Reflected Knowledge Consulting: Maintaining the integrity of design in a digital world

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Maintaining the integrity of design in a digital world (under construction)



A version of this essay originally appeared in eContent, January/February 2008

What is the role of real typographic design in knowledge work and content management?

By Steve Barth

The essence of the New Typography is clarity. This puts it into deliberate opposition to the old typography whose aim was ‘beauty’ and whose clarity did not attain the high level we require today. This utmost clarity is necessary today because of the manifold claims for our attention made by the extraordinary amount of print, which demands the greatest economy of expression.

Jan Tschichold: The New Typography (1928)

Typography 101: Fonts Matter

The description of Typography 101 in the course catalogue says it all: “Good typography can improve comprehension by up to 500 per cent… bad typography can render even the most beautifully written message incomprehensible.”

Ozcan Tekson, the Toronto graphic designer who now teaches the course at the Humber College Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning, is pretty sure the figure is an exaggeration, but he also is sure that typography “definitely and significantly enhances comprehension.”

Typography is the way that characters are shaped and arranged in to the phrases, statements, ideas and information that someone wants to convey to others. Graphic design changes the absorption properties of the meaning to be derived from the message. In modern parlance, Tekson says, those are choices about fonts, letter spacing, word spacing, line spacing and other proportions of graphic design.

Even before the invention of the printing press—or even writing for that matter—knowledge was transmitted through rich media in terms of stories, songs and performances. The ancient proportions behind our expectations for graphic design derive from those traditions and carry through on both the modern page and modern screen.

Tekson defines nine major criteria of layout: balance, dominance, contrast, space, flow, movement, proportion, composition, and coherence. “This is the visual storyteller of the layout,” he explains. “These criteria have been consciously used for thousands of years by Egyptians, Greeks, Renaissance artist, modern architects, sculpture artists or painters. Even, most of the norms we use today, such as European A4 or American Letter paper sizes stem from this heritage. Sometimes we like things, but we don't know why we like them. The answer is mostly embedded in fulfillment of these norms.”

Today typography comes into play whenever language is displayed: on paper, on the screen, in advertising or signage. For instance, Tekson points to studies made by highway workers to maximize the legibility of traffic signs. They search the maximum levels of perception by changing the typographic variables for effectiveness against driving factors such weather conditions, speed or distance.

Think fonts don’t matter?

In 2002, an air traffic controller at a brand new, £623m control center in the UK directed a flight bound for Glasgow, Scotland to Cardiff, Wales after misreading the computer screen. The text displayed was so small that it was difficult to distinguish between the location codes EGPF (Glasgow) and EGFF (Cardiff), according to confidential documents obtained by a computer magazine and cited by the BBC According to a news item carried by the BBC.

Controllers at the Swanwick, Hampshire, control center also were misreading altitudes of some aircraft on their screens—for example, “FL300” instead of “FL360.”

That’s the difference between 30,000 and 36,000 feet.

Screens blamed for air blunders” BBC, May 23, 2002


Best Practices

The art, science and craft of typography are thousands of years old. Today, more than 550 years after Gutenberg, anybody with a PC can self-publish and anyone with a Web connection can be read by millions. But somewhere in the democratization of the displayed word, many of the traditional lessons of message and meaning have been forgotten. Documents have become digital and/or disposable things, and their authors neglect the ways that typography, layout and editing mediate what we learn from and what we do with the information and ideas that we read on a page or screen.

There are two significant trends at work: On one hand, “printed” information is increasingly read on the screen instead of on the page; on the other, the “printing” is increasingly done by a knowledge worker rather than a graphic artist, in terms of both design and production.

Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, complained in an article, “Cold Eye: Big Science,” originally published in Print magazine in 2003 that there is almost a century of scientific research in various fields testing “typographic efficiency”—all of which seems to be ignored by many graphic designers practicing today, and is certainly ignored by the average knowledge worker churning out documents and data. It is definitely ignored by too many of the people designing websites, software interfaces and longer PDF documents posted for downloading.

Cognitive psychologists, information designers, human-computer interaction researchers and other investigators study elements of typography against such measures such as word recognition, legibility, readability and comprehension. Lupton notes that the findings of this research break down into two ultimate evaluations. First, legibility rates how easy or difficult it is to recognize words and letters. More importantly, readability is an evaluation of how easy it is to understand the text. Readability is objectively measured as the combination of reading speed and comprehension.

Obviously, language and writing skill have a lot to do with readability in terms of prose. But in a world of structured and unstructured data and information, typography’s visual language is more and more important in terms of readability. In the language of knowledge management, it might be argued, comprehension is the key to turning data and information into knowledge to support learning, innovation and decisions. Meanwhile, maintaining comprehension without sacrificing reading speed may be a key to productivity in modern information-intensive enterprise.

The traditional best practices of legibility and readability, though still subject to debate, are that fonts are more legible when they use serifs—the little strokes and flourishes on a character—compared to sans serif fonts. Consider two popular fonts: Times has serifs; Helvetica does not.

Reading speed also improves when proportions of type size to line spacing are set at 120% or above, but line length also plays a part in this equation. And although most people tend to assume that fully justified text blocks look more professional, the average word processing program leaves such uneven gaps from line to line that “ragged” left justified text is less confusing. (Experts say the "ragged" look provides visual interest to the page, but it might also provide a topography the eye can use is to keep track of where it is on the page.)

Pleading a Case

Consider an example of how important typography is in one knowledge worker profession: the law.

