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Legible?

Gerard Unger

This essay was first published in 1992 in Emigre #23, and was reprinted with a forword by Rudy VanderLans in 2003 in Emigre #65.


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    Forword by Rudy VanderLans

    Within the world of typeface design there are few practitioners who have the ability to discuss issues of readability and legibility with a broad view towards the usage of typefaces. The profession of type design is a specialization, and too often its practitioners discuss the finer points of their efforts as if type exists in a vacuum. While there is much to be said for the purists and traditionalists who strive to uphold the beauty of ancient letter forms, and who continue to look for ways to maintain the look and feel established during the golden years of letterpress printing, too often they ignore the changing circumstances of design and the reading habits of their contemporary audiences. It’s not that their claims are no longer valid; they’re simply not the only way to arrive at effective forms of communication. Plus, there’s more to graphic design than book design (which is concerned with specific typographic issues such as space economy and speed-reading), an area where most type purists tend to live.

    But there are exceptions. There are type designers who both practice type design with all the knowledge and respect for its tradition and also keep an eye on its future and the ever changing, multifaceted environment in which typefaces are used, and who are graphic designers as well. Gerard Unger is one of them.

    In 1992 Emigre published an article by Dutch designer Gerard Unger titled “Legible?” The article was a breath of fresh air, debunking many of the claims by type purists regarding people’s reading habits, and leaving much room for design to be more than a “transparent” holder for texts.

    At the time we published this article, Emigre stood firmly positioned at the opposite end to the traditionalists, and was obsessed with the notion that how type was used was more important than the faces themselves. In addition, we gave tremendous credit to the readers’ ability to decipher just about any layout. Sure, what mattered was the written content, but form provided content, too, and was meant to attract, engage, and differentiate.

    There was another idea that set Emigre apart from the purists. We were interested in visual communication addressed at specific, small audiences (and small clients) with interests similar to ours. It was a reaction to the ideas of mass marketing, lowest common denominators, globalization, and universal standards of communication.

    All of these ideas added up to experiments with layouts and typography that often went far beyond common sense. Emigre was a magazine about experimental graphic design, so we felt justified. It all backfired when these ideas were lifted indiscriminately and were appropriated for mainstream usage. The ideas then became easy targets for the critics who dismissed the work as being too self-expressive and illegible.

    And often the critics were right.

    Looking back at some of these issues of Emigre, I now realize how this youthful exuberance may have obscured some wonderful writing. One such item was Gerard Unger’s article “Legible?” which was published in Emigre No. 23. As some kind of ironic comment on the title, I set the entire article in all small caps! As if I were trying to prove what we already know: that all caps text is difficult to read. Not only that; the small caps were slightly tracked and the text was set center axis. All big no-nos in basic text typography. Later, I felt bad about this.

    So in early 2003, 11 years after the fact, I wrote Gerard Unger to apologize. I told him I didn’t remember what my justification was for setting his entire article in all caps. “Sure,” I wrote, “Emigre was, and is, a platform for typographic experimentation and all that, but you don’t really need an experiment to know that using all caps when setting a long text is not a very good idea. I’m sure both Gerrit Noordzij and Jacques Jansen, two of my teachers at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, and you, must have thought I had gone insane. Too much California perhaps. But you were kind, and never mentioned anything.”

    “About the article,” Unger wrote back, “despite the caps, many have read it and discussed it with me.” This made me feel a little better. But obviously, his article had withstood the test of time much better than my layout. Which is why we are reprinting it here in a different form.

    After Unger’s kind reply, I reread the original all caps article, and found it was actually not that difficult to read. Maybe it’s not a matter of difficulty, but a matter of difference. Reading this old issue of Emigre transported me to another time. The odd layout, the curious type experiment, the physical qualities of the awkward oversized format, the smell of old paper, all these non type-related issues influence the reading experience, and not necessarily negatively. Sure, the speed and ease with which you can read this text is somewhat sabotaged, but this is replaced by a different kind of experience, one that makes reading the text perhaps more intense and therefore more memorable. Unless, of course, you’re a type purist. But most people don’t suffer from such fixations.

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Legible? By Gerard Unger


Suddenly legibility is under siege. While printed text, just like God, has been declared dead a few times, legibility, until recently, was still considered sacred. However, during the past few years, many doubts have surfaced. In trade magazines, panel discussions, and in the hallowed halls of graphic design, new interpretations of legibility are being considered. Wim Crouwel (graphic designer and former director of the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen) was recently quoted as saying that everything we knew about legibility twenty years ago is now invalid because the notion of legibility has been stretched so much since that time. We are inundated with so many different texts in such varied manifestations that we have become used to everything and can read anything without difficulty.

