Monday, February 16, 2015

In this corner: Legibility vs. Readability

In studying design rules, we’re often reaching far back in time. For example, an optimum line length between 18 and 24 picas—3 to 4 inches—was established back in 1929. Today, readers have a higher tolerance for both longer and shorter line lengths; your APA-format papers are 6 ½ inches wide and browser windows can be much wider; mobile device screens can be much smaller than 18 picas.

When a web page can get shrunk to the width of a smartphone, it would seem that the “rules” about legibility need to be revised.

Adrian Frutiger (well known for the creation of Univers, Frutiger, Glypha, and Avenir typefaces) concluded: “the foundations of legibility are like a crystallization, formed by hundreds of years of use of selected, distinctive typefaces. The usable forms that have stood the test of time are perhaps permanently accepted by human-kind as standards conforming to aesthetic laws ...”

In other words, new forms of type and type of poor quality hinders the reading process.

This would seem to imply that type could be legible and still unreadable.

Matthew Carter
Typographer Matthew Carter (who designed Verdana and Georgia) finds it’s difficult to define legibility/readability because “Legibility can be measured because successive degradations demonstrate how letterforms hold up. But readability is difficult to measure. People read and comprehend best those typefaces which they are most familiar.”

Type designer Zuzana Licko (Mrs. Eaves, Filosophia) extends the argument: “Typefaces are not intrinsically legible. Rather, it is the reader's familiarity with faces that accounts for their legibility. Studies have shown that readers read best what they read most.”

Consider blackletter typestyles. While we find them illegible today, they were actually preferred over more humanistic designs during the eleventh and fifteenth centuries.

Today, Times New Roman might be the “most readable typeface” since you are required to write all your papers in it. (Oh, go ahead, be radical: write a paper in Baskerville Oldface or Garamond and see if your professor notices!)

Licko and VanDerLans
On the other hand. Rudy VanderLans, founder and publisher of graphic design magazine Émigré, thinks that “If you can’t read something—never mind, it probably wasn’t written for you. People who complain about not being able to read the type are usually not the audience the piece was destined to reach.”

This week, perform a design exercise for your post. You experimented earlier in the quarter with derivative typefaces. This week, take a font you are familiar with that is easily readable and over 3 steps make it illegible. (1: original-readable font; 2: difficult but possible to read; 3: really-difficult to read/illegible.)

You don’t want to completely obliterate the type, just reduce the readability.

For Example:

Use your choice of software (Photoshop or Illustrator), but don’t just use a filter or simple distortion. (In the example above, I started with the normal Georgia typeface, then—starting with the third letter—I flipped every other letter upside down in the second version. In the third version, I flipped a copy of the second version upside down.)

Once you’ve created your readable to unreadable example, post it and then describe the process you used to gradually reduce the readability. Tell us if you think this might be a valid design tool to use. Why or why not? Is readability always important?

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