Can illegible fonts be more effective at conveying information?

As a designer, I like order. When I design for print or web, I create a typographical system that establishes hierarchy and consistency. Most typography sources recommend something similar and would caution using multiple display fonts to set body paragraphs unless you want your project to look like a ransom note.

For the most part, I agree. It makes sense that higher retention could be achieved with increased legibility and consistent structure — but I have also learned there is another side to this argument, and it has to do with something called disfluent fonts.

Disfluent fonts have improved reader retention. Disfluency increases cognitive load on a reader, slowing down their reading speed. The jarring disruption prohibits the reader from getting comfortable with the conventions of a typeface. There are several ways this can be achieved; setting paragraphs in alternating typefaces or using an uncommon font with irregularities or flourishes can act as a legibility speed bump.

In other words, a designer’s worst nightmare. Using ugly fonts, breaking typographical rules and using typefaces outside of their designed use. I didn’t know if I was comfortable with this new finding or if I would actually find it useful. But as I researched further, I found that it isn’t necessarily about the ugliness of a typeface, but rather its unexpected form that increases the recall.

The Legibility Wars

Legibility is the most important factor considered when designing a new typeface. Whether you deal intimately with typography or not, we have visceral reaction to fonts that are difficult to read. Emigre was one of the first type foundries pioneering divergent type design. Many critics were so opposed to their experimental fonts that the debate was nicknamed “The Legibility Wars”.

With an instinctive reaction against disfluency, it seemed backwards to think that an illegible font can be more effective at conveying important information.

However, an article published in Cognition by Princeton psychologist, Daniel Oppenheimer that contradicts this thinking.

“Oppenheimer conducted a study on 28 college students where they were asked to read two fictitious biological profiles on the pangerish and the norgletti species. One profile was set in gray 12-point Comic Sans or Bodoni font and the other was set in black 16-point Arial font. After reading these profiles, they were asked to recall facts from both. The rate of retention for the profile set in the hard-to-read Comic Sans/Bodoni was 87% compared to 73% for 16-point Arial.”

Oppenheimer continued his study at an Ohio high school for a semester where he found that students performed better on tests when the material was presented in less legible typefaces.

typography side-by-side legibility comparison

A side-by-side comparison of Bodoni and Arial.

The findings of the experiment support the disfluency theory; when information is set in a disfluent font, recall is improved when the reader is forced to slow down to decipher the words. Harder to read text is also harder to skim over.

User Experience and the Web

Now hold on a second — before we all start setting every other paragraph in a different typeface, take into account the context of the study. These students were required to read the passages and extrinsically motivated to pass a test. They were more determined to read the article to the end because they knew they would be quizzed on it later. Disfluent fonts work well in educational settings, but will they work well in other uses?

In UX design, removing unnecessary strain on users is paramount. Would you like to see a website navigation in Bleeding Cowboys?

Also take into account that we are in scan mode online. Most users read about 20% of the words on the average webpage according to Jacob Neilson’s eyetracking studies. Unlike in the Oppenheimer study, the only thing compelling us to read to the end of a webpage is our interest in the content.

If this post were more strenuous to read many people wouldn’t make it past the first sentence. Disfluent fonts can act as an inhibitor when the reader’s attention or motivation is weak to begin with.

In instances such as these there are small things we can do to emphasize important concepts and key takeaways when writing. Even the switch from regular to italic is a slight enough interruption that signals to the reader a heightened importance on a word or phrase.

In other cases, disfluency is a powerful tool for designers to create greater impact with their audience. David Carson used this technique successfully to create images that were difficult to decipher, but were extremely memorable. The disruption of the expected is what is truly effective in marketing.

David Carson typography

David Carson

Beauty and the Beast

In the definition of disfluency, I gave earlier, I described a disfluent typeface as ugly and displeasing to read. This is a bit misleading because it’s not a requirement that all disfluent type be ugly to function well.

A disfluent typeface could be beautiful while serving its purpose. In the same way that fonts like Dyslexie are designed to help people with dyslexia read with more ease, a font specifically created to slow readers down and increase retention could be produced.

Lettertype dyslexie designed by Christian Boer

Lettertype dyslexie designed by Christian Boer

Disfluency in Marketing

Like most things, there is a time and place to use disfluent fonts. Successfully reaching our audience with type is dependent on the methods used to modify it. Understanding the audience’s mindset is key in any form of communication, which will lead to a more thoughtful end result. When appropriately used, disfluency can be incredibly effective, but careful consideration must be taken to balance the strain on the reader.

As we continue searching for new ways to engage and interact with our audience, disfluency could prove to be a valuable tool. Disfluent practices could be used as a measure for viewer engagement. If 5% of your audience is determined enough to read through to the end, maybe you should be tailoring your marketing strategy to target this group more effectively. Who knows? The possibilities of disfluency are just beginning to be explored!

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