Suzi's Blog

Book Review: Reading Letters [Designing for Legibility] by Sofie Beier

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This blog is for foodies, so people visit for recipes and the photos. And perhaps for occasionally wacky stories about a new way to consume chocolate or my lovely wife’s uphill battle to steer me towards healthy foods with less sugar content. Fat chance, pun intended.

So, today I am going to write about fonts. No! Wait! Please, dear foodie, do not flee. Give me until the end of the paragraph before you click away. It’s more than fonts. I am about to save you time and money, if you are cookbook reader. And I am about to make you money if you are a cookbook author. Because this is a story about fonts and legibility and, ultimately the ability for a story to be read and consumed and understood.

Sofie Beier from The Netherlands is a font expert. She is a leader in typeface legibility, seeking to understand how different typefaces and letter shapes can influence how you read. Or, even, prevent you from reading. She is currently an Assistant Professor at the School of Design in the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, continuing the research she conducted when earning her Ph.D. at the London Royal College of Arts. Her life revolves around reading and her knowledge extends to both the history of printing and the contemporary efforts to improve legibility and readability.

In her wonderful new book Reading Letters: Designing for Legibility, Sofie has to address key matters. Just what do we mean by legibility and readability?

Why should you as a foodie care? Well, have you ever bought a cookbook, based on its cover and maybe a quick glance, taken it home, and then somehow never quite used it? Maybe you picked up the book, tried to read it, and you did not even buy it. Something, something kept you away.

That “something” is often the readability of the book, which encompasses the overall design and certainly includes the fonts or typefaces used. We are nearing 700 years since Gutenberg introduced the printing press into Western culture. For the first few hundred years, there was plenty of discussion, if not controversy, over what “print” should look like. Was it a just to be “fast writing” to replace those monkish scribes. Or was printing something else, something more? That debate now seems over and our printing often appears starkly mechanical, while our schools are now letting kids NOT learn how to write in cursive.

Yet, the fight is not over. When you get that engraved invitation, perhaps for a wedding, how do you feel? Don’t you pause to read it, to admire the flourishes and fine traces of ink? Doesn’t that “penmanship” glory that has, in fact been, printed evoke emotion and perhaps compel you to read with more attention?

Calligraphy almost died away in our society. But it is now resurgent because of the impact it has on us. [I should know. I had the chance to take a class with Lloyd Williams at Reed College in the 60’s when he was training generations to appreciate Roman letters.]

What calligraphy can somehow easily do is what printers ardently strive to do, what typographers struggle to achieve with each new font they create. What will enable you to actually read, maintain your attention level, and — most importantly — be able to understand? Those are the questions that Sofie tackles in Reading Letters. She brilliantly and seamlessly covers the history and debates and attempts — both failed and successful — to reach answers over the past 700 years.

And Sofie’s answer? She does not have one. No one does. It the cause that she and others now pursue with vigor. What Sofie does depict in her book are the starts and stops that have occurred on the journey towards clarity.

For example, if we want to study readability, we need one thing at the start: a definition of readability. Do we want to test people on paragraphs, or sentences, or words, or just individual letters? All those studies have been done but it’s not yet possible to draw simple conclusions. In fact, Sophie lays out an array of conflicting results from the past 150 years.

Why is there conflict? Because just as it is not clear what “readability” means so too there are many, many factors that have to be considered when deciding if a particular typeface is “good.” And no one has been able to do that yet. Here are some of the things that have to be considered in any experiment on readablity:

  • Who is doing the reading? What education and what age or ages?
  • What are conditions in terms of light, angle, reflection from the paper [or metal sign]?
  • Is the reading material quiet like a book or moving like a sign outside your car window as you speed by?
  • Is the material in UPPERCASE only, are the letters narrow or broad?
  • Does the font have serifs or not [BIG debate, totally conflicted answers; oh, serif fonts have those little feet and are considered by some to “old fashioned” while this post is written in “modern” sans serif].
  • What is the impact of the thickness or weight of the type face?
  • What fonts are better for distance viewing [road or airport signage]?
  • What is the impact of the spacing between the letters in a word, between the words themselves?
  • What is the impact of the length of the line of type you are reading and do serifs or “leaning letters” better guide your eye in its left-to-journey across the page?

These are all topics that Sofie discusses, some briefly and some in detail. There is plenty of detail, but not too much in all 178 pages of text. Thankfully, she includes 200 figures — not crammed in but gracefully presented — so that her descriptions are all faithfully illustrated. This is a book that you both read and feel. It’s filled with history and insights. And questions.

Sophie’s many examples can answer this fundamental question: if we have been playing with fonts for 700 years, what’s been going on, why isn’t it settled?

It turns out that creating fonts is a lot like creating a meal. There just are too many combinations of ingredients. Consider the lower case “f” which has been debated for the whole 700 years. My “f” here is tall and thin with a short crossbar that is flat. I like it. Others would not. Others would demand that it be thicker, or even thinner, or taller, or shorter. And the crossbar should be longer or angled or have brackets at one end or both.

You think the fight ends at the letter level? Oh, no, Sophie a charming interlude about the letters “c” and “e” that would probably have escaped your eye. You see how the end of the “c” and “e” are the same at the bottom in my font here? Well, in Futura — a very famous font that you probably see several times a week — that final ending is different. Why? Well, you should buy the book, but I will say it is because of scientific consideration about the relative likelihood of certain letter combinations. In German.

The lesson of Sophie’s fine book is this: centuries of thoughtful consideration and debate have shaped what you see on the page [and now on the screen]. Font designers have even created different designs for alternative combinations of ink and paper, because the freshly printed page behaves differently as it dries depending on the quality of ink and the quality of paper. You know the difference between newsprint and glossy. People strive to understand those differences and use them to make it easier for you to read.

So, the next time you are considering buying a cookbook, I have recommendation. Take it over to the Starbucks [or other beverage] counter, sit, sip, and read. See if that type, that spacing, work for you.

If you are a cookbook author, you now have a second set of tests you might want to consider with your publisher. You need to test your recipes, of course. But now, you might want to test the way the book is planned to be published. Does the design, does the typeface work.

And, to complicate things, does the design work for your for your specific audience. Society’s ability to read is, in part, influenced by familiarity. If you look at printed material from a hundred or two hundred years ago, it’s not quite as smooth to the eye as contemporary fonts. And if from the past readers could look at our printed material, they would complain about its abruptness.

Generational differences do matter. Suzen and I were in a restaurant last week with a big extended family: 5 adults and 8 kids. All the kids had iPads and all were engaged in one simultaneous game of Minecraft. Suzen smiled at me, and I knew we instantly had the same thought. Thirty years from now, when they are grown and married, how will these kids with their 90-second attention spans prepare their family’s Thanksgiving feast? What kind of cookbook are they going to need? How must that book be designed?

Sophie has a lot of research to do.

Reading Letters is published by BIS [http://www.bispublishers.nl/index.php]. You should visit the website for a peek at their outstanding catalog of books. If you are a creative professional, then BIS has works very worthy of your attention.

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