Digital Designs: A Look at the Role of Real Typographic Design in Effective Content Delivery

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The essence of the New Typography is clarity. This puts it into deliberate opposition to the old typography whose aim was “beauty” and whose clarity did not attain the high level we require today. This utmost clarity is necessary today because of the manifold claims for our attention made by the extraordinary amount of print, which demands the greatest economy of expression.
—Jan Tschichold: The New Typography (1928)

Typography 101: Fonts Matter

The description of Typography 101 in the course catalogue says it all: “Good typography can improve comprehension by up to 500 percent … bad typography can render even the most beautifully written message incomprehensible.”

Ozcan Tekson, the Toronto graphic designer who now teaches the course at the Humber College Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning, is pretty sure the figure is an exaggeration, but he also is sure that typography “definitely and significantly enhances comprehension.”

Typography refers to the way that characters are shaped and arranged into the phrases, statements, ideas, and information that someone wants to convey to others. Graphic design changes the absorption properties of the meaning to be derived from the message. In modern parlance, Tekson says, those are choices about fonts, letter spacing, word spacing, line spacing, and other proportions of graphic design.

Even before the invention of the printing press—or writing for that matter—knowledge was transmitted through rich media in terms of stories, songs, and performances. The ancient proportions behind our expectations for graphic design derive from those traditions and carry through on the modern page and the modern screen.

Tekson defines nine major criteria of layout: balance, dominance, contrast, space, flow, movement, proportion, composition, and coherence. “This is the visual storyteller of the layout,” he explains. “These criteria have been consciously used for thousands of years by Egyptians, Greeks, Renaissance artists, modern architects, sculptors, or painters. Even now, most of the norms we use today, such as European A4 or American Letter paper sizes stem from this heritage. Sometimes we like things, but we don’t know why we like them. The answer is mostly embedded in fulfillment of these norms.”

Today, typography comes into play whenever language is displayed: on paper, on the screen, in advertising, or in signage. For instance, Tekson points to studies made by highway workers to maximize the legibility of traffic signs. They search the maximum levels of perception by changing the typographic variables for effectiveness against driving factors such as weather conditions, speed, or distance.

Think fonts don’t matter? According to a news item carried by the British Broadcasting Corp. in 2002, an air traffic controller at a brand new £623 million control center in the U.K. directed a flight bound for Glasgow, Scotland, to Cardiff, Wales, after misreading the computer screen because the text displayed was too small. It was too difficult to distinguish between the location codes EGPF (Glasgow) and EGFF (Cardiff), according to confidential documents obtained by a computer magazine and cited by the BBC. Controllers at the Swanwick, Hampshire, control center also were misreading altitudes of some aircraft on their screens—for example, “FL300” instead of “FL360.”

That’s the difference between 30,000' and 36,000'.

Lost Art

The art, science, and craft of typography are thousands of years old. Today, more than 550 years after Gutenberg, anybody with a personal computer can self-publish, and anyone with an internet connection can be read by millions. But somewhere in the democratization of the displayed word, many of the traditional lessons of message and meaning have been forgotten. Documents have become digital and/or disposable things, and their authors neglect the ways that typography, layout, and editing affect what we learn from and what we do with the information and ideas that we read on a page or screen.

There are two significant trends at work: On the one hand, “printed” information is increasingly read on the screen instead of on the page; on the other, the “printing” is increasingly done by a knowledge worker rather than a graphic artist, in terms of both design and production.

Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, complained in an article originally published in Print magazine that there is almost a century of scientific research in various fields testing “typographic efficiency”—all of which seems to be ignored by many graphic designers practicing today. This is certainly ignored by the average knowledge worker churning out documents and data. It is definitely ignored by too many of the people designing websites, software interfaces, and longer PDF documents posted for downloading.

Cognitive psychologists, information designers, human-computer interaction researchers, and other investigators study elements of typography against measures such as word recognition, legibility, readability, and comprehension. Lupton notes that the findings of this research break down into two ultimate evaluations: First, legibility rates how easy or difficult it is to recognize words and letters. Second, and more importantly, readability is an evaluation of how easy it is to understand the text. Readability is objectively measured as the combination of reading speed and comprehension.

Obviously, language and writing skils have a lot to do with readability in terms of prose. But in a world of structured and unstructured data and information, typography’s visual language is more and more important in terms of readability. In the language of knowledge management, it might be argued, comprehension is the key to turning data and information into knowledge to support learning, innovation, and decisions. Meanwhile, maintaining comprehension without sacrificing reading speed may be a key to productivity in modern information-intensive enterprises.

The traditional best practices of legibility and readability, though still subject to debate, are that fonts are more legible when they use serifs—the little strokes and flourishes on a character—compared to sans serif fonts. Consider two popular fonts:

Times has serifs;
Helvetica does not.

Reading speed also improves when proportions of type size to line spacing are set at 120% or above, but line length also plays a part in this equation. And although most people tend to assume that fully justified text blocks look more professional, the average word processing program leaves such uneven gaps from line to line that “ragged” left-justified text is less confusing. (Experts say the “ragged” look provides visual interest to the page, but it might also provide a typography the eye can use to keep track of where it is on the page.)

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