The Cost of Cool: Typographic Style Legibility in Reading at a Glance

by | Dec 15, 2020

For typography, is ‘good’ all about achieving a desirable look?

When designers typographically tweak fonts to make an interface look ‘cool,’ they do so amid a rich design tradition, albeit one that is little-studied in regards to the rapid ‘at a glance’ reading afforded by many modern electronic displays. Such glanceable reading is routinely performed during human-machine interactions where accessing text competes with attention to crucial operational environments. There, adverse events of significant consequence can materialize in milliseconds. As such, the present study set out to test the lower threshold of time needed to read and process text modified with three common typographic manipulations: letter height, width, and case. Results showed significant penalties for the smaller size. Lowercase and condensed width text also decreased performance, especially when presented at a smaller size. These results have important implications for the types of design decisions commonly faced by interface professionals, and underscore the importance of typographic research into the human performance impact of seemingly “aesthetic” design decisions. The cost of “cool” design may be quite steep in high-risk contexts.

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