Legibility and readability are two different tasks required of good typography. So what’s the difference?
Legibility refers to how easily one letter can be distinguished from another, or a typestyle’s ‘clarity.’ Legibility is built into the font (or not) by its designer and is largely beyond the typesetter’s control. Sans serif fonts (those without serifs, the horizontal embellishments at the tops and bottoms of the letters) are considered more legible and are commonly used for headlines, signage and computer screen text.
Readability is the relative ease with which a typeface can be read when characters are laid out in words, sentences, and paragraphs. Longer blocks of text need to be readable to hold the reader and boost comprehension. Setting text in columns makes for shorter line length, which improves readability. Text set with ‘ragged right’ alignment is more readable than text that is ‘force justified’ or manipulated to line up on the left and right margins. White space, subheads and other elements that break up the text give the reader’s eye resting places and help prevent fatigue.
Colin Wheildon, author of Type & Layout found in his research on typography for print media, “Body copy must be set in serif type if the designer intends it to be read and understood. More than five times as many readers are likely to show good comprehension when a serif body type is used rather than a sans serif body type.”
The serifs themselves form a visual “skyline,” helping the reader with character recognition and the ability to read groups of words instead of one word at a time. The thick and thin elements of most serif faces also help the eye distinguish between characters; making letters more recognizable, and words more readable.
To maximize readability, it is generally best to avoid extremes. Choose typefaces that have:
– Letters with similar character widths rather than large variations in width
– Medium height to width ratios (letters not excessively thin or fat)
– Lowercase letters of medium height (not too short or tall in relation to its caps)
– Small variations in stroke weights (similar thicknesses between the parts of the letters)
– Medium-sized “counters” (the enclosed spaces inside letters such as e, a, b, d, g, o, p & q) rather than oversized or undersized
– Simple shapes without swashes or embellishments that can interfere with flow and tire the reader
We want our stuff read. Let’s make it reader-friendly.