Comments on How We Read

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  1. Thanks for writing this. The tops of letters being more legible than the bottom is something I had never seen discussed before.

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  2. This was like the first shot for a typographic heroin addict. I’m even more excited to read your book than I was before (if this is possible ;))

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  3. It’s so great that you’re writing about this topic. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book. There are a couple of corrections you might want to consider updating in later printings.

    The idea that the top half of letters are more important comes from the work of Emile Javel in the 1870s. While this is generally true for some letters, it’s not true for all letters. Daniel Fiset’s research shows that we the lower half is far more important for letters with descenders like g, j, p, q, and y. It is difficult to read the top half of the words apply and jimmy.

    The idea that we read word shapes dates back to Cattell in the 1880s, but the last 40 years of eye tracking research by Keith Rayner has shown that we really do read each letter in a word. We can see this by deliberately altering words: if you keep the first couple of letters intact, but change the shape of the word, you read normally. If you retain the shape, but change the first letters, you read slowly. Recent work by Aries Arditi even shows that uppercase words are read faster than lowercase words.

    Sofie Beier’s has investigated the idea that “we read best what we read most.” While some would claim that given enough time they could read a Gothic blackface as fast as Verdana, letter legibility is an important factor.

    Beier’s book Reading Letters: designing for legibility does an excellent job at covering recent research.

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  4. If you’re into the subject of “readability” then +1 to Dr. Kevin Larsen’s recommendation of Sophie Beier’s book “Reading Letters”.

    I would also recommend perusing the work of former UCLA Professor Richard Lantham.

    Lantham focuses mostly on rhetoric - on “staying readable by writing readable”, but he also makes great points about the future of text onscreen and the forms we might expect it to take on screens and platforms yet to come.

    Example: the main texting app on my Android based Samsung phone uses an italic version of the main typeface to signal that the text message is “in transit”. Only when the message gets through does the italic version of the font revert to it’s non-italic equivalent font and thus signal that the message got through.

    This was the first time ever I have seen the italic (or ‘oblique’) style of a font used to communicate to the reader the state of the text: such as ‘in transit’ or ‘received’.

    And it made me think of Richard Lantham cause he thought about all this stuff and envisioned a lot of it decades ago.

    A copy of Lanham’s short and sweet “Revising Prose” deserves a place on the shelf of anybody who works with words. And a yearly “refresher” read wouldn’t hurt either.

    Found a synopsis of Lanham’s ingenious “Paramedic Method” in a Powerpoint on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNo3v-pDtqE

    The start of Jason’s book seems a bit geeky, frankly, but I’m a geek for this stuff so I don’t mind. But wondering how it will play in Peoria.

    I’ll be buying it to see how it handles the nuts and bolts issues of embedding fonts into web pages. Nuts and bolts like going with a service company like Adobe Typekit versus DIY, for example. Anxious to see the recommendations made.

    Best of luck to it.

    But if there’s a wiseass reference somewhere in the book to Comic Sans, then shame, shame, shame.

    (That and Papyrus are my favorite fonts! ;)

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  5. It reminds me when Microsoft switched to all-caps menus in Visual Studio 2013. Recently they put a flag for that, after developers’ uproar.
    But all-caps menus still plague a lot of recent Microsoft products, starting with Office. They really need better designers…

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  6. Looking forward to reading this book also, but glad to see Kevin Larson’s comment.

    I have seen the idea of word shape recognition leading to improved readability in numerous typography books, and taught my design students the same when I was an adjunct. It wasn’t until I read Dr. Susan Weinschenk’s book, 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, that I learned this was inaccurate and that there is research to back it up.

    I feel badly that I contributed to perpetuating this myth (that I read in books). Ahh, if only scientists and designers would talk to each other (more)!

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  7. There’s this great line from Jason’s book, which I love:

    Typography is a pursuit that combines the best of history, writing, math, artistry, and craft. No one thing rules over another. Sometimes the math won’t add up, but the type may look right. When that happens, you need to rely on your instincts.

    Personally, I feel the benefit of this book is that while there’s a lot of formality, rigor, and tradition to typography—which is, of course, wonderful—there’s also a lot of instinct behind executing it. Understanding when each is helpful is the best part of this book. What’s more, I think Jason’s book makes a deep, occasionally intimidating field more approachable to the less experienced, and give them the tools to learn more.

