Legato readability due to spacing?

hrant's picture

I'd like to explore John Hudson's hypothesis* that Legato's very high readability** is due in large part (mostly?) to the way it's spaced. The most direct way I can think of doing that is to compare its readability to that of other sans fonts that are spaced comparably. Suggestions?

* http://typophile.com/node/95744#comment-519849

** For a sans. For the sake of focus let's not argue about that angle here.

hhp

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

I don't know of any off hand but I'm sure some Python wizard around here could whip up a script to look for the closest matching spaces. Of course spacing is relative, if a condensed font had the exact same spacing as an extended font, the condensed spacing would appear much larger.

J. Tillman's picture

The sans font that I like for reading is Karmina Sans, with a similar spacing.
http://www.type-together.com/Karmina%20Sans
And, for the life of me, I do not understand why there is not more of a concensus, among type designers, about proper spacing for text fonts.

Just for the record, I think the popularity of Skolar, a serif font, is partly due to its dead-on spacing.
http://www.type-together.com/Skolar

John Hudson's picture

Some comments:

'Very high readability' in the context in which I made the comment refers to relative readability (we were discussing alternatives to a document style involving Gill Sans Light). What I would expect to find is that if one were to take any reasonably well proportioned sans serif type and respace it in a manner similar to Legato, one would see a rise in readability at text sizes. I don't think this would necessarily eliminate the readability gap between such a type and Legato, but I think it would close it considerably. The relative readability of Legato seems to me very largely made up of the fact that it is spaced for text size, whereas most sans serifs are spaced for display use. My thinking here is simply that the biggest gain in readability is likely due to the biggest typographic differential, which seems to me the spacing. This is not to say that, if spacing were made comparable, there might not be a significant readability advantage to Legato due to its letter construction. There are four aspects of type that affect readability: proportion, spacing, construction and detail, and I reckon the importance to readability is roughly in that, diminishing, order (excepting very extreme forms of construction or detail). The failure of most sans serifs in the text readability category seems to me mainly due to poor relationship of proportion and spacing; simply put, the inter-letter spacing is too tight and out of synch with the horizontal proportions -- and, hence, internal space -- of the letters. Until that relationship is fixed, one has no comparative baseline for judging the readability benefits of particular constructions or details.

J. Tillman's picture

John Hudson, to my (typographically untrained) eye, many sans serif text fonts have a wider spacing (not tighter) than Legato. And this wider spacing is what detracts from readability. Are we looking at different bunches of fonts? Or do I just have an outlier opinion on readability? I am kind of surprised by your comment.

dezcom's picture

To me it is not the measurable amount of space that makes Legato shine. It is the shape of the space. Because Legato does such a good job of establishing good figure/ground relationships, the space between letters has a shape that resonates with the text, giving it a good cohesion or symbiosis.

John Hudson's picture

Chris, what you describe is the interaction of spacing and construction, i.e. the construction gives to the inter-letter space the shape and effect you describe, which I agree is important to the virtues of Legato as a text face. But I still maintain that in terms of diminishing impact on readability of text, the construction comes after the spacing, which is almost always the most significant aspect of readability regardless of what typeface we're talking about. Put it this way: if you were to reduce the spacing of Legato, I think it would become less readable than a less well constructed sans serif with tighter spacing. You can try it: space Legato like Helvetica and then space Helvetica like Legato (I mean in terms of inter-letter spacing relative to letter proportion, not absolute distances), then set continuous text in both at say 11pt. I predict that badly spaced Legato will be less readable than well spaced Helvetica. What this indicates to me is that the construction of Legato is an advantage relative to its spacing model, not independent of it.
_____

J., which sans serifs are you looking at? If they are recent designs, then I think you may see looser fitting than has been traditional in sans types. I think type on the web, especially Verdana, and on mobile devices is having an influence. More people are reading continuous text in sans serif type than was the case in print, and designers have figured out that you need to space it more loosely.

