechanistic terms.
To do so is to interpret the term too literally.
It is an attempt to appropriate and redefine a typographic term.

Enough already with the numbers. More pleasure, less performance!

William Berkson's picture

Kevin, thanks for the link. I see a great deal in it on how to set up an operate a machine network that operates by interactive activation. However, I see no testable predictions as to how the human brain should operate, particular in reading, if and when it operates by interactive activation. I don't see discussion of actual experimentation using human subjects, based on predictions from the machine models, which is what would be needed. Can you give some examples of the successful and unsuccessful predictions that have been checked in human subjects?

In particular, what I am looking for is crucial tests that would distinguish the interactive activation model from other learning networks, such as Kohonen or self-organizing maps. I discussed this issue with a programmer who has worked with artificial intelligence involving both interactive activation and Kohonen maps, and he thinks that it is likely that interactive activation is a better model for reflective thinking, and Kohonen maps more likely as a primary mechanism in reading and other pattern recognition.

Further it is likely the Kohonen maps would work more like Peter Enneson has described, or the "matrix resonance" model that I have elaborated from Enneson's analysis.

It is when you have tests of one model against another that you get really informative results. And to do this, both have to be well specified not only how they operate in a machine, but also their hypothesized relation to the way the human brain operates.

enne_son's picture

“Readability was coined to recognize [...]”

Nick, what is your basis for saying this? From conversations with Bill, I'm convinced he has found the source for the introduction of the term readability into typographic discourse. I'm not going to spill the beans, but I'm not sure your claim about why readability was coined is well-founded.

Kevin, I think the decoding / comprehension schematization has some merit. It might be useful to note that in the Hoover and Gough formula you play off of the R is reading comprehension, the D is decoding and the C is an L, for linguistic comprehension.

In my own ‘functional ontology’ of reading I use sense-following and rapid automatic visual word-form resolution to describe the two foundational components of reading. Sense following presupposes the capacity for linguistic comprehension, and rapid automatic visual word-form resolution might be considered a dimension of decoding specific to continuous reading of extended texts.

Hoover and Gough call their scheme The Simple View of Reading, but they don't mean to deny that each of these components and the way they interact is complex.

Skilled decoding for Hoover and Gough is “efficient word recognition: the ability to rapidly derive a representation from printed input that allows access to the appropriate entry in the mental lexicon, and thus the retrieval of semantic information at the word level.”

“Deriv[ing] a representation from printed imput” is another way of capturing what my rapid automatic visual word-form resolution specifies. The parallel letter recognition scheme is a theory of what this entails. But even parallel recognition schemes are forced to accept that performance at affordance plateaus or peaks is different than performance at affordance thresholds. A Sheedy study Kevin was involved with demonstrates a letter-superiority effect at thresholds of affordance. Meanwhile it is well-known that at plateaus of affordance a word-superiority effect emerges. And we have reason to believe that what Ralf calls unterscheibarkiet plays differently at these thresholds than at peaks. These differences at thresholds and at plateaus alone could motivate a distinction between legibility and readability.

Rather than brush everything that relates to decoding under one terminological carpet, typographers and type designers might be better served by exploring the decoding domain in richer ways than til now has been done, and hang their terminological hats on what will emerge from this rather than leaving the terms floating in the air.

Nick Shinn's picture

I'm not sure your claim about why readability was coined is well-founded.

Sorry, that's what I always thought, based on how I've heard the distinction between readability and legibility made over the years.
My assumption appears to be wrong, according to Bill's hush-hush investigations!

Kevin Larson's picture

Nick, I am surprised to find myself agreeing with you. Emotional aspects of reading need to be considered. Though I expect that emotion impacts decoding and comprehension. The recent Oppenheimer paper that appeared in the popular press is one demonstration of the impact of mood on comprehension, and I would suggest that my paper in Typo on the Aesthetics of Reading is another. I even agree with you that measuring the neurochemical dopamine might be one way of measuring this, along with electrical measures of the orbicularis oculi, and behavioral measures.

Kevin Larson's picture

> I don't see discussion of actual experimentation using human subjects, based on predictions from the machine models, which is what would be needed.

