Apr 02, 2007
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By Anne Holland, President
In 1984, the Newspaper Ad Bureau of Australia published a research pamphlet that should have been laminated and hung on the walls of every single marketing art department in the world.
In fact, to this day I think every graphic designer should be forced to take a quiz on this data before you allow them anywhere near your marketing design project.
Why? Because it spells out what typefaces and layout design people can read most easily ... and what's nearly impossible for the human eye to comprehend.
For example: Headlines set in Times New Roman upper and lower case have a 92% comprehension rate. However, headlines in sans serif type (think Arial) all caps cause a 59% drop in comprehension rate.
Another example: Reverse type, such as white lettering on a black background, has 0% good comprehension (that's right, zero.) Ink colors, such as bright red on a white background, aren't much better at 10% good comprehension.
One more example: 80% of readers will look at a vertical shape or graphic before they'll look at a horizontal one.
Does this data carry over to the Web? Whenever I ask Web designers for research about comprehension and online typography, they have told me they make choices based on what they see on most other sites. I guess designers think, "If everyone else is doing it, it must be right."
MarketingSherpa and other organizations (most notably the Poynter Institute, which studies what works for newspaper publishing online and off) have conducted eyetracking tests that indicate certain broad rules about online design that works. (The fact that the eye skitters about fairly quickly and does not read everything on the page in order, nor often entire headlines or sentences from start to finish.)
However, to my knowledge, no one has conducted a specific study on online typography. Example: Are sans serif fonts used extensively online because science told us to do it, or is it just design habit based on a decade of common usage?
Solutions? Well, first of all, if you oversee or sign off on any print marketing materials, such as brochures, space ads, marcom, PDFs that are meant to be printed, etc., get yourself a copy of the 1984 study. Get your art director a copy, too.
It's now available as a paperback book at most major bookstores. Ask for the title, 'Type & Layout: Are You Communicating or Just Making Pretty Shapes' by Colin Wheildon.
Also, if you know of any true research (not just opinions without referenced data) on the topic of online typography please do post a reply to this blog so Sherpa's research department can look into it for everyone right away.
Third, we're strongly considering conducting our own research on the topic. It will be a giant undertaking, but I think well worth the work. Wouldn't it be nice to at last be able to walk into Web design meetings with data in your hands? So, watch this blog for a posting when we start the project. We'll definitely need test subjects to come into the lab and read Web pages to help us. If you'd like to volunteer, let us know.