Send a clearer message with ugly, fuzzy fonts

According to researchers, that simple, clean font on your e-reader may inhibit your absorption of the material

Having trouble getting your message across in the reports you file to your boss? Try typing it up in an ugly font to make your message clearer -- and smudge up his or her computer monitor for good measure.

At least that's the takeaway from a couple of separate bodies of research. One, conducted by researchers from Princeton and Indiana University students, found that content written in hard-to-read fonts are more readily remembered. Separately, neuroscientists are proposing that the crystal-clear, easy-to-read words on an e-reader can inhibit how much of the content a person will absorb and comprehend.

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UnSIGhtLy FonT RENDeriNGs: diFFiCULt tO IGnorE
A Princeton University student, Connor Diemand-Yauman, conducted research examining how different fonts styles affect reading comprehension; he was assisted by adviser Daniel Oppenheimer and Indiana University doctoral student Erikka Vaughan.

In their study [PDF], the researchers presented volunteer college students with materials printed in different types of fonts: easy-to-read Arial and harder-to-read Comic Sans MS and Bodini MT. Those who read the less visually appealing fonts score 14 percent better on a memory test than their Arial-reading peers.

The researchers also found that, among 222 Ohio high-school students, those presented with materials rendered in an array of visually unappealing fonts -- some italicized -- learned the content more thoroughly than those students presented with materials rendered in a clearer font.

The underlying explanation for these results: When your brain works harder as you read, it learns more. "More cognitive engagement leads to deeper processing, which facilitates encoding and subsequently better retrieval," wrote the university researchers in their paper, which will be published this month in the Cognition scientific journal.

Two paths are better than one
That finding supports an assertion presented last September by neuroscientist and Wired magazine contributor Jonah Lehrer. Citing the work of Stanislas Dehaene, a neuroscientist at the College de France in Paris, Lehrer wrote that as we read, the words we take in follow two pathways: the ventral route and the dorsal stream. The ventral route is "direct and efficient, accounting for the vast majority of our reading," Lehrer wrote. "The process goes like this: We see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word, and then directly grasp the word's semantic meaning."

The dorsal stream, meanwhile, kicks in "whenever we're forced to pay conscious attention to a sentence, perhaps because of an obscure word, or an awkward subclause, or bad handwriting," Lehrer explained.

Thus, when presented with crystal-clear type on a crystal-clear screen, text simply eases up the ventral path into our brains, but without the dorsal stream being activated, our brain doesn't really store and process the text. It's the visual equivalent of in one ear and out the other.

Follow senior analyst Ted Samson on Twitter at tsamson_iw.

This article, "Send a clearer message with ugly, fuzzy fonts" was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog, and for the latest in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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