Monday, May 29, 2006

Speed reading vs. typography

I learn something new every day, or I hope I do, at least. Today, between sessions of pruning shrubbery (much left to go on that account), I learned something about typography that set me on my ear. Now I’ve been setting type, one way or another, since about 1958, maybe a few years before that, now that I think about it. In 1960, when I was the copy chief on my junior high school newspaper, the whole staff participated in a regional conference for school papers that was sponsored by one of the city newspapers in Cleveland (I do not recall which one).

At that conference, one of the tips I picked up in a breakout session had to do with deciding where to break a headline or subhead. It is a tip I have practiced consistently all these many years, but today I learned that for a large class of readers it is actually counterproductive.

Last week, I mentioned that some people “read with their ears” and some people “read with their eyes.” What I learned today leads me to hypothesize that the latter group accounts for all those times in my life when I’ve encountered blank stares, from people I know are intelligent and well read, upon suggesting that factors like font choice or the way type is arranged on a page might have something to do with the effectiveness of the text.

Over on a Usenet newsgroup I frequent, comp.fonts, someone asked about “sense lining.” This turns out to be a name applied to what I learned in 1960 about breaking headlines, although I had not encountered the term before today.

Someone posted a link to an old PowerPoint presentation that mentions the technique in the context of designing PowerPoint slides, and I chimed in with a more elaborate description of the practice I have long used:
This is a standard technique that has been used for a very long time in composing headlines and subheads. Over the years I've done a fair amount of speech writing and speech editing, and I've always used this technique to help speakers with their phrasing (think in terms of a TelePrompter, although my clients have always been either paper- or PowerPoint-bound). I've also always used it in PowerPoint (and tried to teach others to do so, as well) and in any kind of typesetting where it was applicable (both in ragged text and, where possible, in justified text).

Here are the basic concepts, as I practice them (and I think these are pretty consistent with traditional practices of others):
  1. The world is divided into two relevant classes: people who read with their eyes and people who read with their ears. What is here called sense lining is for the benefit of those who read with their ears (as well as for those who read out loud and for their audiences, of course). The technique has no real value for those who read with their eyes. Speed readers, in other words, won't care about your efforts. Subvocalizers will notice and will be appreciative.

  2. Where possible, keep whole clauses together.

  3. If you have to break a clause, keep the subject together and the predicate together.

  4. If you have to break a subject or predicate, keep whole phrases together (noun phrases, verb phrases, prepositional phrases).

  5. If you have to break a phrase, keep modifiers (articles, adjectives, adverbs) with their targets.

  6. If you have to break a pair or a series, break before the conjunction.

  7. For book and magazine composition, general composition standards still apply. That is, you don't want a series of successive lines beginning with the same word or ending with the same word (unless it's a parallel list). So sense lining is definitely a secondary consideration.
This drew a response from someone who took exception, saying that such a choppy presentation slows him down and impedes readability.

We exchanged a few posts in which I asked him to characterize the way he reads and he responded that no, he does not subvocalize (that is, he reads with his eyes, not his ears); and he has always read very fast and with good comprehension. He also likes a long measure better than a short measure.

What did I learn today? I learned that there is a correlation (strength to be determined) between the ability to read fast and an insensitivity to typographic design considerations.

This is interesting in a number of ways. For one thing, it provides an opportunity in online delivery of text to give readers a choice of rendering styles. This takes extra work for the publisher or designer, and I do not suppose it is going to become a common practice soon. But it might qualify as a best practice for critical applications. For another, it means that, not surprisingly, my own editing style and typographic practices are consistent with each other in a deeper way than I had thought about. By the same token, someone who is uncomfortable with one will be uncomfortable with the other. This neatly and cleanly excludes a huge part of my potential market, something I am not thrilled about, but I accept it. What I find more troubling is that I might design a book for a client that will be found unappealing by a significant segment of the potential readership.

Happily, good typographic practice for books is a compromise that meets the needs of both speed readers and subvocalizers. Justified type, which is what books mostly consist of, does not lend itself to sense lining, and the other subtleties that appeal to people who read with their ears are simply outside the notice of the other group.


Anonymous said...

I believe that another
consideration in breaking headlines-- one traditionally
valued by typographers-- is to
keep the higher line shorter
than the lower one so that the
headline will seem to sit stably
with its weight on the bottom.

Dick Margulis said...

That makes some sense where there is only a single headline to consider. In situations where you are breaking up a magazine article with occasional subheads, though, or in other similar contexts, that would tend to look both forced and overly consistent. A certain amount of visual variety is a good thing. So I don't think you'd want to apply that rule militantly.