What’s in a font? How typography can help us read better

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Earlier this month, anyone using Twitter would have noticed a sudden change in their appearance.

A new policy – Chirp – has been deployed with immediate effect. All tweets were now displayed in this new font, which promised to be gentler on the brain and easier to read.

Since then, arguments have raged over whether that promise has been honored. A lot of people don’t like it, and Twitter has even committed to tweaking the overhaul after users complained of headaches.

But in the world of typefaces, we might not always know what’s best for us. We may like the look of some fonts, but it’s not just about the aesthetics. Even fonts we don’t like might help us gather more information.

“The purpose of typography is to help understanding,” says Thomas Jockin, a type designer in New York City. “This understanding is incredibly complicated. There are several layers built on top of basic decoding and we still don’t have a full understanding of how it all plays out together. “

Chirp boasted of sharper, higher contrast text which, at least in theory, should have made it more accessible and read faster. But the complaints came thick and quick.

There is some annoyance with any design change implemented by online services, as noted by font designer Fredrick Brennan in an interview with Slate Last week.

“When people say they find the new letters more difficult to read than before, my first guess would be that it’s only because they’re so used to seeing Twitter’s previous default font,” he said. -he declares. “The human brain is flexible enough to learn to read any type of script. When you try to present it with a different design, it will find it difficult. “

But for some people, the problems seemed more serious.

“This font is hard to read, the letters and numbers all seem to get blurry, it tires my eyes tremendously and I think the uneven height of the characters is giving me motion sickness,” one tweet read.

Police can obviously be confusing and disorienting. But, according to Jockin, they also have the power to improve readability. He developed a font designed to improve reading speeds, Lexend, which was added to Google’s suite in 2019. By removing serifs (curls or decorative lines) and adjusting spacing and focusing. ‘character scale, he hoped to improve understanding and retention of information. Studies have shown its effectiveness.

“Recently I started using Lexend to study my Spanish vocabulary list and increased my Spanish grade from D to B in just a few weeks,” said one student.

“The weight of the police is important,” Jockin explains. “It can’t be too bold, but more often than not the problem is that they’re too light. If your font is too close together, it can cause disfluence. And the height of x – the positional relationship between lowercase and uppercase letters – is usually the property you need to look at the most. But the point is, it’s not one size fits all.

To this end, Lexend has been designed in a range of widths, so that everyone can have a Lexend font to suit them.

Businesses want to create a very clear experience, and typography is part of the equation. Sometimes it’s a license. Sometimes a business needs to go global and switch to a font that supports the necessary language

Thomas Jockin, character designer

Other designers have also worked to improve readability. Dyslexia, by designer Christian Boer, was unveiled in 2018 to target exchange or mirroring errors experienced by people with dyslexia. JetBrains Mono, a font for software developers, appeared in 2020, with elongated characters and a greater distinction between the number 1, upper case and lower case L.

Last year also marked the launch of Atkinson Hyperlisible, named after the founder of the Braille Institute. He introduced a greater distinction between letters of similar appearance to improve readability. In doing so, he broke certain rules; designers believed that if a font looked too harmonious, it could make it more difficult to read.

Chirp also broke some of those rules (“he balances messy and neat,” Twitter said) and the reaction has shown how confident we are with what the words we read look like.

However, a 2019 study found that if we were more open-minded, we could read faster. Title The right changes to the text format have a big impact on reading speedIts author, Shaun Wallace of Brown University, found that while 73 percent of participants thought their favorite font would work the most for them, it didn’t. The average reader could speed up their reading by 38 words per minute simply by adjusting the font to whatever suits them best.

“This points to a future in which machines help adult readers reach their full reading potential,” the study concludes.

Does this happen? The fonts are certainly changing. The ancient warhorses of Helvetica and Futura have recently been updated. Microsoft is introducing a new default in its Office suite next year to replace Calibri, which has been in place since 2007. In recent years, companies have switched to in-house fonts for their products including Apple (San Francisco), Intel ( Clear), Google Play Books (Literata) and Amazon Kindle (Bookerly). But the reasons for such changes are not always altruistic.

“Sometimes it’s the brand and the positioning,” Jockin explains. “They want to create a very clear experience, and typography is part of the equation. Sometimes it’s a license. Sometimes a business has to go global and move to a font that has the language support it needs.”

Since our favorite font and our easiest to read font are personal to each of us, Chirp was always going to have a hard time when imposed on Twitter users.

“A single font is the prevailing model for typography,” Jockin says, noting that there is not yet an effective way to determine which font might be best for each reader. His current company, Readable Technologies, is working on it, building a system that takes precise measurements of reading behavior from a webcam.

Until that emerges, we’ll just have to put up with Chirp and all the other fonts imposed on us. And who knows, we might even get used to it.

Update: Aug 23, 2021, 6:56 a.m.


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