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Discover this little-known secret of ‘reading gravity’
As readers of the English language we are all taught to read a page of text 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.
It is fundamental for the eye to 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.
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’.
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 – and it was so unnecessary because there was plenty of space.
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.
Axis of orientation
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 exact impact of complying or not complying with reading gravity.
The impact of not complying with reading gravity is dramatic
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
The lesson is enormous: don’t let fancy design get in the way of reader comprehension!
A good design will appeal to the eye while creating good understanding and comprehension as well.
Bad design costs you money!
Look at it 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 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!
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.