This discussion about Legato relates back to an earlier discussion about readability testing and the long held assumption than sans serif type was inherently less suited to continuous text and immersive reading than serif type. But if you look at testing of sans serif types, it is almost all done with Arial or similar grotesques with tight spacing relative to letter proportions. My point is that one can go a long way to improving the readability of sans serif types by spacing them appropriately for continuous text.

dezcom's picture

John, I agree but my point is that you cannot separate the spacing from the interaction of construction. By doing so, you not only ruin the spacing but you also destroy the construction interaction.
I agree that Helvetica's performance as a text face could be improved by opening it up at text sizes. This does not mean that Legato would improve as a text face by adding the same ratio of space to it as you added to Helvetica. I think it is an issue of balance. Helvetica has better balance at large sizes. It may be possible to slightly improve Legato at large display sizes by tightening it, though. Overall, I would say that Legato has a better range of balance at default spacing than Helvetica does. This is do to the drawing superiority of Legato.

John Hudson's picture

I agree but my point is that you cannot separate the spacing from the interaction of construction.

That is clearly implied by the term 'interaction'.

This does not mean that Legato would improve as a text face by adding the same ratio of space to it as you added to Helvetica.

Which is not what I suggested.

farquart's picture

i'm waking up from a long sleep. the question on my mind is do any of you own a legal copy of legato? or is all of this yappin' only yappin'. personally it smells to me like yappin.

dezcom's picture

Yes, I own a legal copy of Legato.

hrant's picture

I hope your sleep was energizing.

Not that I believe pirated fonts are less readable :-) but I myself do "own" one weight of Legato (that they were once giving away for free), except I've never really used it - because I never really use fonts, I just make the stuff. However the most significant font users aren't the people typesetting them, they're the people reading them; this is especially true for text faces. And I have read a book set in Legato: "Team 10, 1953 – 1981 — In Search of a Utopia of the Present". Legato gives a certain feeling that no other font does; the best short way I can explain it is that individual letters seem to disappear... Look at this detail from the cover of another book:

BTW, the best graphic designer I know to grill about Legato is Nina Stössinger, who has worked with it extensively. She is however also a member of the choir... Which brings me to this: I myself might be one of the last people you should trust in terms of judging Legato. Because I want so badly for it to be Great. Because that would validate my own type design ideology. Full disclosure baby. Denial is for losers. However, just because I want something to be true doesn't mean it isn't! :-) And it's certainly comforting that a number of respected people in this field think highly of it. In fact I've noticed that most people who actively dislike it are usually just 00FF00 with envy.

hhp

hrant's picture

John, is spacing more important than "construction"? It depends on degrees, but it doesn't really matter: they're both important. Does something need to "click" between a font's construction and its spacing? That's a more interesting question. I would say that it needs to click only if the construction is a certain way; in conventional fonts not so much, but in Legato... sort of, because the whites are talking to each other so much. However I say "sort of" because I don't see a critical dependence in terms of quantity; what I mean is that even though Legato's construction relies on the spacing more than in fonts with conventional construction, it would still work decently if the spacing is changed a bit. In contrast I can imagine a construction where the spacing is truly integral, such that changing the spacing would really ruin the magic (and what magic it would be!) completely.

So my purpose with this thread is to try to figure out if Legato's spacing is indeed "special" the way its construction is. I have to doubt it, but I'm open to comparing it to other sans designs that might reveal more truth.

hhp

enne_son's picture

I don't know that your question, Hrant, can be definitively answered without some empirical testing. Experiential judgments about readability by seasoned practitioners can only take you so far.

In the realm of testing there are several options. 1) Fourier Transforms. 2) Blink Rate. 3) Drift-factor Testing. 4) Fixation duration, saccades, number of regressions.

Fourier Transforms won’t give the answer, but may tell us if Legato has a distinctive profile in the frequency domain. I don't have the font, but could get Chris to do a setting. I have access to Adobe Photoshop Fourier Transform plugins and comparative data.