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  8. A thoroughly enjoyable read and, having had the pleasure of reading Jason’s entire book in advance, thanks to the A Book Apart team’s generosity, I can highly recommend it.

    If this tickled your fancy, you’ll enjoy Jost Hochuli’s excellent book ‘Detail in Typography’, which not only underpins these ideas, but expands upon them considerably. It’s a small, but beautifully designed tome, which is well worth owning. It effortlessly makes the case for the permanence – and sheer pleasure – of printed books.

    Hochuli goes into considerable depth, exploring the importance of detail in typography and how – when one attends to the details – one can improve the reader’s experience of a text. As Hyphen Press, the publishers of ‘Detail in Typography’ put it: “Answers may be found here, not least in the way the book itself has been set and produced.”

    I’ve long recommended Hochuli’s book to my students, it’s an essential companion to Robert Bringhurst’s ‘The Elements of Typographic Style’. If you’re just embarking on your journey into the wonderful world of typography, I can think of no better start than Jason’s new book, it’s the perfect gazetteer to accompany you on your adventure.

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  9. This was a really interesting read. I feel readability and how we interpret words and letters is often an overlooked subject, this seems especially true in the world of design and often I fail to understand why people design things in such a way that makes them almost unreadable.

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  10. The discussion of saccades and letter shape makes me wonder about one vs. two spaces after a period. I know two spaces is anathema to typographers, but I can’t help but wonder if it does improve legibility, at the expense of appearance.  I don’t have any science to go on, except that I remember reading a few decades ago about a study which found that two spaces between a clause improved comprehension.

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  11. I’m guessing the actual book in its entirety is very insightful. However, I didn’t walk away from this excerpt feeling like I garnered something I could apply to digital design. Perhaps it is meant more for those who create type faces than someone like me who simply (and often ignorantly)  struggles searching for the right one, not knowing exactly what makes for a good choice. I enjoyed learning about saccades, word shapes, the upper vs. lower halves of text, uppercase vs lowercase, but in the end, what do I take away from this? I never would argue how vital typography is, but how do I use any of the insights from this excerpt to make better choices with typography as I go forward? I wish this would have been more practical to a big dumb interaction designer like myself. Perhaps the book is?

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  12. Jason M, The book in its entirety *is* useful and, reading your comment, looks like it would be right up your stress. After the first chapter (How We Read) it covers the following: How Type Works; Evaluating Typefaces; Choosing and Pairing Typefaces; Typographic Systems; and Composition.

    It’s an excellent primer if you’re interested on embarking on journey to become a better typographer. I’d recommend it highly (and have added it to our reading lists at the BelfastSchool of Art).

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  13. Wonderful article! Equal parts accessible and insightful. Thank you – I will link to it often.

    The research relied upon by Kevin Larson is flawed. In the past couple of decades high-tech testing methods have sadly over-powered the crucial role of lucid thinking inherent to the Scientific Method. The conclusion that we always read individual letters is unreliable because the testing methods cited do not achieve true immersive reading; the remain firmly confined to the realm of slow*, deliberative reading restricted to the high-acuity foveal region of the retina (which accounts for only about 1/3 of useful vision). There is much evidence that punches holes in the letterwise-decipherment model, not least the existence of saccades that far exceed the fovea (with no subsequent regression). Furthermore, the letterwise-decipherment model flies against centuries of anecdotal evidence, not to mention the common-sense belief that the brain, being obsessed with efficiency, would not blindly (pardon the pun) waste useful information in the parafovea, where only letter clusters (or boumas as I’ve come to call them) and not individual letters are decipherable. As you might suspect, I could write a lot more here… but I would rather refer people to my article in issue 13 of Typo magazine.

    * Around only 300 wpm.

    Really, when somebody claims “uppercase words are read faster than lowercase words” it should be clear that there’s something fundamentally wrong with their approach.

    hhp

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  14. Very interesting article. As a designer focused on web/mobile I really like getting back to basics and I’m currently reading several books on Typography/typefaces. This was a great addition to my reads, and will definitely get a hold of your book.

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  16. good article! very insightful! Focus on clarity or readability on designs. Pretty useful for typography studies. Nice to read before design something.

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  17. Sorry, commenting is closed on this article.