Are You Sending the Right Message? – Typography Part 3

by Content Solutions on October 22, 2010

In my post on typography part 2, I took a look at how knowing your target audience plays a key role in choosing a typeface.  Once you’ve got your audience targeted, then another concern for your choice of typeface is the readability and legibility of your text.

“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. — J. Ben Lieberman “Types of Typefaces”

If you have a message to send, you want to make sure your audience is able to read and understand it, right?  There are a few aspects to consider as a designer to make sure that the text for your audience is easily digested.

The Typeface Itself

1. How readers perceive text – One of the key points to readability involves the knowledge of the reader.    Let’s start with the idea that as children, we learn the basic forms of letters.  We have those forms in our repertoire of memory to access whenever we come across text.  If the typeface is close to what we recognize, then the readability of the text is higher.  Certain parts of the letters are used as key identifiers.  For example, can you identify the word below?

How about now?

The top half of the letter forms provide us with more clues as to which letters we perceive. Therefore the bottom word should be easier for you to identify as “Commentary”. The same thing applies to the right and left halves of the letter forms.  Which is easier to identify?

We rely on the right side of letter forms to help us identify letters easier.  That is why it is easier to read the word “baseball” on the right.

When a typeface strays too far from the standard letter forms, then the readability of the text goes down.There are some typefaces that are easily recognizable by most audiences because they have been exposed to them for a longer period of time and more frequently.  For example, some of the oldest typefaces of Roman descent are still the most recognizable today.

2. Where is your text going? – Will you publish it on a poster?  A newspaper?  A computer screen?  The final media of the text has a great influence on what typefaces will have the best legibility and readability.  This is a long conversation I will save for next time on my post about Digital vs. Print Typography.

The Layout of Text

When considering the readability and legibility of your text, it’s not just the typeface that is important.  Several other factors come into play to make your text easier to read.

1. Hierarchy – Hierarchy is the road map for how to read through a piece of text.  It shows the reader where to start reading and guides them through to the end of the text.  Hierarchy refers to using different sizes of text to separate and highlight ideas according to importance.  Sometimes colors are implemented as well.  Looking just at this blog post, you can see the hierarchy of text–the title, the headers, the body, quotes–all are given a different size and significance to lead you through the text.  It plays an important role in how scannable your layout is for important ideas and reader interest.  The more prominent your hierarchy, the easier your text is to read because readers don’t feel so bogged down in text.

2. White space – White space, or negative space, refers to the space between design elements, such as the headers, body and images.  White space helps to offset any large bodies of text and guides the reader’s eyes through the text.  It provides a natural separation between design elements.  If you provide your design with a good balance of text and white space, you will increase the ease of reading because it allows places for the reader’s eyes to rest between design elements.

3. Word and Line spacing – Not only is the white space between design elements important, but spaces between words and lines play just as important a role in the readability of your text.  Look at the examples below of the spacing in each paragraph.  Which one seems the easiest the read?

The first paragraph (top) has the standard spacing you might find in a magazine. The second (middle) paragraph is an example of too much spacing or white space between words. The letters look isolated, and your eyes have to work harder to group them together. The third paragraph (bottom) is the other extreme. Words and lines are so tightly packed that it's difficult to discern one word from the next.

4. Letter spacing and weight – Once you have the word and line spacing right, it is important to check the spacing between the letters of your typeface.  The amount of space between your letters can affect the legibility of your typeface.  This can be done by adjusting the kerning of the letters.  Some typefaces have a tight kerning, and with a serif font, the serifs can run together losing the ability of the reader to easily recognize letter forms.

Do you see homing, or horning?  The kerning is so tight it’s hard to tell.

Also, take a look at the weight of your letters.  Is your font a bold font that may run the letters too close together?  Changing the weight of the font may make it easier to read.

Although different fonts, you can see how the weight of the letters can make a big difference in readability. The one on the left has a thinner weight, and the letter forms are easier to discern. The one on the right has a heavier weight that tightens the letters closer together, making it harder to discern the letters as quickly as the other.

5.  Text justification and making new paragraphs – With all the spacing going on, don’t forget the justification, or alignment of your text.  Your text may be easier to read if you make sure to give it a left alignment for the eyes to always come back to the same edge.  Or if there are other design elements such as images that play a part, then a right justification may help your text to easily stand out.  Centered text could also play a part.  The justification of your text is an important aspect that contributes to the readability of your text.

I’ll come back to the idea of white space again when I mention making new paragraphs.  Sometimes readers take one look at the text and give up.  It seems to go on and on forever and overwhelms them.  By making your text into blocks of shorter paragraphs, you can increase the white space as well as increase the readability of your text.  Readers don’t feel so intimidated when the text is broken up into little pieces to take on one by one.

Contrast of Colors

Sometimes you can have the perfect typeface and layout, and it all goes out the window if you choose to place it in the wrong colors.  The contrast of text and white space can be rendered invisible if the colors do not have a complementary contrast.  Ever wonder why newspapers are in a black print on a white toned paper?  Black and white is one of the most stark color contrasts.  When reading large amounts of text people prefer black type on a white background and have this expectation for most copy.  Designers work hard to meet  this expectation while also incorporating contrasts of colors that accent a design.  But even designers fall into a chasm every once in a while and forget the importance of text colors.

Although I blurred the text, you can still see how the text colors can make the text unappealing to read and illegible due to the contrast of color.

Be sure when choosing colors for text, that it is a contrast your readers will feel comfortable reading and that it improves the legibility of your text.

There are a lot of aspects to consider for text, besides just choosing a font or typeface, eh?  By following these guidelines, you can improve the readability and legibility of your text.  If you want to make sure you’re sending the right message, then be certain that your audience can read it!

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