Princeton study shows that easy fonts make things harder to remember

January 18, 2011

A Princeton study entitled “Fortune favors the bold (and the Italicized)” (their emphasis) has shown that readers retain information more reliably when they are challenged with so-called “disfluent” fonts.

Example stimuli from Study 1 (from the report). The top panel shows an example disfluent font, and the bottom panel shows the fluent font.

The research suggests that introducing ‘disfluency’ – by making information superficially harder to understand – deepens the process of learning and encourages better retention.

The psychologists said information which has to be actively generated rather than ‘passively acquired’ from simple text is remembered longer and more accurately.

The study raises questions over how much fonts like Times New Roman and Arial, which are used in the majority of academic books, help readers revise for tests. […]

He said the study showed the whole history of typography was had missed the point when it comes to learning.

Mr Lehrer said: ‘It has been a movement towards easy to read fonts. We assume that anything which makes it easier to see the content is a good thing.

‘This is especially the case in classrooms where teachers assume legibility makes it easier for kids to learn and remember information.

‘That turns out to be exactly backwards.

‘Disfluent fonts, the ones people tend to laugh off, fonts that are comically ugly, they tend to be the best for learning and for memory.’

‘When we see a font that is easy to read we’re able to process that in a mindless way, but when we see an unfamiliar font, one full of weird squiggles, we have to work a little bit harder.

‘That extra effort is a signal to the brain that this might be something worth remembering.’

The article is principally about e-ink readers, like Kindle, but it does rate mention for designers.

[box type=”info”]You can download the report here.[/box]


Comments

  1. Adelaide Dupont - January 19, 2011 at 12:24 pm -

    Have really been getting into e-ink in the last 16 months.

    Now these dysfluencies are good to remember, especially from a design point of view.

    I think it's because they grab your eye and claim your attention!

    It does work well because there is comparable information, that is "Two feet tall" or "Ten feet tall".

    Meredith Greene has some good words on ereaders.

    • Alexander White - January 19, 2011 at 2:08 pm -

      I agree. Which is not to say that everything should be designed in Comic Sans Italics or Haettenschweiler, but that designers should think about readability and information retention as well.

      Thanks for the comment.

Read previous post:
Online usage demographics are changing

Pew Internet has some interesting new data on Internet usage by age demographic, and the take-away is that more "older"...

Close