Importance of typography

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Importance of typography

You have no doubt thought about the font you use to communicate your written words. In the absence of any particular insight or authority you have likely chosen a common font such as Times New Roman or Arial or Helvetica. You have probably wondered whether this choice has any impact on the outcome of your written communication. The answer is a definitive yes — the form a writing takes substantially affects the message read, though as we will discuss below it is not just limited to the choice of font.

This issue is important to me as the founder of NetPleadings because our goal is to raise the effectiveness of the written communications our clients produce in our system. Below is an overview of some evidence and opinion about the impact typography can have on the effectiveness of written communication.

In an illuminating blog post, entitled “The Secret Lives of Fonts”, Phil Renaud details how University essays he submitted were on average graded based upon the font he chose: A- for eleven essays printed in Times New Roman, B- for 18 essays printed in Trebuchet MS, and A for 23 essays in Georgia. While not exactly a scientifically rigorous study, it touches upon a notion of typography suspected by most: that the appearance of our writings influences the meaning communicated to the reader.

In a more comprehensive study that flowed from Phil Renaud’s post, Errol Morris for the NY Times wrote the article “Hear, All Ye People; Hearken, O Earth”. Errol’s article compares the persuasiveness of the fonts Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet. It concluded with statistical significance that certain fonts are more persuasive than others, in particular:

Baskerville is different from the rest. I’d call it a 1.5% advantage, in that that’s how much higher agreement is with it relative to the average of the other fonts. That advantage may seem small, but if that was a bump up in sales figures, many online companies would kill for it. The fact that font matters at all is a wonderment.

A series of unrelated but also rigorous experiments by Colin Wheildon regarding printed type, concluded that:

  • serif fonts are five times more effective than sans-serif;
  • coloured text and backgrounds reduces effectiveness;
  • fully-justified text are three times easier to comprehend than ragged-right text.

If you are in the business of persuasive writing, and in particular advocating on behalf of others, this would seem to be some rather important information to keep in mind.

The choice of font is one of many components of writing that influences its effectiveness. Most humans can read newspapers front–to–back, or books from cover–to–cover, and ingest the contents. These communications are encoded in such a way that the human brain and muscles can discern the messages with virtually no fatigue. The messages in these typesettings are encapsulated in a format that exhibits known principles of typography, and in doing so they approach a communication that is nearly effortless to comprehend and is limited only by the permutations of thoughts that can be expressed by the language in which the message is written.

The history of typography spans millennia. The practices that make for effective written communication have evolved independently in multiple civilizations towards universal principles, adhering as much to conclusions of an aesthetic nature as to mathematical proportions such as the golden ratio.

Sadly, the advent of the information age ushered out many of the principles of typography. Simple principles that had been universally accepted for centuries, such as the use of a double-space (or “em-quadrat”) after a period — a concept that gave a spatial dignity analogous to the pause when sentences are spoken, broke paragraphs into identifiably comprehensible components at a glance, and provided visual markers that allowed our peripheral vision lead our focus across lines — have not only been forgotten but are now condemned by even many professional typographers. This is one example of many principles once accepted universally by professional typesetters that have been reduced to antiquated notions of style in the digital era. Yet if these principles, or their absence, affect the meaningful outcome of the communication, they are not simply stylistic choices but substantively affect the reader’s thoughts.

The effectiveness of a written communication can be measured, principally by determining whether:

  1. the writing is read in its entirety;
  2. the messages read were understood;
  3. the messages were read with uniform comprehension;
  4. the reader forms a bias of agreement or belief with the writing.

As a lawyer it was a troubling torment to witness how compelling words of substance were regularly overlooked, misunderstood or only partially digested. The form writings took as a professional advocate was often at most a secondary thought, and as a result the content often had significantly less bearing on the outcome than it should have.

It need not be this way. The principles of typography have been long established, we have only just forgotten them — lured by the delight of being able to type our messages so quickly, easily and effortlessly, or the desire by commercial printers to condense text, we have disconnected from the truth that the effective message is not what is written but what is read.

Some of the technical principles of typography that make a writing effective include:

  1. fully justified paragraphs, flush on both sides of the writing;
  2. text with approximately 66 characters per line;
  3. page sizes and margins that adhere to the golden ratio;
  4. uniform lettering with word-spacing by a proven line-breaking algorithm;
  5. lines that are “single-spaced”;
  6. double-spacing after a period that ends a sentence [1.];
  7. a well designed serif font, for example Baskerville, Frutiger Next or Warnock Pro.

These are the choices that were made by thousands of individuals employed as professional typographers over centuries. There are innumerable consistent examples of typesetting from the 1700s onwards available on Google Books that exemplify these principles. Another source of elegant typesetting following these principles is the historical legislation available from the Queen’s Printer, whose artful mastery of the presentation of written letters mirrored the legal significance of the words contained therein.

It is a curiosity that deviation from typographic principles reduces the effectiveness of a writing. There are a few theories about why this is the case, but they all seem to come down to the simple problem that typography has evolved in response to the desire to make the process of reading easier for the brain and eyes to functionally digest the letters, words, punctuation, and form them into sentences, paragraphs and the ultimately the thoughts intended by the writer.

For example, when lines are too long the brain and eyes have to co-ordinate where our focus must find the next line. This is partially offset by visual markers such as indenting, the space between words and sentences, and capitalization or bolding (as used in this article), but as a general rule the longer the line the more time, concentration and energy is spent putting the eyes in the right place, instead of actually reading words. As time, concentration and energy are limited resources, using them on anything but the core essential digestion of the words is a waste and reduces the effectiveness of the written communication.

There are many more examples, but here are a couple that are noteworthy because they illustrate the paradigm where typography is significant. When lines are unevenly spaced by a poor line-breaking algorithm (such as the one used in Microsoft Word), one ends up with significant variance in the spacing between words and characters on different lines. The result is that our eyes travel at different speeds across the different lines, and the inconsistency causes fatigue of our eye muscles. Similarly, paragraphs that have extra space between lines, known as double-spacing, reduces legibility because the more an eye must move to capture the words conveying an idea, leading to muscle fatigue setting in.

When we read uniformly spaced characters across lines of text our eyes acclimatize to the speed of the reading and the density of the letters. Our muscles relax, our brain becomes accustomed to the speed of the reading. As text deviates from that uniformity, our brain and eyes must compensate. This compensation leads to fatigue and uses concentration, elevates our stress and hinders our capacity to absorb the content of the message.

Centuries of thought on typography became secondary to the ease of writing that became available with typewriters and then computer programs. Writing with typeset fonts was once so expensive that it was relegated to the realm of professional writers publishing through printing presses. The computer made writing unimaginably cheap, but for a long time the reading of these computer-generated writings was ineffective because it substantially deviated from the principles of typography. Only recently has typography entered back into the minds of authors who seek to maximize the effectiveness of their meaningful written communications.

We at NetPleadings have chosen fonts and layout choices that we feel most effectively embody the principles of typography that are understood to make the writings clients make for themselves and on behalf of clients most effective.

I hope you have enjoyed this article, and whether or not you use our service that you found this article interesting, educational and thought provoking.

For the interested, here is a little further reading:

  1. Why two spaces after a period isn’t wrong (or, the lies typographers tell about history)
  2. Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style (ISBN: 0-88179-110-5)
  3. Lazy Eyes: How we read online. By Michael Agger
  4. Optimal characters per line
  5. “The science behind fonts (and how they make you feel)” (23 Dec 2013)
  6. “The Aesthetics of Reading” by Kevin Larson (Microsoft) & Rosalind Picard (MIT) https://affect.media.mit.edu/pdfs/05.larson-picard.pdf