The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which has jurisdiction over parts of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, includes in its “Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure” specifications for formatting submitted documents, including paper size, line spacing, and margins, typeface and type styles to make documents more readable. The Seventh Circuit published Requirements and Suggestions for Typography in Briefs as guidelines in order to assist attorneys’ compliance for producing and presenting briefs, motions, appendices, and other papers to the judges. The guidelines, and those of other courts, cover basics such as preferred fonts (serif book fonts), headings (complementary sans serifs), white space (50%), justification (left) and emphasis (avoid underlining or all-caps).

Judges of this court hear six cases on most argument days and nine cases on others. The briefs, opinions of the district courts, essential parts of the appendices, and other required reading add up to about 1,000 pages per argument session. Reading that much is a chore; remembering it is even harder. You can improve your chances by making your briefs typographically superior. It won’t make your arguments better, but it will ensure that judges grasp and retain your points with less struggle. That’s a valuable advantage, which you should seize.

Raymond Ward, an appellate lawyer in New Orleans who writes “the (new) legal writer” blog covering topics related to effective written communication in the legal profession, concedes: “Lawyers can learn a thing or two (or three) from other disciplines about document design. Most lawyers pay only as much attention to that as they need to for compliance with court rules.”

Courthouse guidelines also point out that if an attorney wants the judge to be comfortable reading their arguments, they should compare their documents more to books than to newspapers. This means that they should rely on fonts designed for books, such as Century, rather than fonts originally to fit the maximum number of words into a newspaper column, such as Times.

From Book to Screen

Knowledge workers get more and more of their information and ideas from the computer monitor instead of from printed material (or from face-to-face conversations if you include the various forms of messaging).

“On-screen typography is far from being an exact science, but just like its counterpart in meatspace it is intended to get someone with a limited attention span to grasp your message.” So argues Tomas Caspers, a freelance new media developer based in Cologne, Germany in an article “Typaaghrrphy” for Webpage Design for Designers. “Certain factors that can either improve or worsen the reader’s experience or success—factors that have been known for centuries and which are so basic that they apply to any medium, be it dead trees or CRTs.”

But Caspers points out that there is a significant difference in the attention span of a Web surfer who typically reads 10-20% slower on the screen than when reading on paper. “It becomes obvious that text has to be set very carefully when your paycheck depends on the user's understanding of this text.”

Many computer fonts are adaptations of traditional type designs that may be centuries old. But at a resolution of only 72 pixels per inch, the bit-mapped environment of a computer screen doesn’t have the subtlety to present most publishing fonts in their best light—resulting in fatigue for the reader. In general, Caspers recommends, screen gems need wider, more open shapes set in shorter lines with greater spacing (leading) between the lines.

For example, the updated old standby font, Times new Roman, isn't ideal either for screens or for most paper documents. Its ancestors were developed to maximize the number of words that would fit into a column on a newspaper page. Moreover, although serif fonts are generally believed to accelerate word recognition, Times serifs tend to fall off due to the bitmapped resolution of computer monitors. Compare the on-screen legibility of Times to Georgia and Verdana, two fonts designed specifically for on-screen legibility by typography icon Matthew Carter in 1996, which have become standards of Microsoft’s pre-installed font pack in Windows. (Carter was a cofounder of the digital type foundry Bitstream.) With Windows Vista, Microsoft released a host of newly designed screen-compatible fonts such as Cambria and Calibri.

In 2006, The New York Times adopted Georgia for its web site. Blog writers, too, have shown a preference for Georgia in templates for blogging applications such as Typepad. Unfortunately, most blog readers are using RSS aggregators, which are stripping out the intended formatting.


Using Usability Research

The Software Usability Research Laboratory in the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Laboratory of the Department of Psychology at Wichita State University provides usability research, design, and testing to corporations ranging from Microsoft to Cessna Aircraft. The studied the effect of different fonts, line lengths, multiple columns, etc on reader perceptions and cognition.

For example, they studied how the chosen fonts change reader perceptions of the author and/or of the material. They concluded that typefaces can reinforce, conflict with, or leave perceptions unchanged. The fonts they used were Calibri, Comic Sans and Gigi. (Perhaps not surprisingly, people got low scores for knowledge, believability, maturity, professionalism, and trustworthiness when they used Gigi in their emails.)

Another SURL study, by J. Ryan Baker, illustrates how assumptions about printed page design translate into screen displays.  Tests of reading performance and satisfaction found:

ü  Longer line lengths generally facilitate faster reading speeds.

ü  Shorter line lengths result in increased comprehension.

ü  The optimal number of characters per line is between 45 and 65.

ü  Paging through online text generally results in better comprehension than scrolling.

ü  Reading speed is faster for both single and multiple columns, but preference is for multiple short columns.

ü  Left-justified text is read faster than full-justified text.

Another convention of professional publishing that never translated well, from professional publishing to either word processing or Web design is the use of full justification in text. Far from making a document look more businesslike... combined with insufficient line spacing... as soon as the spaces between words get bigger than the spaces between lines. Experts say the "ragged" look of left justified text provides visual interest to the page (but it might also provide a typography. The I use is to keep track of where it is on the page".

The old standby font, Times new Roman, isn't ideal, either for screens or documents. Its ancestors were developed to maximize the number of words that would fit into a column on a newspaper page. Moreover, although serif fonts are generally believed to accelerate word recognition, Times serifs tend to fall off due to the bitmapped resolution of computer monitors. By contrast, the seventh circuit court recommends fonts originally designed for book printing, such as century schoolbook. You can also compare the on-screen legibility of times to Georgia, Verdana were some of the other fonts. Microsoft recently released with Windows Vista

Put another way, while we all learned penmanship in grade school, maybe we should have learned little typography, too. So while the online environment has been catching up quite rapidly, we have to be careful not to design designers out of the process.

Steve Barth, an award-winning journalist for more than 30 years. was a founding editor of Knowledge Management magazine. He blogs at