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Good typography is good for your eyes and science is here to prove it


evin Larson, the psychologist of the Advanced Reading Technologies team at Microsoft in Richmond, is determined to improve the onscreen typography. Larson and his team of typographers and computer engineers are testing ways to reduce eye fatigue by designing fonts easier to read and exploring ways to improve reader’s experience for people with visual impairments. What they do is to measure aesthetic differences on screen fonts by examining the cognitive effects by elevated mood. It can be said that although typographers and psychologists walk the same path on this issue, a gap between them can be detected regarding the good aesthetics and the functionality of a typeface.

On the one hand typographers believe that we recognize words from their word shape or outline, while Reading Psychologists on the other hand argue that we first recognize letters and then use the letters to build up word recognition. However, recently the two sides have started to bridge their gap, since the scientific point of view on how to look at type has been proved.

Research showed that this muscle becomes more active and the blinking rate decreases, when you read text that is too light or too small, p.i 12 pt.

Larson’s team started examining the large muscle around the eye which is responsible for blinking and squinting. Research showed that this muscle becomes more active and the blinking rate decreases, when you read a text that is too light or too small, p.i 12 pt. But if you increase the text size and give higher contrast in relation to the background, that’s going to reduce the degree of eye-tireness. Surprisingly enough, the quality of the page layout - e.g. a “good” page layout uses indentation to mark new paragraphs and larger text for titles - seems to have no effect on the speed of reading or the comprehension of its content according to the research. 

But they were still wondering about the influence of design in reading. So, they had to put that to the test too. To serve that purpose, the team created two versions of a New Yorker article. The "good” version used the New Yorker font, while the “bad” version used the Courier font with wide spaces between the words. The result? A nicely designed article can hold the reader's attention and help him to understand its content much better than a non or a badly designed article. Also, when the readers of the “good” version were asked to estimate the duration of the reading, they underestimated how long they had been reading by three minutes more that the readers of the bad version.

The design is built by increasing the contrast between pixels and that makes the letters sharper.

The online reading still requires a lot of changes in the meantime the team hopes to improve also text readability for those with visual problems. For example, they have figured out how to design text easier to read by colorblind people, who are less sensitive to red and green pixels, so the design is built by increasing the contrast between those two and that makes the letters sharper. 

Relying on research and taking into account the aesthetic judgments of type designers, the team’s goal is to create a new font that will enhance reading experience on web. They are doing tests in which they pay attention to whether people are confusing several letters, by showing them for a brief period of time and then asking them to identify them. In that way they derermine the better legibility, while they still maintain the font’s personality. If you want to delve more into the relation between typography and psychology, please read Mr Lerson’s  'The Aesthetics of Reading'. 

After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


By Konstantina Yiannakopoulou


Kevin Lerson Interviewed by Jamie Chamberlin