Fonts of Wisdom: Difficult Typefaces Cause Better Learning — Mark Morton

I have a friend who is a graphic designer, and he specializes in creating typefaces: a new typeface, he tells me, can take a year to design if it’s done right, which means making it work both in term of aesthetics and functionality. In other words, it needs to be both beautiful and easy to read. A new study coming out Princeton, however, suggests that easy to read typefaces might have an unintended effect: they allow you read so quickly, that your comprehension — your decoding of the meaning — can’t keep up with your eyes. An analogy might be found in auctioneers: a good auctioneer can probably read an essay out loud very quickly and clearly. However, while you and I might comprehend each and every word spoken by the auctioneer, we might not be able to apprehend the total meaning of what’s being read to us.

The Princeton study concluded, in fact, that a somewhat difficult-to-read typeface results in 14% more retention of information than an easy-to-read typeface. This intuitively makes sense to me. In my job, I often find myself reading as fast as I can — and I’m sure that my comprehension of the text suffers accordingly. In fact, depending on how much coffee I’ve had, it’s sometimes so hard to stop myself from “race reading” that I’ll resort to using a text-to-speech program so that my computer reads the material to me at a less frantic pace.

There are limits, no doubt, to how difficult you might want to make the typeface of, say, the lecture notes you give to your students. If it’s too hard — for example, if you use the Gothic Black-Face that we associate with sixteenth-century German books — then your students probably won’t even read the material. Still, maybe you’ll want to try switching from Verdana to Helvetica and see what your students say.

The Princeton study is scheduled to appear in the next issue of Cognition.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

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Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.

2 thoughts on “Fonts of Wisdom: Difficult Typefaces Cause Better Learning — Mark Morton”

  1. I’m not exactly sure if this is related, but when my wife and I play along with Jeopardy (on TV), I’m able to answer the questions faster than she is because I read the questions backward as Alex is saying them forward.

  2. I’ve heard, on the other hand, that accelerating the rate of voice playback can increase retention.

    I read fast. Sometimes I have to read something twice. That’s OK.

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