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Are you communicating, or just making pretty shapes?

Your mailshot or advertisement might be as pretty as a picture, but if it fails to communicate its message effectively, then what was the point? The presentation of any body of text must be based on a thorough understanding of how the reader reads. Drayton Bird looks at the pioneering work done in this field by Colin Wheildon.

By Drayton Bird

"Surprising and useful … indispensable to anyone involved in communicating ideas through typographic means" - Milton Glaser

You may not know who Milton Glaser is, but I bet you know his work. He designed, among many other things, the "I love New York" design – perhaps the most copied visual idea since "Your country needs you".

What did this pre-eminent designer – and many more authorities – consider so indispensable? A booklet called Communicating, or just making pretty shapes? by Colin Wheildon, a university professor in Sydney.

It was actually given to me by my old boss David Ogilvy, in February 1985 and I have never seen anything nearly as useful (or intellectually sound) on the subject.

Wheildon was hired 25 years ago by the Australian Newspaper Society to find out how one typeface or another, one layout style or another affected communication.

Designers often want to make things look pretty or ingenious. But the aim of good communication is to make your messages easily read, easily understood and thus best calculated to do their job.

Many, perhaps most, printed commercial messages are ill comprehended. That’s because those who prepare them - writers and designers - know astoundingly little about what makes things easy to read.

How did Wheildon achieve his results? He took a couple of hundred Australians and, over a period of two years, asked them to read a variety of messages printed for the most part on A4 sheets.

Then he asked them to tell him what they thought they had just read - what it said - and how easy they found it to read.

What he discovered was revolutionary and astonishing - and still is - because most research to this day (especially that which deals with the internet) just asks people what visual treatments they like.

This is interesting - but almost entirely irrelevant. The fact that you find Arial neat, modern and appealing is no help if people find it hard to read in any quantity, and can’t easily take in what they have read.

Slavish followers of fashion

Designers generally rely on their own taste and judgement, or what is fashionable in "creative" circles. I put quotes round creative because although the word implies originality, most fall into one or both of two traps.

They either slavishly follow whatever the current fad may be, or try to shock and startle.

Type and layout are there to convey your message as clearly and quickly as possible. As the great authority Stanley Morison noted nearly 80 years ago: "Any disposition of type which, whatever the intention, comes between the reader and the meaning, is wrong."

One current fashion is for emphasising words by varying their size, colour or even the typeface to do so, regardless of their meaning or how well they get your message across.

Alternatively, rather than let the words speak for themselves – what they are there for – designers apply visual acrobatics that confuse readers and draw attention to the technique rather than the content.

So, here are some important facts most professional designers don’t even know. Some you may find blindingly obvious. But, as an old colleague of mine once noted, "The obvious is always overlooked."

1. Easy-to-read typefaces
I hardly need tell you that most newspapers are set in a Roman face, in capitals and lower case letters, mostly in black on white, not the other way round.

This is because these things are easier to read. Here’s why:

* The serifs – or little feet – at the bases of letters in Roman type align to keep the eye moving horizontally along the line, rather than straying below to the next line.
* On an A4 page, sans-serif type reduced comprehension from 67% to 12%.
* So if you wish to use sans-serif faces, you need heavy leading between the lines.
* The eye recognises shapes more than letters. A word in CAPITALS has less shape than in caps and lower case. The descenders and ascenders in caps and lower case give more shape.
* Perceived legibility of a series of headlines went down by over 20% when the setting was changed to capitals only. Imagine what happens when someone sets a whole page in caps – quite the rage at the moment.
* The eye finds it tiring to read reversed out type in any great volume. Reversing out of copy has been known to halve response to advertisements.
* The eye does not find it difficult to read serif italic type.

This doesn’t mean you should never use sans-serif faces, capitals or reversing out. Just use them with care if you have a lot of words.

2. Clear contrast
About one person in ten has imperfect eyesight – with a higher percentage among older, more literate people. So very small type is not a good idea.

So, just as reversed-out type is hard to read, if you set words over tints, textures or colours so that it does not stand out clearly, it’s even harder.

3. Don’t change typefaces unnecessarily
Constant changes in typeface are ugly. If they are in a heading, they are also confusing: your eye doesn’t like constantly having to readjust.

