For several years when I was a young PR pro I had my own intuitive views about the effectiveness of different typefaces used for body copy in printed publications. Unfortunately, the available literature offered no guidance on this. Then I came across a wonderful, almost unknown book that provided the answers!
The key aim with printed material is to maximize reader comprehension and recall. We can then build on that foundation to influence attitudes, opinions and behavior change of the reader.
Colin Wheildon, author of the above book, was a 30-year veteran journalist and managing editor of the largest motorists’ publication in Australia. His publication had a million readers and he wanted to make sure he was using design and typography as effectively as possible. As he couldn’t find practical facts on readability in the literature on typography, he conducted five years of pioneering research with 224 Sydney readers. The results are timeless and are still being quoted by the leaders in typography and design.
All the tests were supervised and were conducted in the participants’ homes under their normal reading conditions in daytime and evenings. The readers were asked a series of questions about the content of the text they had just read. They were not told that the questions would attempt to determine their level of comprehension.
Some of Wheildon’s findings were dramatic. His fundamental conclusion was that readers won’t understand and act on text they find hard to read, no matter how good the content and attractive the page design.
Although his findings related to printed publications including magazines, sales letters, brochures and print advertising, some of Wheildon’s conclusions also apply in general terms to digital material.
Wheildon’s research showed that significant blocks of text in publications are much easier to read when produced in a serif typeface rather than in sans serif. In fact, the difference is spectacular!
Above image: Garamond serif typeface. Source: Wikipedia.
An example of a common serif typeface is Times New Roman, in which thick and thin strokes are used to create letters. An example is the upper case “M” and lower case “m“. The thin strokes at the top and bottom of the letter help the reader’s eye to more quickly recognize the letter than if it were uniformly wide throughout. (Serif most likely comes from an old Dutch word for ‘stroke’.)
Above image: Calibri sans serif typeface. Source: Wikipedia.
A sans serif typeface is made up of letters of uniform width, as in Helvetica upper case “M” and lower case “m“. (Sans is the French word for ‘without’.)
Readers in Wheildon’s tests reported great difficulty in comprehending text printed in a common sans serif font:
Layout with serif typeface: 67% good comprehension level
Layout with sans serif typeface: 12% good comprehension level
When asked, the readers who scored badly on the test complained about difficulty holding concentration when reading sans serif text (Helvetica). Around 47% of those readers complained strongly about the difficulty of reading the sans serif type, 28% said it was hard to read and 20% said they had difficulty in focusing on the type after reading a dozen or so lines. Some said the type strained their eyes and some said they continually had to back-track to regain comprehension.
Yet when the same group was asked immediately afterwards to read another article set in serif type (Corona), they reported no physical difficulties and no loss of concentration. “The conclusion must be that body type must be set in serif type if the designer intends it to be read and understood,” Wheildon observed.
The lesson for us is enormous: don’t let design ambitions for use of typography get in the way of reader comprehension. After all, your key aim is to maximize reader comprehension and recall.
Look at it this way. If you produce 10,000 printed newsletters or brochures, a layout using serif body type will result in about two thirds of readers understanding and recalling your message. With sans serif body type, only about 12% will understand and recall your message. So you will have unnecessarily lost most of your readers. You may as well have thrown most of your newsletters in the bin! If your boss knew about this, there would be severe repercussions because you would be wasting valuable money used to produce the publication.
Wheildon’s findings help to answer some vital questions such as:
The findings don’t necessarily mean you should avoid sans serif body type like the plague (like clichés!), but it means you should use it sparingly, perhaps in sidebar text, in summaries and in highlights rather than in all the body text for printed publications.
(Although Colin Wheildon’s original book is out of print, a later edition is available under the title: Type & Layout: are you communicating or just making pretty shapes? Author Colin Wheildon, publisher The Worsley Press, Melbourne, Australia.)
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