Do Ugly Fonts Improve Reading Comprehension?

We performed our own little experiment to see if typefaces affect reading comprehension.

We performed our own little experiment to see if typefaces affect reading comprehension.

In news designers won’t want to hear, the widely mocked and loathed typeface Comic Sans may actually be better at conveying the content of a text than more ‘readable’ typefaces including Arial and Bodoni.

In research published in the journal Cognition (PDF link), final-year Princeton University psychology student Connor Diemand-Yauman, together with his supervisor Daniel Oppenheimer and PhD candidate Erikka Vaughan, asked people aged between 18 and 40 to read about extraterrestrials for 90 seconds.

Those who read about the aliens in 16-point Arial Black could correctly recall the information 72.8 per cent of the time. But participants who reviewed the material in 12-point Comic Sans MS, or Bodoni MT in a lighter shade, could recall 86.5 percent of it.

These results were reinforced by the team’s second study, in which 222 randomly chosen Ohio high school students had their regular class notes reformatted in Haettenschweiler, Monotype Corsiva or Comic Sans Italicized. They consistently did better on their regular classroom assessments than students whose notes were in Times New Roman or Arial.

Underpinning these findings is the theory of disfluency: that making a text more difficult to read forces the reader to concentrate more carefully on learning the material.

Disfluency is counterintuitive to our commonly held belief that it’s important to make text as readable as possible. But Diemand-Yauman et al’s research showed that hard-to-read information is better retained. Are we doomed to learn our most lasting life lessons from those crazy chain emails our mums are constantly forwarding?

And what does this mean for typographers, who’ve long held that good visual communication is about readability? In 1999, Stuart Gluth of the University of South Australia designed the typeface Roxane for maximum readability, and minimum putting on of red lights. It comes out looking rather like Frutiger, the typeface created in 1975 by Swiss designer Adrian Frutiger for the signage at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.

Frutiger himself has some thoughts on legibility. “Human feelings are highly unpredictable,” he writes. “For this reason, longer passages of text should not appear too peculiar and thereby provoke a feeling of resistance in the reader – for the real purpose of a font is nothing more or less than to be a quiet conveyor of human thoughts.”

However, neuroscience writer and Wired contributor Jonah Lehrer argues that too much crisp text will make our brains lazy.

“I do worry that it will become so easy for the brain to read on an e-reader that we may actually start to see a decrease in what we remember and take away from a book,” Lehrer told ABC Radio National.

Is the increased knowledge gained from a text worth the aesthetic affront of having to read it all in Curlz MT or Brush Script? Still, we are almost tempted to test disfluency out by downloading the world’s worst font.

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  1. Natasha says:

    Disfluency makes a lot of sense. I also wonder whether there’s a novelty factor – ie we attend more to fonts that we are less used to reading (whether because they are unpopular due to ‘ugliness’ or are obscure for some other reason), simply because they are novel. So if much of what we read was in comic sans, maybe we’d be more attuned to calibri when we were presented with it?

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