In Eye No. 3 (May 1991), Michele-Anne Dauppe suggests that legibility relied on set rules and could be measured against absolute standards that were obtained through optical research. Those rules no longer apply, she believes. The standards are shifting and legibility is pushed to extremes. Two issues of Emigre magazine (No. 15, 1991 and No. 18, 1991) contribute to this discussion. In Issue No. 15, Jeffery Keedy states that too many people strive to omit ambiguity (which is exactly what good, legible, typography aims at). Keedy believes that life is full of ambiguity, which is what makes it interesting. His typefaces emphasize this belief.

In that same issue Zuzana Licko proclaims “You read best what you read most.” She hopes that her typefaces will eventually be as legible and easy to read as Times New Roman is today. She also states that letters are not inherently legible but become more legible through repeated usage, and that “legibility is a dynamic process.” In issue No. 18, Phil Baines fully agrees with these statements and goes one step further when he adds that “the Bauhaus mistook legibility for communication.” There seems to be a general consensus that the ultimate legible typography is extremely dull. It overshoots the mark because no one feels invited to read it.

Printed text is far from being dead. On the contrary, every day more and more text is being produced on paper. But don’t we have to be concerned with its legibility anymore? It is possible that the existing rules are too strict. How about those rules that Michele-Anne Dauppe believes were established through research? Who performed these tests and where can we find the results?

In the book The Visible Word, published in 1968, Herbert Spencer presents a summary of over a hundred years’ worth of investigations of legibility. The conclusions in this book are very general, such as: “Words typeset in upper case are considerably less legible than words set in lower case. Italics are also less legible and bold type can work, provided the inner spaces of the letters are clearly visible. Medium bold is very legible. Many readers prefer a text set in medium bold.” The last chapter of this book shows attempts at creating completely new letter shapes.

Since 1968 several additional investigations have been performed, but the results have added little to what Spencer had already scraped together. They offer no shocking conclusions that would lead designers to permanently renounce certain typefaces or to accept one particular typographic arrangement as the only correct one. The rules that Michele-Anne Dauppe refers to, in fact, do not exist.

Yet rules for legibility continue to proliferate. For instance, efforts have been made to establish sans serifs as the only truly legible letters, or, simultaneously, to declare them entirely illegible. Spencer describes how scientists have researched this problem and have come to the conclusion that sans serifs, under certain circumstances, are less legible than letters with serifs (Burt, 1959). Yet a few years later, some other scientists conclude that there is no significant difference between reading sans serifs or serifs (Tinker, 1963, Cheetham and Grimbly, 1964).

Where can we find those fierce opponents of serifs and sans serifs? Here we have some clear statements: “Of all available typefaces, the so-called ‘Grotesque’ [...] is the only one that spiritually fits our time.” And: “The best experience I have had was with the so-called ‘Normal Akzidenz Grotesk,’ which generates a quiet and easily legible image.” They are by Jan Tschichold from Die Neue Typographie published in 1928. In this beautiful book, he shows how developments in typography are connected with those in the arts, such as Suprematism, Neoplasticism and Dada. Tschichold was searching for a typeface for the modern age and sans serifs fit the bill. And just like many other graphic designers, whose ideas he represented and developed, he made a case to set text in lower case only. In 1929 he designed a typeface with mixed upper and lower case letters.

As early as 1925, Tschichold had written down ideas about new typography in an essay titled “Elementary Typography.” Here he suggested using a sans serif as a matching elementary typeface. But he was still qualifying his viewpoint by stating that typefaces with serifs were better for use in longer texts. It was also his opinion that as long as there were no good sans serifs available, it was better to use a neutral font with serifs, which is what he did for this 1925 text. Three years later, those ambiguous statements had disappeared. The ideal sans serif was not there yet—although Paul Renner’s Futura was a step in the right direction—and no mention of serifs was heard again.

During those three years, between 1925 and 1928, Tschichold had not performed any scientific research that forced him to adjust his opinion of 1925. His preference for sans serifs, and his opinion that they were quite legible and more legible than typefaces with serifs, were based upon emotional considerations. They were based on the desire to be modern, and in 1928 Tschichold must have felt more modern and more certain of his opinions than in 1925.

In that respect, nothing has changed. The recent pronouncements about legibility are still primarily based upon emotion and are prompted by the need for change.