4. Narrow measure
Your newspaper or magazine is almost always set in narrow columns. That’s because the eye is lazy. It likes to travel down the centre of a column if it can, rather than having to go back and forth all the time.

If possible, don’t set to a measure wider than about 50 characters.

5. Long unbroken blocks of type put people off
Big blocks of type are daunting. They look like great trudges through the desert.

Moreover, when the eye first looks at a layout, it tends to skip around like a butterfly before settling at one place.

For that reason, if you have a lot of copy, break it up with crossheads, subheads, and changes of width.

This gives it visual interest. Your reader can grasp the essence of your message from the subsidiary headings, which should be clear and interesting enough for him or her to want to start reading the body copy.

To encourage readers to do this, it’s often a good idea to have an explanatory subhead after the headline leading into the copy. A ‘dropped’ – ie. oversized – initial capital letter also encourages readership.

6. Try to justify your columns
Comprehension goes down if the edges of columns, either left or right, are unjustified – that is to say, ragged. Once again, this is because the eye has to work harder.

When type was set with ragged right setting, comprehension slumped (typically from 67% to 38%) and even more with ragged left setting (67% down to 10%).

7. Huge headings are stupid
People do not read things from the other side of the room. Nor do they have arms ten feet long. Large headings are a waste of space and a waste of time.

8. Beware stacked headlines

    Readers found headlines
        laid out in a series
    of "decks" or layers
            like this hard
        to comprehend

56% said they found headlines of more than four decks difficult to take in. If they were set in caps, they actively disliked them.

9. A headline should be at the top
Sometimes people design clever layouts where the headline is actually underneath the body copy. They turn them into baselines.

You will not be surprised to hear that, as the eye is lazy, the law of gravity applies. All this does is stop people from reading the copy at all.

10. Don’t misdirect the reader’s eye
One reason for the point above is that putting the headline below the copy misleads the reader.

In the same way, illustrative elements which point out of the layout – like people’s feet, or the direction in which they look – lead the reader’s eye out of the advertisement.

Illustrations which block off a column halfway up the page discourage readers from travelling further down. The reader may be tempted simply to move straight to the top of the next column, thus omitting the section beneath the illustration.

Similarly, headlines marooned in the middle of the copy destroy the flow of that copy and halve good comprehension.

11. Always caption pictures
Have you ever watched people in an art gallery? They look at the pictures’ captions before the pictures themselves. Captions are almost as heavily read as headlines. People say "what is that about?" If you run a picture without a caption, you lose the chance to communicate. If you can’t think of a caption, get another picture – or another art director.

12. People look at people
Pictures of people’s faces gain enormous attention. Use them wherever you can, as long as they are relevant. I have seen the addition of the writer’s face increase response to a letter by 20%.

13. Lay out your letters
Just as ads, memos or articles should be laid out to be interesting to the eye, so should letters. Which, again, should always be in serif face for ease of reading. I will tell you which face in a minute.

So, if your letters are long, indent sections and use numbered points or asterisks, just as you should in any long piece of copy.

The sparing use of a second colour, ‘handwritten’ notes in the margins, underlinings and the occasional word in capitals can all add variety and interest for eye and brain.

Now, are you wondering just what this means in practical terms? Well, just imagine you want to get people to send you money or take some action. And suppose your job or business depends on it.

How would you like 60% more sales?

In the last two years, a series of tests have been conducted by clients of mine to see how much ease of reading affects response.

Changing from one type-face to another in direct mail letters increased sales 30-60%. Are you wondering what magical typeface made the difference?

It was Courier – the old fashioned typewriter face. Surprised? So were we! Not that it worked better – but by how much. But it triumphed time after time.

I don’t know why you communicate. Maybe it’s just to tell people something. Maybe it’s to sell subscriptions. Perhaps it’s to make something happen, or prevent it happening. Possibly it’s to clarify a misunderstanding or put over your point of view.

You may have many objectives. But whatever your purpose, I imagine you would agree it is, above all, essential that your audience understands what you are saying - quickly, easily and correctly.

That is why this research is so important. It took over two years. As far as I know, it is the most extensive and thorough of its kind. It has been extended over the 20-odd years since, and came out in a full-length book Type and Layout - Are you communicating - or just making pretty shapes? (Worsley Press, ISBN 1875750223), now out in a new edition.

Give it to your people. Read it yourself. The examples alone make it worth it.