(See PDF document here
for type images.)
The goal was to address readability through type design as empirical process.
I sought to isolate letter form as a variable. That is to say, fundamental “topographic” letter construction, not proportion or curve shape. I wanted to see what effect variation in letter form has on readability.
The experiment was informed by three design factors I’ve engaged in the past:
1. Pseudo-random mixing of variant glyphs for the same character. (In Duffy Script and Fontesque Pro.)
2. The stylistic design axis. (Sense and Sensibility, and Handsome.)
3. The limits of perception. In particular relating to the size of the fovea and how many characters may be perceived with acuity, concurrently, during a saccadic rest.
Putting these together, I designed a sans serif typeface, Neology, comprising two full subsets—a geometric and a grotesque—in which the glyph for each character in text is chosen from either subset by pseudo-random code, via the Contextual Alternates feature.
The premise to be tested is that the reader only registers such information, within a saccadic rest, as is necessary to identify a character. Variance in character shape will not be perceived if it occurs across a saccade, because it has no significance to the task of decoding text. Consequently, mixing geometric and grotesque glyphs in a kind of massive wrong-font setting should not effect readability.
In order to isolate topographic letter distinctions, the glyph shapes of characters which only differ in proportion between geometric and grotesque style were made common. That’s about half the characters. To harmonize these, the geometric glyphs were made more consistent in width than is normal, and the grotesque glyphs were made rounder with less full curves than typical.What I discovered
In my assessment, the premise is correct. Whether a passage of text is set in all geometric glyphs, all grotesque, or mixed, readability is the same. “Even color” appears to be the key to smooth reading.
What then is the purpose of typeface style? Two theories:
Firstly, because in typography aesthetics is function, each type design is a strategy for achieving functionality, and there must necessarily be many different strategies, at least as many as there are different type designers.
Secondly, typeface style provides usability to the typographer, not the reader. Typeface style informs the design of the page and document as a whole, establishing a semantic tone for expressing a concept of form by various syntactic means: narrative, philosophical and associative. No doubt the reader is aware of typeface qualities at the level of the document, but they do not impact on the immediate decoding of text, which is the concern of readability.Furthermore…
The idea that a character should always be represented by a single glyph (except for the occasional ligature) is an economy originating in the foundry type era, with no basis in science. It also expresses the reductive ideology of modernism and its reverence for uniformity. As Giambattista Bodoni (1740-1813) stated, “It is an intrinsic advantage of the printer’s art that each letter is always the same… exact regularity is so pleasing to the eye that it is in itself almost sufficient to make any script appear beautiful.” Part of the allure for Bodoni was the difficulty of duplicating detail, “It depends on the skill of the punch-cutter whether or not such dimensions and component parts as may be common to several letters are precisely and exactly the same in them all.” But all that is in the past. New technology makes possible new challenges, new theories and new practicalities.
Variety is favored in many areas, particularly for activities which extend over time. Humanity balks at the prospect of the straight road, the assembly line, the prison cell—we are designed to respond to stimuli which vary; inertia generates invisibility. Perhaps this is why the old style types, with their lively complexities, are still preferred for extended reading.
Therefore, it may be that the principal of controlled glyph variation can provide improved readability.