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Science of Typography

Essay by Ellen Lupton, “Cold Eye: Big Science,” Print magazine, Summer 2003.


Despite heroic efforts to create a critical discourse for design, our field remains ruled, largely, by convention and intuition. Interested in alternative attitudes, I recently set out to examine the scientific literature on typography. From the late nineteenth century to the present, researchers from various fields—psychology, ergonomics, human computer interaction (HCI), and design—have tested typographic efficiency. This research, little known to practicing designers, takes a refreshingly rigorous—though often tedious and ultimately inconclusive—approach to how people respond to written words on page and screen.

What did I learn from slogging through hundreds of pages photocopied or downloaded from journals with titles like Behavior and Information Technology and International Journal of Man-Machine Studies? Both a little and a lot.

Each study isolates and tests certain variables (font style, line length, screen size, etc.). Although rational and scientific, this process is also problematic, as typographic variables interact with each other—a pull on one part of the system has repercussions elsewhere. For example, in 1929 Donald G. Paterson and Miles A. Tinker published an analysis of type sizes—part of a series of studies they launched in pursuit of “the hygiene of reading.”1 Texts were set in 6-, 8-, 10-, 12-, and 14-point type. The study emphatically concluded that 10 points is the “optimum size” for efficient reading—a result relevant, however, only for texts set at a particular line length (80 mm), in a particular typeface (not disclosed).

Read full article here: Science of Typography