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Legibility panel

In a two-part interview, the first of a series of conversations looking at the importance of legibility and readability for both branding, audience experience and workflow, Brand Perfect brought together multi-award winning design copywriter Mike ReedAlix Land, a graphic designer with Nature Publishing Group, and type designer Dan Rhatigan of Monotype.

The conversation started by reviewing some examples Alix had brought along illustrating why legibility can be such an important issue in brand communications. Alix’s first example was a recent London edition of the Yellow Pages, which, for anyone unfamiliar with it, is a commercial services directory.

Alix Land: This isn’t great to read. The text isn’t very crisp, so you lose contrast between the print and the paper.

Dan Rhatigan: That’s not a great choice of font. I think it’s Univers Condensed. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a typeface called Bell Centennial? It was created specifically for phone books.

Mike Reed: I thought that’s what the Yellow Pages was set in. I remember it working really well, but the format’s changed as this is smaller than the book used to be.

DR: But the type is probably about the same size.

AL: It just isn’t designed to work at that size.

DR: Precisely. The Yellow Pages, like any other publication, will choose typefaces as part of their brand, but telephone listings, even more than newspapers, really need their type to be fit for purpose.

MR: But what kind of brand purpose is it solving, because the type on the cover and the logotype are set in something completely different. It’s an odd choice, isn’t it?

DR: It’s an interesting example of why legibility is such a crucial issue. There’s a whole batch of stuff in the mid-range where it’s not a big deal; it just helps, whether or not people realise it, but here you can see things fail. We [Monotype] commissioned a research study for the airline industry that showed how changing the typefaces used in flight manuals made a vast difference to how easily information could be located on those flight maps.

AL: So that’s a bad example. Here’s a good one. The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. When you read it, it’s just easy to read. I can get tired when reading for any length of time, but this was a really comfortable experience.

DR: It is so much about what it is exemplifying. It’s a lovely book to read. It’s surprising to think you can read it casually, like a novel, given the subject matter.



There’s a convention that an optimum line width is about one and a half to two alphabets wide. But the relationship between the different elements on the page is key: the overall page width, the space between lines, the size of the type on the page… That traditional reading format is a convention that’s been refined through centuries of book publishing. A lot of discussions about publishing on screen often go back to: Is that convention one that should be or ought to be challenged…? Is it habit, or is there some real meat to that kind of line length? If you go for a longer line length, you need a lot more space between the lines because the reader’s eye needs a path back. It’s really problematic in books that are produced for, say, A4 format, if the typesetting doesn’t give this due consideration.

MR: There are times when designers will consciously tamper with the reading experience though.

DR: Say to slow down a reader.

AL:  Has anyone seen the book Tree of Codes? [shown at the top of this article, published by Visual Editions]. The author [Jonathan Safran Foer] has taken an existing story and cut chunks from it to make a new one.

DR: Even physically, not just the design, but everything about this is made to make you go slow, and to savour it.

David Carson, the American designer, super-famous in the 90s, his specialty was to challenge the limits of legibility and what you could put the reader through. He was very polarising. Some people loved the work he did because they thought it was taking typography and making it visual expression on its own, but a lot of people just thought it was indulgent and alienating. He famously decided that in one story, the writing was so bad that he set it all in Zapf Dingbats.

MR: If I’d have been the writer I would have been furious.

DR: I think the writer was, but Carson’s design eventually became such a driver of that project he’d have writers who would feel slighted if their work hadn’t been tampered with in some way. Related to this there was a study recently that stated that setting text in Comic Sans forces people to go slow and retain information. But anything looking at how people read requires incredible balance and subtlety.

If you take someone like [Dutch typographer and graphic designer] Wim Crouwel, the text for his poster designs could really challenge people and get them to stop and look—but that’s what you want from a poster, right? There’s a distinction that type designers talk about all the time, between legibility and readability. Legibility is how easily you can identify, and readability is how easy you can get through something without noticing how easy it is to get through it. Those posters by Wim Crouwel push the boundaries of legibility, but if you look at his book designs, he’s such a good typographer. His work’s breathtaking. He really understood the difference between when things had to be readable, and when it was okay to play.

MR: It’s that old cliché. Those who are good at playing often have very strong craft skills. People like Picasso.

DR: That was a lot of the criticism levied at David Carson, is. He was not consciously breaking rules. He didn’t get them enough to push back against them.

What I find interesting about the rise of ebooks and online design becoming more mature, is everyone is talking about readability, and there are people who have never had to worry about these issues, like developers and designers of display pages, are having to learn about them and understand how to make the right choices.

AL: Mentioning dingbats earlier, another consideration when it comes to legibility are symbols, or ‘things that aren’t words’. How images and pictograms work across different cultures, and portray something without having the words with them. Here are some of [German Modernist artist] Gerd Arntz’s pictograms (and he drew thousands of them). These are all about removing unnecessary detail.

DR: If you look at the development materials for these (they have quite a lot of them at Reading University), it wasn’t just about simplification, but about how to make the images as neutral as possible. The collection is lots and lots of classical engravings and renaissance drawings, and looking at all these different ways of representing people to come to something that was as common as possible.

MR: The economy of them is lovely isn’t it? It looks so simple, but so much thought has gone into it.

You could say the same about typography. The second part of this conversation is posted here. Thanks to Alix, Mike and Dan for taking part.



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  • Daniel Benneworth-Gray said: Great discussion. Carson was absolutely everywhere ten years ago, but haven't seen much of him recently. That dingbatted Ray Gun article wasn't quite as daring as its legend implies – the interview was reprinted in a regular typeface at the back of the issue I believe.
    ~ 852 days ago, Report this comment
  • Dan Rhatigan said: And just as we were talking about David Carson, the Awl was writing about him and the era of grunge typography: "His method was simple, his gospel twofold: you don’t have to know the rules before breaking them, and never mistake legibility for communication."
    ~ 851 days ago, Report this comment
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