We’ve all heard of typography geeks. The ligature junkies who have tantrums over improperly used em dashes and refuse to eat at a new restaurant because the menu is printed in Comic Sans. But despite the fanatical reputation these outspoken champions of kerning have earned for themselves, they do have excellent reasons to be so passionate about the printed word.
The fact is, bad typography is jarring, and it strips content of its luster and professionalism faster than you can flip to the next page to get away from it. It also exists everywhere, and sadly we see it all the time. Fortunately, established rules do exist to prevent such disasters, and they’re more rooted in cognitive psychology than you might expect.
The tenets below globally apply to the most gorgeous multimedia websites as well as the most simplistic of PowerPoint presentations and are sure to immediately improve the look and feel of the written content you produce and distribute each and every day.
A starting point: We. Do. Not. Read. Things. One. Word. At. A. Time.
When we encounter type, our eyes travel in a specific pattern as our minds work to decipher the written information. Though it might feel like a smooth process, the act of reading actually isn’t a perfectly smooth path. It involves a series of quick scans (saccades) and brief pauses (fixations) as your eye travels from line to line.
Here’s what a typical scan path looks like.
This is very important to be aware of, as this principle has a tremendous impact on how much (or how little) we enjoy and understand what we’re reading, even if it doesn’t jump out as the most obvious reason. Think of it like taking a leisurely stroll where you stop now and again to smell some flowers or appreciate the view. If the pace is comfortable and the weather is nice, you’ll enjoy yourself and be more likely to remember the experience as a positive one later.
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Now, let’s take a look at some ways we can use this information to create more visually appealing written content.
The length of a line is a beautiful thing
Because we read by following a path that includes both periods of movement and periods of rest, it stands to reason that the length of the journey impacts how we perceive it. Sure enough, it has been demonstrated that if the line length is of appropriate measure, text becomes easier to understand, is retained more efficiently and leaves the reader feeling more receptive and even more relaxed.
When line length is too short, it feels like we’re stuttering as we scan from the start of one line to the next. When line length is too long, it can create strain by overextending the path of the eye. The ideal line length has been shown to sit around 50-75 characters, so keep that in mind while you’re sizing your text.
We literally read between the lines
Just as the mechanics of eye motion apply when determining line length, it’s important to note that the spacing between lines has an equally significant impact for the same reasons.
When the space between lines is too cramped, it’s difficult for your eye to follow. This creates a “doubling back” effect, where your eye jumps back and forth repeatedly, struggling to orient itself and stay on course.
When the lines are spread too far apart, the opposite occurs, and words start to drift away from each other, causing the reader to experience a disconnect as they scan horizontally from line to line.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect line height, and it will vary based on a number of factors. But a fairly reliable rule of thumb is to keep it around 150 percent of the font size so that a 16-point font will have approximately 24 points of spacing between each line.
To caps lock or not to caps lock
Studies show that we readily identify words by the way they are shaped. When we look at a block of text, the letters have a familiar contour which is noticed and subsequently recognized by our brain as a word.
A block of type spelled out in all caps creates a solid rectangle shape. This is a problem because it removes those visual cues given to us by the ascenders and descenders of lowercase letters. Without those visual triggers, type becomes more taxing to read, and it can also cause the copy to appear abrasive because it’s not being very kind to our eyes.
Consider the examples above. It’s not difficult to tell which one feels like someone is screaming at you for attention and which feels like someone is pointing out an important item they want you to notice. Shouting typically doesn’t feel very comfortable to us when it’s audible and it doesn’t feel comfortable when it’s visual either.
Again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. But by and large, all caps is usually best to avoid if you can. It’s more effective to emphasize something using color, size or styling.
I hope you’ll give these simple tips a try the next time you’re writing up content, because I’m sure you’ll love the results.