This secret of ‘reading gravity’ could dramatically improve the effectiveness of your publications! In fact, you can easily double the effectiveness of your printed publications As readers of content written in the English language, we are all taught to read a printed page by starting at the top left hand corner and working our way across each line from left to right and going down to the start of the next line at the left hand edge of the page until we reach the bottom right hand corner.
Your eyes automatically start at the top left corner of a page and move across and down the page, obeying ‘reading gravity’ until reaching the end of the page.
Figure 1, opposite. Reading gravity
The top left corner is called the ‘Primary Optical Area’. From there the eyes move across and down the page, obeying reading gravity and reaching the ‘Terminal Anchor’.
The ‘fallow’ corners are the areas that the eye tends to overlook unless a device such as a photograph or illustration is placed there to attract the eye.
Any design that forces the reader to work against reading gravity cuts reader comprehension dramatically. Australian research has shown that the comprehension levels of readers viewing layout complying with reading gravity is double the comprehension levels of readers viewing the same text not complying with reading gravity.
It’s quite simple, really, but so often graphic designers and PR people create designs that make text hard to comprehend and retain – and that undermine our efforts to communicate effectively. I used to subscribe to Wired magazine, but the poor design drove me crazy! The graphic designers obviously thought they were very clever, but they actually made many of the articles hard to read due to poor adherence to principles of good design and typography. Some of the fonts were so small you could hardly read them. There was plenty of page space, so this was so unnecessary. I have subscribed to the Harvard Business Review printed version for several years as well. Same thing in the early years of my subscription – their graphic designers outsmarted themselves in every issue. However, more recently, I notice they adhere more to the fundamentals of reading gravity and the axis of orientation. See examples of past HBR page design down the page. With a little forward thinking, you can double the effectiveness of your publications.
According to US typographer and teacher, Edmund Arnold, the eye returns to the left hand edge of the text at start of each line. Arnold called this line the Axis of Orientation. The eye of the reader finds it easy to return the axis of orientation for each line. Any change to the axis of orientation will create awkwardness for the eye as it seeks an easy flow of words.
The layout of Figure 2 shows the headline complying with reading gravity for a newspaper-style page with a simple, ‘formal’ structure. The start of the headline lines up on the same vertical line as the body type.
In Figure 3, the start of the headline is not lined up vertically with the start of the body type, and therefore the reader finds it difficult to know where the eye should go
Thanks to pioneering research by unsung hero, Colin Wheildon, former editor of an Australian motoring publication with 1 million readers, we know the numerical impact of complying or not complying with reading gravity. By following the guidelines developed by Wheildon, you can double the effectiveness of your publications.
Research results for newspaper-style designs
Layout complying with reading gravity principles: 67% good comprehension
Layout disregarding reading gravity: 32% good comprehension
The research results were very similar for a less-structured, ‘free layout’ as used in magazines.
Research results for magazine-style designs
Layout complying with reading gravity principles: 73% good comprehension
Layout ignoring reading gravity principles: 37% good comprehension
This two-page spread in the Harvard Business Review of April 2016 is a good example of self-indulgence. The 5-word headline is unnecessarily spread over three lines and two whole pages. There is no leading (distance) [pronounced “ledding”] between the three lines of the headline. This would usually make a headline difficult to read, but in this case, the headline font is so big and bold that its 5 words are quite legible. The unnecessarily right-aligned sub-heading (white on red) of 12 words is unnecessarily spread down four lines, is unnecessarily in all-caps, and unnecessarily starts halfway across the headline. The four lines of text are in black font on red background, which is difficult to read. (Sorry about the light reflecting on the red parts of the page.)
This two-page spread in the Harvard Business Review of April 2016 has a two-word headline unnecessarily spread in two colors over two lines. After reading the headline, the eye of the reader is confused as to where to go next. Sub-heading under the headline? Top of the left hand page? Top of the right hand page? Or to the text at bottom right, which is usually a fallow area? An unnecessarily huge and complex drop cap “M” on the second page is spread over the first 10 of 13 lines, crowding out the lines of actual text. And overall there are 7 different fonts in various sizes on the two pages. Why? The key thing is to make a page easy to read. This spread will cause readers to move on.