The two 1981 papers about IAC discuss roughly 10 predictions each. See Seidenberg & McClelland (1989) and Plaut, McClelland, Seidenberg, & Patterson (1996) for major developments in word recognition with parallel distributed processing and many more predictions.

> In particular, what I am looking for is crucial tests that would distinguish the interactive activation model from other learning networks, such as Kohonen or self-organizing maps.

Kohonen maps is one of many areas that parallel distributed processing has grown in the last 30 years.

dezcom's picture

Terms that are difficult to define (or have much argument about their definition) are so because they are not concrete enough to be agreed to. The speed of sound or even light can be measured and agreed upon. They are external forces.

Readability is a very fuzzy little munchkin which is sure to bring debate at the mention of it. We perhaps can agree that sighted humans can observe certain forms and agree that they are indeed signs which can be configured as words and sentences. Science has measured the physical motions of human observers in this process. We "know" the eye moves in saccades instead of a smooth line. We know that regressions have been observed and the number and frequency of regressions is a variable from person to person and text sample to text sample. We know that the amount of time a given individual will continue to read text can vary with conditions as well as with individuals.

We know also that after reading a given text, it is possible for the reader to achieve some level of comprehension of what the author intended. We know there is great variation possible in comprehension depending on what the variables are and the individual. I am glad that some scientists are attempting to define, within reasonable tolerances, which variables can be controlled enough to measure and how to go about this. Out of this research may come something of value in the arena of glyph form and presentation of material to reader.

However, we live and read in a world where we are limited in what we control and who the readers and writers may react. As typographers and type designers, we "know" within some fuzzy tolerances when something is "Readable Enough" to serve its purpose. We certainly do not agree on the exact point or even what is inhibiting enough to matter. We probably don't but probably should agree that there are cases when factors that impede decoding of presented signs can also be more valuable in the communication of the intended or even unintended message. This can be recognizing a loved-ones poor handwriting and carefully taking the time to thoroughly read and understand it compared to instantly trashing a perfectly composed and typeset page of text with optimum line length font, and leading because we "know" we are not interested in what it has to say.

There are times when a reader is "interested enough" to continue reading even if the presentation is not perfect. If a person has purchased a book, it stands to reason that they are interested enough to read it. When tax forms come to be read,we may dread the idea of doing so but eventually complete the dreary task anyway. If a person takes a newspaper, he may read only what interests him and ignore the rest. Enter the world of advertising and persuasive communication:

What happens when, as an author, you wish to have your message attended to by people who have no interest in it? It can be as perfectly set as the Lord Bringhurst can manage but remain unattended to. It can also be presented in such a way as to entice a fair number of people to give it a look. This is what much of the communication industry is tasked to do. The unwilling reader is targeted, not those who are already onboard. The type shops of the world are loaded today with thousands of fonts that will never read as well as a Garamond or a Caslon but may just be the right tool to get a second look from the uninterested reader. Sure, we still need fine book faces and clear signage faces and readable tax forms, but there is a point where we "know enough" to know what will read well enough to do the job at hand.

Even fine books are subject to the effects of production costs and therefore are more likely to take a chance on a reduction in type size that will reduce the expense and put the book at the desired pricepoint to succeed.

As a type designer, I have much more interest in a typeface reading well enough for the job it was intended as well as being attended to in the first place, than I have in endless debates on reading terminology which will never achieve a thing usable in my life time. But with that,"Lay on McDuff," may those who wish to pursue that path continue as they wish. Until then, a rose by any other name.

William Berkson's picture

Kevin, thanks for the references. I will have a look, though I'm not sure how quickly I can get to it.

I don't get why you restate that Kohonan networks are another model of parallel distributed processing. My point is that it may be what is normally going on in reading, and not interactive activation. And with such processing it may be that collections of letter parts in a word are processed together in such a network, without routine resolution into separate letters, as Peter has argued. My point was that interactive activation is routinely accepted without testing against rival models of parallel processing. I accept that parallel processing is going on, because whole words can be recognized, as I understand, in roughly the same time as individual letters. The question is what kind of parallel processing.

Kevin Larson's picture

William, the interactive activation model is an easy to explain parallel distributed model, but has been replaced by other models that better predict word recognition behaviors. I had done some work with the Plaut model while in grad school, but happily applaud any improved pdp model.

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