Why quote Tschichold so extensively? More quotes will follow, not only by Tschichold, but also by Stanley Morison. I do this because the texts of Tschichold and Morison come closest to a serious theory about our profession. There are other authors who have published theories on typography, but those by Tschichold and Morison have had the most visible influence on our profession.

Books on graphic design are often filled with practical knowledge acquired through hundreds of years of experience, with rules developed through intense observation and a deliberate use of typographic means. There are rules for preferable line length, letter size and line spacing, for the arrangement of the page, the use of initial caps, footnotes, etc. Yet a deeper, underlying theory supporting these customs hardly exists. The best these theories can offer is that clarity and readability are the highest goals, which means that the typographer should remain invisible.

It is curious that both the supporters and opponents of traditional typography held on to these basic goals. Tschichold mentions Klarheit (clarity) as the highest goal in 1928 and Morison wishes for “consummate reticence” in 1930.

Publishers, typographers, printers, and users have, since the days of Gutenberg, agreed within reasonable limits on what is considered legible. Anybody who consults a historical collection of books will quickly realize that those limits allow the designer quite some room—much variation can be detected.

Due to rapid and drastic changes that took place during the beginning of this century (and not just in the fine and applied arts), traditionalists and innovators alike dug themselves in and the previous voluntary agreements were replaced by strict rules, dogmas, and slogans. Against what or whom do those who demand change today direct themselves? The only thing that seems necessary is to use those agreements again in a reasonable and relaxed manner. In numerous typographic works, the concern with legibility is taken with a grain of salt. There seems to be more freedom than in the 17th, 18th, or 19th century.

In 1948, the same Jan Tschichold who was quoted above, wrote in an essay titled “Ton in des Topfers Hand” (Clay in the Potter’s Hand); “Personal typography is faulty typography. Only beginners and fools will pursue it. [...] As typography addresses everyone, it leaves no room for revolutionary change. We cannot even fundamentally change one single letterform without destroying the typeset representation of our language and rendering it useless. Comfortable legibility is the supreme canon of all typography.” With that, he radically denies his previous point of view. Tschichold was not the same typographer anymore. After a rough encounter in 1933 in Munich with the emergence of Nazism, he escaped to Switzerland and also moved away from his ideas published in Die Neue Typographie. Those ideas suddenly appeared too dictatorial and too closely resembled Nazi ideals, he thought.

It is not without significance that he wrote the 1948 essay in London, because some of the ideas closely resemble Stanley Morison’s, whose text First Principles of Typography had appeared in 1930. This publication quickly became very influential, particularly among book designers.

“Typography is the efficient means to an essentially utilitarian and only accidentally aesthetic end, for enjoyment of patterns is rarely the reader’s chief aim. Therefore, any disposition of printing material which, whatever the intention, has the effect of coming between author and reader is wrong. It follows that in the printing of books meant to be read there is little room for ‘bright’ typography. Even dullness and monotony in the typesetting are far less vicious to a reader than typographical eccentricity or pleasantry.” Another lengthy quote from Morison: “It is no longer possible, as it was in the infancy of the craft, to persuade society into the acceptance of strongly marked and highly individualistic types—because literate society is so much greater in mass and correspondingly slower in movement. The good type designer knows that, for a new font to be successful, it has to be so good that only few recognize its novelty. If readers do not notice the consummate reticence and rare discipline of a new type, it is probably a good letter.” Here convention is required to go down on its knees. If these rules had been applied, then the profession would not have changed its appearance since 1930. However, the path didn’t run this narrow.

In Typ G, published in June 1991, Max Kisman writes: “The institution of the letter will be abolished. The power will be defeated. Since their digital manifestation, letters have been outlawed. The prevailing conceptions have lost their value. Graphic design is a fake and aesthetic-based page filler. Graphic design and typography will be banned.” He adds: “The printed message is old-fashioned and of the past.” We will forgive him this latter nonsense. However, I do agree with Kisman that there is frequent evidence of superficiality and that much design only draws attention to the work of the designer—narcissistic design without respect for either the authors or readers. Are those striking new typefaces produced to offer the readers more pleasure or to impress fellow graphic designers?

Kisman suggests, as a last convulsion of graphic design, “...to mix all design styles during a wild party in order to lay to rest the profession. So that with the resulting hangover, we can position ourselves to start the restoration.”

Before the party begins, I want to know where the restoration is going to come from. How do we find out what legibility really is? To break with the past does not solve anything. It isn’t possible; this is what even the most powerful revolution has taught us. By gratuitously repeating historical standpoints, the discussion is not served well, either. To live for the here-and-now and fun of it all, without concern for serious depth, as Typ G suggests, is oppressively restrictive.

