Comprehension

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit  a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

This text circulated on the internet in September 2003 and has been passed along many times. In the way of most internet memes it has mutated along the way. The statement has been analysed by many linguists and semioticians, and as it turns out, there are many words and phrases that do not fit this model. Reading jumbled words is always problematic, and the example contains specific words that would otherwise form new words if assembled differently.

What are the limits of letterform distortion?

But what happens when the letterforms themselves are scrambled or distorted? There have been studies to determine readability when the ascenders and descenders of letters are eliminated, but where are the limits for how much of a letter needs to display to retain a recognizable symbol?

For one thing, there needs to be a clear distinction between similar characters so they are not confused. The letter a, e and o are an obvious example. Other characters contain shapes that are distinctive to the letter itself, such as the tail on the capital Q. Indeed, there are so many variables in the context of individual letters and the possibilities of each interaction that a study of letterform legibility limits is daunting.

A single area of contention that has been argued for decades is the readability of serif versus sans serif typefaces. At first, it was found that the serifs on serif letterforms helped to guide the eyes along, and the intricate differences between symbols helped to distinguish each character and increase readability. With the advent of computer screens, however, it turns out that sans serif typefaces such as Arial and Comic Sans retain superior legibility at smaller sizes, because the thicks and thins of a serif font do not display well on screens.

Finally, in relation to comprehension and letterform distortions, Jonah Lehrer at wired.com suggests that ugly, irregular fonts can boost the amount of information readers retain from a text, while easy-to-read type is more likely to be ignored. We seem to be at a strange crossroad in typefaces and design, where on one side we are approaching a monotonous homogenized alphabet that will display perfectly on screens, and a distortion of the symbols in order to draw attention to the statements themselves.

 

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Chris Bird is a designer for print and web specializing in the development of marketing materials for a varied spectrum of clients. He currently resides in Santa Rosa, California. His music website is at www.studio1057.com and his painting and fine arts website is located at cbird167.weebly.com