Left: Cover of Harvard Business Review magazine, Sept-Oct 2021.
Right: Page 41 of the same issue.
The cover design strongly features the issue’s key theme of, “The Future-Proof Organization,” but doesn’t give a page number for this featured section. Underneath the heading in much smaller font is the subheading, “Rebuild your workforce for the post-pandemic world. 41.” Yet, when we turn to page 41, we find that “Rebuilding Your Workforce” is actually the main theme for the 19-page section, while “Future-Proofing Your Organization” is only a subheading on this page, which relates to a 7-page article starting on page 42, titled, “Future-Proofing Your Organization.” So the two headings have been reversed around by the editing staff, presumably on the basis that the “Future-Proofing…” heading will attract more attention of readers than “Rebuilding your workforce… And why would the artwork of the featured section on page 41 be totally different from the cover design? No consistency in that.
Moving on: Notice that graphic design dominates page 41, which contains the lead theme of that 160-page issue: “The Future-Proof Organization” along with the next 19 pages about “Rebuilding Your Workforce,” with future-proofing being just one of three feature stories which all come under the section heading of “Rebuilding Your Workforce?”
My thought is that the low-key heading of “Spotlight. Rebuilding Your Workforce” should be a much larger size and should be placed in the center or left side of the page. Then the three feature articles on future-proofing, return-to-work, and elevating employees could run on the right-hand side of the page, and would be closest to the start of the first feature article on future-proofing. To make this easier, perhaps the picture could be reversed, which would not be a problem because the figures in the picture work either way.
“Always, always, always design with your audience and environment in mind,” says Krista H. from SketchDeck:
You may not fit the target persona of your product or service, which is why you’ll want to obtain details about your final audience and design for them. What you uncover during your research will influence font size, font type, number of words per line and more. You’ll also want to consider whether or not your final design will be digital or printed, viewed on desktop or mobile.
A good design will appeal to the eye while creating good understanding and comprehension. You should look at a bad design this way: If you produce 10,000 newsletters or brochures, a good layout will result in about two thirds of readers understanding and recalling your message. With a bad layout, only one third will understand and recall your message. That means you are only effectively reaching half the readers you would have reached otherwise. You may as well have thrown half your newsletters in the bin! If your boss realized you have lost so many readers through clumsy layouts, he or she would haul you in for a roasting! On the other hand, you can double the effectiveness of your publications when you pay attention to these design principles developed for printed publications from reader research.
Every mainstream newspaper in the world follows the principles of reading gravity because the editors know they will lose readers if their pages require too much effort to read. The findings also relate to magazine and advertising layouts. So, if you see a graphic designer losing sight of reading gravity, insist on adhering to the principle for better reader comprehension and recall.
The broad principles would also apply to online matter, although readers tend to only scan text and are guided by subheadings and visual material. People still start to read text at top left, and therefore most text should start at top left.
The headline is the most important part of any piece of writing. It should tell you immediately whether the content is of interest to you. Therefore you need to present the headline in the best way possible. Whether it is in an article, direct mail letter, advertisement, brochure or in social media, the words in the headline are crucial, but the way they are presented and their context are crucial as well.
Using the wrong typeface for the headline will lose you heaps of readers instantly! So which typeface or font works best in headlines? And should you use capitals or lower case letters, or serif/sans serif? If you want to find out more about the most effective headline typography for printed publications, read my article on the topic at headline typography that works best in printed publications.
If you want to make your messaging a lot more effective, adapt to the findings of research, as discussed in my article, into the best body type alignment in printed publications. For professional communicators, the key aspect of messaging through print publications is the reader comprehension of the content. There is no point in pretty design and fancy layout if readers don’t understand the message and/or don’t recall the message due to these ineffective elements. Find out the answers made clear in some trailblazing Australian research in this article. These findings are part of the conclusions drawn from Wheildon’s research, which can enable you to double the effectiveness of your publications.
By Silvia Arto, Vice President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Chair of the European Regional
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