I chose to once again carefully re-examine what reading essentially is. The following observation is not complete by a long shot, but is my starting point for a broad and detailed reflection of legibility.


Disappearing Letters

A man is reading in a bar in Madrid. We have just entered after looking around to find a nice place to eat. From the loudspeakers come shrill singing and the sound of trumpets. We don’t feel like leaving and searching for another place. The restaurant is well occupied and at the table next to us there is loud debating with wild gestures. Strong scents come from the kitchen. All the senses are activated.

The man sits reading at the bar while absentmindedly cracking nuts. He has a short beard, sits on the stool with one foot positioned on the floor. He is reading a book. I order a drink at the bar and try, inconspicuously, to find out what he is reading. It is a translation of Hemingway. Next to him, glasses are being washed and filled. He quickly looks around from across his reading glasses and then reads on.

The cultural philosopher George Steiner presented a lecture in early 1990 about the future of reading. He limited himself to books and classical literature in particular. Silence, he believes, is one of the most important conditions for careful reading. And silence is a disappearing cultural commodity. There is even a growing need for noise out of fear of loneliness, according to Steiner.

He is not the only person subscribing to such a pessimistic view. For many, the decline in book sales implies that it is not going well with reading. At high schools, the interest in literature is dwindling and more and more we hear about increasing illiteracy. Commercial television makes it even worse and there are many more influences that could turn reading into a threatened human activity. In all truthfulness, we know very little about reading, which is why unfounded opinions can easily catch on. It is important to know how reading functions because it is still the way to acquire knowledge, and printed text is still the most used medium for the storage and transfer of ideas.

Take silence. It is true that there are quite a few activities in which noise disturbs concentration and limits people in their pursuits. However, reading is not one of them—certainly not to the degree that Steiner fears. Whenever a reader gets absorbed in the reading matter, the surroundings will quickly become less noticeable than the magazine, book, newspaper, or computer screen. The text becomes the world. The surroundings dissolve and with them will most outside signals. It becomes quiet around the reader.

Reading creates its own silence. I have often observed how, even in the midst of noise, someone who is reading and is spoken to does not reply until after repeated appeals. Fascinating writing pulls the reader in; the man in Madrid was a good example.

Reading has been extensively researched. Eye movement, and the number of characters that can be taken in per movement, have been studied just as reading speed in relation to the amount of surveyed and remembered information. The influences of paper color and lighting have been measured, as well as the time that someone can remain fully attentive while reading, and much more. The results of this type of research are interesting but offer a one-sided notion of what reading is; they give the impression that people read like machines, that you can turn on and off at will, and that reading is all about gathering dry information. Such research tells you little about the need to read and the pleasures and intimacy of reading. Also not touched upon is reading as a way to escape reality and to engulf yourself in other people’s realities.

There are many different ways of reading, tied to rather varied reading objectives. You can read to research, read to study, read to be informed, or read to relax. Sometimes you look more than you read, sometimes you read just a bit, or with interruptions, and then you read for a while again. Telephone directories and dictionaries you obviously read differently than the newspaper, and a novel, too, demands to be read in its own particular way.

With every form of reading, this silence arises. Most people don’t realize this. And that’s exactly it. That silence arises out of the concentration through which your consciousness is narrowed. You turn inward and surrender to reading. It is a semi-conscious or even subconscious action.

Simultaneously, with the silence that causes one to read, something else quite wonderful happens. Not only do the surroundings dissolve, but also the object on which your attention is focussed. The black, printed letters dissolve in your mind like an effervescent pill in a glass of water. For a short moment, all those black signs disappear off the stage, change their outfits and return as ideas, as representations, and sometimes even as real images. It doesn’t matter whether the reading matter concerns news, literature, relaxation, or science. First your environment dissolves and next the reading object disappears; or at least, both are placed at a subconscious level. When this type of artistry succeeds, the contents of the text flow directly into the mind of the reader.

Although typographers would like to pride themselves on the logic and precision of their profession, it is in fact not so clearcut. Typography seems exact because much of it has been done in the same way for so long. There are really only a few fundamentals that are set: we read from left to right and from top to bottom. Letter shapes and letter sizes are reasonably limited. But beyond that we rely primarily on emotion.

Common sense, experience, and practical limitations are what have regulated typography. The profession is founded on empiricism but leaves much room for interpretation. We don’t have to keep up this facade of exactness. Typography and typefaces fare well by the acknowledgement that emotion plays an important role because it allows texts to be designed with more passion.

