The Science of Typography
Readability Matters had the pleasure of talking to the internationally renowned typography researcher, Dr. Sofie Beier. Sofie has authored several books and numerous scholarly articles on typography and legibility. She is professor WSR at the School of Design under The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where she is head of the Centre for Visibility Design. Her research focuses on how different typefaces and letter shapes can influence the way individuals read.
Sofie was a principal researcher on an inter-disciplinary team chartered to look at how typography influences comprehension in children. She joined Dr. Shannon Sheppard (cognitive science) and Dr. Susanne Nobles (education) in a study of K-8 students. (Sofie and Shannon will join Dr. Zoya Bylinskii (Adobe Research) at Adobe Max to share the exciting results. See link below.)
We loved your 2009 observation, “By combining the craftsmen’s knowledge of designing with the methods of experimental research, the project takes a new step forward towards a better understanding of how different typefaces can influence the reading process.” Tell us more about your work in the science of typography.
Scientists and graphic designers both have an interest in the legibility of typography. Scientists, generally from the field of psychology, conduct research on reading and the impact of typographical factors. Historically, graphic designers have studied what is best for the population. In the history of design, there are many examples of designers proposing an ‘ideal typeface.’ The fact is that there is no optimal typeface style. A thorough literature review shows that typeface legibility varies significantly depending on the reading situation.
My focus is to bring these two interests together — science and design — to build the science of typography. At the Royal Danish Academy, our team combines methods from psychophysics with typographical design to study typeface legibility. And, I have had the opportunity to join researchers from industry and other universities.
This month at Adobe Max, you will be presenting your most recent readability research. You all have made some exciting discoveries on the effect of typography on the reading comprehension of children. Tell us more about the research design and what you and your colleagues were hoping to learn.
For this study, we are interested in investigating the effect of typography particularly on reading comprehension in students learning to read and reading to learn. Many previous reading studies investigated the effect of typography on reading speed. But we know that faster speed does not always equate to better comprehension. In fact, better comprehension is often associated with slower reading speed.
Our goal was to investigate how visual features of typography affect word-level and passage-level comprehension in children from ages 5 to 14. Earlier studies did not look at individual differences between participants; rather, the focus was on better performance for the majority of participants. We wanted to evaluate comprehension differences for the individual.
The results were very promising demonstrating significant improvement in both speed and accuracy. Tell us more about the text format variables that you tested and the results.
The study design used the sans-serif variable font Roboto Flex. We altered two typographic variables — letter spacing and letter width — creating six text formats. We selected letter spacing as one parameter, as some children with dyslexia have been shown to benefit from additional spacing. We also varied letter width; my previous work has demonstrated width is important in making the letters more visible to the reader.
The study included students in grades kindergarten through grade 8; speed and comprehension changes were measured. What is interesting is that students experienced an average gain of as much as 20% in their reading outcomes when reading with their best font style, and that very subtle changes to text format created meaningful changes in speed and comprehension.
As a researcher and designer, what is most interesting about the results?
What is fascinating is how small the changes are between our test formats. Except for the most extreme test format, both the width and spacing formats belong within standard settings used by type designers. By testing with a single font (rather than across multiple fonts) we can isolate the importance of the width and spacing variables. Relatively subtle alterations to the font created meaningful results for the students; personalization matters.
Why should designers follow this work?
I view this as a potential paradigm shift in how we think about laying out text. Today it is still the norm to direct the design at specific target audiences of readers. Imagine the possibilities of your design becoming a dynamic set of components that can adjust the text setting. Imagine if a computer could adjust text according to a measure of the individual’s reading performance. To me, these possibilities are very exciting and can potentially be the biggest support for better reading since the invention of printing.
Tell us about your latest book, Type Tricks: Layout Design.
This is the follow-up to Type Tricks Your Personal Guide to Type Design and is the second book in the trilogy of user manuals about typography-related matters. The first book was about type design. This second book is about type layout. It covers both key typography rules as well as the underlying structure of the working process in layout design. I am excited to include a collection of more than 200 tips for creating readable layouts and typography settings. My third and final book will be based on my own research findings, focusing on type usability.
What’s next, Sofie?
I look forward to continuing my teaching and academic research. The design field has important contributions to make in the development of better reading practices. Beyond children, I am also interested in reading impacts on older adults and specialized populations.
Be sure to see Sofie’s talk at Adobe Max
One Font Doesn’t Fit All: Type Design and Comprehension
Wednesday, Oct 27 11:30 AM – 12:00 PM EDT
Wednesday, Oct 27 1:00 PM – 1:30 PM EDT
Zoya Bylinskii, Ph D. Research Scientist, Adobe
Dr. Shannon Sheppard, Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Chapman University
Dr. Sofie Beier, Professor WSR, Head of Centre for Visibility Design, Royal Danish Academy
An innovative interdisciplinary research team recently challenged conventional wisdom by studying how type changes can impact students’ speed of reading comprehension. Explore how type customization matters. Register here.
About Sofie Beier, Professor WSR, Head of Centre for Visibility Design, Royal Danish Academy: Graphic designer and professor WSR Sofie Beier is employed at the Royal Danish Academy, where she is the head of Centre for Visibility Design. She is the author of the books ‘Type Tricks: Layout design’ (2021), ‘Type Tricks: Your personal guide to type design’ (2017), and ‘Reading Letters: designing for legibility’ (2012). She has further published numerous academic papers on typeface legibility. Her research is focused on improving the reading experience by achieving a better understanding of how different typefaces and letter shapes can influence the way we read. Sofie Beier is further co-founder of the analysis institute Typ, which provides services within typeface legibility and readability testing.
For a list of Dr. Beier’s publications, please see: https://adk.elsevierpure.com/en/persons/sofie-beier