Darn Fonts: How Arial Can Mess You Up
Fonts are tricky things. The wrong one can make your reading experience a misery, and even mean that you misread words. In Times New Roman, Darn can read like dam. In Tahoma, clutch can read like dutch. This article offers a light-hearted look at fonts, how we abuse them and how they can affect our reading speed and understanding. There are some great tips included.
Those darn fonts can be hard to get right! We spend more time reading at work than almost anything else, so you'd imagine we'd have got it right by now. Unfortunately not: the fonts and font sizes we use often conspire against us. They slow our reading and occasionally make us seem like fools.
"Darn." That is very different to "dam". Yet in Times New Roman, a default font, the r and the n actually touch, creating what looks like an m. A yarn can become a yam, etc. A diplomatic incident was averted when someone pointed out that "the stupid dutch" was in fact written as "the stupid clutch"... but in Tahoma, font size 12, c l looks very like a d. There are lots of examples. Would you prefer to be "torn in two ways" or "tom in two ways"? Or have a clue or a due?
Font choice is critical for ease of reading. With the right font choice you will read faster, with less eyestrain and greater concentration. Studies at ReadPal show that optimal formatting can double people's reading speed. Yet people still write digital articles in Times New Roman. Presumably, this is because Microsoft has (criminally!) used this as a default font in their templates. Times New Roman reads very well when printed, but on-screen the little tails it adds to letters (known as serifs) are clunky and indistinct. No wonder we print out documents just to read them. So, if you are sending an article, please use Tahoma, Verdana or even Arial; they are far superior on-screen and perform just as well when printed. With the proper font choices we could save many a forest from being made into paper. A serif font can look classier when printed - but use Garamond instead.
Font choice is especially important at small sizes. If you wish to condense a document you can diminish the font size or choose a font that takes up less space. For example, you are printing out a book and you want a serif font, as they look more intellectual. However, you want to conserve the number of pages. Instead of reducing the font size of Times New Roman or Garamond, making them illegible, choose Perpetua instead. Some fonts come in "condensed" forms (such as Arial, which is a free font); these have a similar height and overall shape but are thinner. In some circumstances they can work well.
Anti-aliasing is a smoothing technique that makes characters look crisper on-screen. It is very helpful but doesn't always work well, or sometimes at all, when the letter is just one pixel thick on your screen. So knowing the transition size from one to two pixels is important. In Tahoma this typically happens at font size 12, with a normal screen. Below this the on-screen reading experience will be poor. Century Gothic and Courier are worse again. They are to be avoided unless you are making a B science-fiction film.
There are a lot of playful things you can do with fonts, (even free fonts). It amazes me how the spammers have not copped onto this. Instead of sending words filled with asterisks, they could, with a little ingenuity, send properly written words that would just be read the "wrong" way. For instance, sex is flagged by most anti-spamming software. Instead of se!*!!, they could just write se>< in the Garamond font. The greater than and less than signs actually kiss in the middle forming a perfect "X". Note to anti-spammer software writers: there are only about 162 useful font-size-letter combinations so you will be easily able to filter these should they popularise!
So, to se>< up your life and for fast, efficient reading, choose your font carefully.
Louis Crowe is a doctor, inventor and co-founder of ReadPal. ReadPal was started because of the frustration of reading on-screen. ReadPal takes the web page, email or Word document you are reading and, with a single click, re-presents the text in the best font, size and colour for you. The full screen mode eliminates glare. Go to www.ReadPal.comfor more information.