MIX10: The Art, Science & Technology of Reading

by March 16, 2010

Kevin Larson’s The Art, Science & Technology of Reading presentation at Microsoft’s MIX10 conference highlighted research findings relevant to on-screen reading, legibility, and typography.

  • Type designers take the limitations of human perception into account in their type designs. Digital typography can do the same.
  • The typical computer screen is 100 dots/inch. But the printed page is 1,200 dots/inch.
  • ClearType uses red, green, and blue sub-pixels to render smoother fonts on computer screens. The human eye integrates these sub-pixels into a clear image.
  • ClearType Subpixel Spacing: will be used in IE9 for pages written in Web standards. It uses subpixel widths instead of compatible widths to get the spacing in between letters correct. This results in more legible text on screen.
  • Many people complain about eye fatigue when reading from the screen. But what causes it?
  • The human eye can’t tell the difference between a backlit display and sunlight/natural room light. So looking at something tha is backlit is not the problem. The amount of light coming from a backlit screen, however, can cause problems if it is stronger than the room ligth. These two sources of light need to be equal. This is what e-ink provides.
  • The muscles behind your eye are not the ones that become fatigued when you read from the screen. It’s the large muscle around your eye that is involved in squinting and blinking and becomes fatigued. Glare and refractive errors cause lots of fatigue. The strain can be improved by squinting.
  • Non-optimal text also causes eye fatigue (text too small or contrast too low). 12point and stronger contrast is better for extended reading.
  • In normal conversation, people blink rate is 30 times a minute. But blink rate drops tremendously when reading. If you blink, you need to re-read what you just read.
  • We do not recognize words based on shape. We actually recognize all the letters and build them into words. So legibility actually boils down to how legible each letter is.
  • Verdana has the highest legibility score (can be read at the smallest size). Bodoni has the lowest score (cannot be read at a small size). Helvetica is in between. Same data in print and on screen.
  • The difference between serif and sans serif is not legibility.
  • We want different fonts not because they are maximally legible but because they are appropriate for different occasions.
  • People are faster reading text when the personality matches the text of the font. When the message and font are more congruent with each other, people process text faster. When the message and font are incongruent, people process text slower.
  • Sans-serif fonts are more: youthful casual, passive. Serif fonts are more: mature, formal, assertive.
  • In research good page layout and typography practices (ligatures, small caps, kerning, etc.) did not show impact on reading speed, comprehension, and preference. So what value does good typography have?
  • People perform better on cognitive tests after reading with good typography. People frown less when reading with good typography. Less corrugator muscle activity. So there are cognitive benefits for good page layout. A well-designed page is more likely to be impactful.