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

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Pleading the Case

Consider an example of how important typography is in one knowledge-worker intensive profession: the law.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which has jurisdiction over parts of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, includes in its “Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure” specifications for formatting submitted documents, including paper size, line spacing, margins, typeface, and type styles to make documents more readable. The 7th Circuit published Requirements and Suggestions for Typography in Briefs as guidelines in order to assist attorneys’ compliance for producing and presenting briefs, motions, appendixes, and other papers to the judges. The guidelines, and those of other courts, cover basics such as preferred fonts (serif book fonts), headings (complementary sans serifs), white space (50%), justification (left), and emphasis (avoid underlining or all-caps):

Judges of this court hear six cases on most argument days and nine cases on others. The briefs, opinions of the district courts, essential parts of the appendices, and other required reading add up to about 1,000 pages per argument session. Reading that much is a chore; remembering it is even harder. You can improve your chances by making your briefs typographically superior. It won’t make your arguments better, but it will ensure that judges grasp and retain your points with less struggle. That’s a valuable advantage, which you should seize.

Raymond Ward, an appellate lawyer in New Orleans who writes The (New) Legal Writer blog covering topics related to effective written communication in the legal profession, concedes: “Lawyers can learn a thing or two (or three) from other disciplines about document design. Most lawyers pay only as much attention to that as they need to for compliance with court rules.”

Courthouse guidelines also point out that if attorneys want the judge to be comfortable reading their arguments, they should compare their documents more to books than to newspapers. This means that they should rely on fonts designed for books, such as Century, rather than fonts originally made to fit the maximum number of words into a newspaper column, such as Times.

From Book to Screen

Knowledge workers get more and more of their information and ideas from the computer monitor instead of from printed material (or from face-to-face conversations if you include the various forms of messaging).

“On-screen typography is far from being an exact science, but just like its counterpart in meatspace, it is intended to get someone with a limited attention span to grasp your message,” so argues Tomas Caspers, a freelance new media developer based in Cologne, Germany, in an article for Webpage Design for Designers. “Certain factors that can either improve or worsen the reader’s experience or success—factors that have been known for centuries and which are so basic that they apply to any medium, be it dead trees or CRTs.”

But Caspers points out that there is a significant difference in the attention span of a web surfer who typically reads 10–20% slower on the screen than when reading on paper. “It becomes obvious that text has to be set very carefully when your paycheck depends on the user’s understanding of this text.”

Many computer fonts are adaptations of traditional type designs that may be centuries old. But at a resolution of only 72 pixels per inch, the bit-mapped environment of a computer screen doesn’t have the subtlety to present most publishing fonts in their best light—resulting in fatigue for the reader. In general, Caspers suggests that screen gems need wider, more open shapes set in shorter lines with greater spacing (leading) between the lines.

For example, the updated old standby font, Times New Roman, isn’t ideal either for screens or for most paper documents. Its ancestors were developed to maximize the number of words that would fit into a column on a newspaper page. Moreover, although serif fonts are generally believed to accelerate word recognition, Times serifs tend to fall off due to the bitmapped resolution of computer monitors. Compare the on-screen legibility of Times to Georgia and Verdana, two fonts designed specifically for on-screen legibility by typography icon Matthew Carter in 1996, which have become standards of Microsoft’s preinstalled font pack in Windows. (Carter was a co-founder of the digital type foundry Bitstream.) With Windows Vista, Microsoft released a host of newly designed screen-compatible fonts such as Cambria and Calibri.

In 2006, The New York Times adopted Georgia for its website. Blog writers also have shown a preference for Georgia in templates for blogging applications such as Typepad. Unfortunately, most blog readers are using RSS aggregators, which are stripping out the intended formatting.

Using Usability Research

The Software Usability Research Laboratory (SURL) in the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Laboratory of the department of psychology at Wichita State University provides usability research, design, and testing to corporations ranging from Microsoft to Cessna Aircraft. Its scientists studied the effect of different fonts, line lengths, multiple columns, etc., on reader perceptions and cognition.

For example, they studied how the chosen fonts change reader perceptions of the author and/or of the material. They concluded that typefaces can reinforce, conflict with, or leave perceptions unchanged. The fonts they used were Calibri, Comic Sans, and Gigi. (Perhaps not surprisingly, people got low scores for knowledge, believability, maturity, professionalism, and trustworthiness when they used Gigi in their emails.)

Another SURL study, by J. Ryan Baker, illustrates how assumptions about printed page design translate into screen displays. Tests of reading performance and satisfaction found the following:

• Longer line lengths generally facilitate faster reading speeds.
• Shorter line lengths result in increased comprehension.
• The optimal number of characters per line is between 45 and 65.
• Paging through online text generally results in better comprehension than scrolling.
• Reading speed is faster for both single and multiple columns, but preference is for multiple short columns.
• Left-justified text is read faster than full-justified text.

Put another way, while we all learned penmanship in grade school, maybe we should have learned a little typography too. (Perhaps this can be incorporated in today’s students’ keyboarding classes.) The online reading experience continues to evolve, driven by those few sites that use readability to enhance usability. In embracing all things digital, we have to be careful not to design designers out of the process.

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