Wait a minute! This introduces a contradiction. I just explained that reading is a fantastic disappearing act, a double one at that, and now I start talking about designing with passion. Doesn’t that imply that designers want to be noticed and that they produce striking or even flirtatious products? Together with this disappearing act, don’t we need the often-praised invisible typography? This is a noble principle, derived from book typography, which preaches respect for both author and reader. Book typographers fulfill a subservient task that restrains them from manifesting themselves and positioning themselves between author and reader. Craftsmanship yes; artistry, no.

According to Morison’s “First Principles of Typography,” this is the way to do it. Actually, the notion of invisible typography is best verbalized by Morison’s friend Beatrice Warde, one of the few women who has written about typography, in an essay titled “The Crystal Goblet or Printing Should be Invisible” (1932). Both texts offer crystal clear starting points guiding author, typographer, and reader back to the few essentials of reading.

According to this principle, beautiful “naked” books have been produced, without decoration, that are a pleasure to read. In the hands of a master typographer, with an excellent eye for proportion, this ascetic typography can render monumentally plain books—pure typography, pure text, realized with plenty of devotion and the finest materials. They are also very expensive books.

With the average mass-produced book, typographic simplicity is usually the result of forced restrictions instead of self-imposed restraint. That’s why many of these books are typographically quite “undressed.” Typography becomes a balance sheet. Typeface, type size, proportions and other elements are defined by the demand to fit the text on a limited number of pages of restricted size. The text is not allowed the space it ideally deserves. That’s also why many of these books, particularly on the inside, have been designed decently at best, but usually look indifferent and cold. The covers are often designed conversely. As signposts for books, covers have become louder and more colorful. To the readers, it must be a strange experience after some nicely spiced hot sauce to bite into sodden, cold rice.

It is particularly these typographic products that can use a little bit of warmth on their pages. Besides this, I have little to complain about. Newspapers, magazines, and other printed matter are usually designed with sufficient emotion, and more than sufficient on occasion. Restraint and invisibility are as good as absent. Yet here too, the double disappearing act succeeds. Loud newspaper and magazine page designs create their own silence and dissolve. Visible typography is read also. This leads one to believe that Morison’s principles sound good but don’t connect with reality. To find out if this conclusion is correct can be seen upon closer inspection of the most important typographic ingredient: the letter.

Invisible typefaces do not exist. Nobody will choose a typeface that doesn’t look like anything. Everybody I know who regularly uses typefaces does this with conviction and dedication, even with passion. Advocates of invisible typography, too, will get emotional when discussing their favorite typeface. The basic forms of typefaces remain uncomplicated. Not much can be changed. It is very simple: when we deviate from the basic shapes, reading becomes less easy. This is no problem for short texts or headlines, but in long texts its effect is unfavorable.

Let’s stick with text faces because headline faces are there to be both seen and read. But for real reading, you need experienced text faces with conventional basic shapes. Not conventional typefaces, that’s something entirely different! Only the basic shapes need to comply with what we are used to. To this conventional frame, the type designer applies the features that supply typefaces with their characteristics. Every designer has particular habits that ooze through into the typeface designs: typical curves and corners, idiosyncratic transitions from thick to thin, a personal approach to endings, a peculiar movement throughout all letters and elements. The ideas of the type designer are dipped in the styles of the times, which help define the characteristics of the letters.

Furthermore, there are influences of technology, such as the rough paper and thin ink of newspapers, and the fast turning printing presses that newspapers are printed on. Such technological influences make demands on typefaces that lead to pronounced characteristics—in this case, an entire category of typefaces better known as “news faces.” Typefaces for use in books are generally a bit more refined due to less severe production circumstances.

Typefaces endow printed matter with a character. They turn newspapers into newspapers and books into books. Together with page layout, paper style, binding method and format, they turn a text into an individual product. As soon as the product is picked up and the reading starts, the attractiveness of the typeface will help the readers on their way. Briefly they show themselves and then they retreat.

For the designer of new typefaces, it is a challenge to create an exciting combination of familiar and unfamiliar elements. How far can the type designer go when the basic shapes are dressed up with little known, or even unseen, elements? Are the basic shapes perhaps open to some alterations? This is how two converse qualities are united within letter shapes: common sense and attractiveness. This latter characteristic does not function when invisible. One of the reasons why there is a constant demand for new typefaces is the fact that we get used to the peculiarities of older typefaces. What you see too often doesn’t work anymore. This is how typefaces play their double role until we’re fed up with them.