How We Read
I want you to think about what you’re doing right now. I mean really think about it. As your eyes move across these lines and funnel information to your brain, you’re taking part in a conversation I started with you. The conveyance of that conversation is the type you’re reading on this page, but you’re also filtering it through your experiences and past conversations. You’re putting these words into context. And whether you’re reading this book on paper, on a device, or at your desk, your environment shapes your experience too. Someone else reading these words may go through the same motions.
This is the most interesting thing about typography: it’s a chain reaction of time and place with you as the catalyst. The intention of a text depends on its presentation, but it needs you to give it meaning through reading.
Type and typography wouldn’t exist without our need to express and record information. Sure, we have other ways to do those things, like speech or imagery, but type is efficient, flexible, portable, and translatable.
This is what makes typography not only an art of communication, but one of nuance and craft, because like all communication, its value falls somewhere on a spectrum between success and failure.
Just because something is legible doesn’t mean it’s readable. Legibility means that text can be interpreted, but that’s like saying tree bark is edible. We’re aiming higher. Readability combines the emotional impact of a design (or lack thereof ) with the amount of effort it presumably takes to read. You’ve heard of TL;DR (too long; didn’t read)? Length isn’t the only detractor to reading; poor typography is one too.
- Television Production
- Sound Recording
- Graphic design
- User Experience design
- Search Engine Optimization
Each decision you make could potentially hamper a reader’s understanding, causing them to bail and update their Facebook status instead. Don’t let your design deter your readers or stand in the way of what they want to do: read. Once we bring readers in, what else can we do to keep their attention and help them understand our writing? Let’s take a brief look at what the reading experience is like and how design influences it.
The act of reading
When I first started designing websites, I assumed everyone read my work the same way I did. I spent countless hours crafting the right layout and type arrangements. I saw the work as a collection of the typographic considerations I made: the lovingly set headlines, the ample whitespace, the typographic rhythm. I assumed everyone would see that too. It’s appealing to think that’s the case, but reading is a much more nuanced experience.
Reading is not only informed by what’s going on with us at that moment, but also governed by how our eyes and brains work to process information. What you see and what you’re experiencing as you read these words is quite different.
As our eyes move across the text, our minds gobble up the type’s texture—the sum of the positive and negative spaces inside and around letters and words. We don’t linger on those spaces and details; instead, our brains do the heavy lifting of parsing the text and assembling a mental picture of what we’re reading. Our eyes see the type and our brains see Don Quixote chasing a windmill. Or, at least, that’s what we hope. This is the ideal scenario, but it depends on our design choices. Have you ever been completely absorbed in a book and lost in the passing pages?