Blink Rate was used by Luckiesh and Moss. Kevin’s associate Sheedy has used blink rate in some of his tests, but not with an eye to assessing readability. The relative boldness of Legato would have to be dissociated from the spacing and construction, so as not to provide a confound. This is because Luckiesh and Moss found relative boldness to be a significant factor in modifying blink rate results.

Drift-Factor testing comes from the realm of lexical-decision testing. Lexical Decision is judging whether the stimulus is a word, yes or no. Identification is not required. Speed (reaction time) and accuracy are the dependent measures. A “Diffusion Model” of how lexical decision works suggests a method of data analysis the distinguishes between several factors. One of these, ter, measures encoding affordance. Another, drift, measures ease or efficiency in the evidence accumulation stage leading to a decision. If legibility has to do with reaching a criterion level of affordance, and readability has to do with with the efficiency of the cortical integrational routines, my sense is that ter tells us about legibility, and drift rate about readability.

It would be of great interest to see if Blink Rate, ter and Drift interact with fixation durations, saccade length, number of regressions, and the rhythmic structure of these eye-movement patterns.

hrant's picture

Good analysis. I love empiricism, and I've long felt that Kevin is the best person to leverage it towards better understanding type, but it all suffers from a chronic hamartia: despite having the best intentions the methods are so flawed at the core that the results can only be destructive. This has become a bugbear for me, and I fear that if I support such empirical testing I'll be contributing to retarding the understanding of type.

If somebody can convince me that Kevin can test this the right way, here's what I would propose: I'll take the textiest weight of Legato (which probably isn't the one I have) and make a conventionally constructed font that shares its proportions, color, spacing, etc. Then we could see if its construction is indeed as genial as some of us feel/hope (and of course we could test the spacing too). But if I were to make such a font and it were used in some flawed testing that spits out "No Difference" then I would regret it deeply. And regret is one thing I don't handle well.

hhp

farquart's picture

BTW, the best graphic designer I know to grill about Legato is Nina Stössinger, who has worked with it extensively. She is however also a member of the choir...

it all sounds like a circle jerk to me

hrant's picture

I guess anonyventing is still better than going postal.

hhp

Stephen Coles's picture

What is your point, Farquart?

hrant's picture

He just wants to farquart in our general direction.

hhp

Stephen Coles's picture

After reading Farquart’s past posts I am reminded that he is a troll. I apologize for sidelining the thread by responding to him and recommend the rest of you avoid the same mistake I made. Carry on.

William Berkson's picture

I'm glad that you are exploring this, John. I've long felt and said that there is an ideal for weight and proportion and spacing for readability of text, though this is a range rather than a set of fixed numbers. My presentation on readability for the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum says most of what I have to say, so I won't repeat it here. (My rushed 'pecha kucha' style presentation of 6 minutes and 40 seconds starts around minute 16). I would add a couple of things, though. One is, I suspect that the ideal weight proportion and spacing does not vary linearly with visual size (visual angle spanned by the letters.)

The other is that things are somewhat different for sans. I have a feeling that the ideals for serifs are too wide spacing for sans, so that sans words tend to 'fall apart' at the same spacing. But pulling the sans tighter in letter spacing also isn't ideal. That's a basic benefit of serifs--you can space wider and keep the word image together. That being said, it may be that you can compensate for sans with somewhat greater boldness, which is what I suspect is going on with Legato.

hrant's picture

Using the MyFonts previewer I just did an admittedly quick-and-dirty comparison of Legato and Frutiger, and I actually saw comparable color and spacing...

hhp

John Hudson's picture

Frutiger had wider spacing than the old grotesques, Helvetica etc. (although interestingly Linotype seem to have reduced the spacing for the Frutiger Next version). Note, though, the relationship of the inter-letter space to the widths of the letters, and see how Frutiger is still proportionally tighter spaced than the narrower letters of Legato in this regard.

hrant's picture

Ah, you're right indeed.

The color though looks to be in the same ballpark. On the other hand it's possible that a small difference in quantity is making a big difference in quality.

hhp

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