Design That Gets People to Read

Monthly Typography Tidbits help to feed your typographic hunger and nourish your design output.

This month’s morsel is about designing for the reader.

When I began my graphic design career, I had no clue how important typography was. I was told early on that the reason I had a job was because of “the content.” If people weren’t reading, my designs weren’t working. No matter how cool the photos were or what type of varnish was used on the cover—if it wasn’t being read, it wasn’t selling our clients’ products and services, and therefore, I was out of a job.

Anyone can make a headline look beautiful, but keep the attention of the reader throughout the body copy so they’ll want to turn the page and read more? That’s your challenge.

As a graphic designer or creative director, you’re designing for the reader; not just for yourself or for the client. Others may try to dictate design choices to suit their own personal tastes, but let’s keep the business goal in mind; persuading a person to act, whether that is to subscribe, purchase, donate, write a letter or so on.

Let’s design for the reader first, then choices on graphic elements such as imagery and color can be implemented afterwards. I tell my students, it’s like designing a car. You’re designing a driving experience so that a person can, first and foremost, drive the car. All the bells and whistles on the dashboard should not deter from that core goal.

Typography is a tool to help readers take information off the page, and that’s if it’s used correctly. The way type is arranged affects how people to read, and, adversely encourage them to avoid reading too. With typography, designers work with all sorts of tools; with grids, picas, glyphs but we also need to know a bit of psychology in order to typeset for the reader.

How to know if you’re encouraging or discouraging readers to read? Here are three steps in which you can set up your design for success:


1. First, understand how humans read.

It’s important to understand how humans recognize words and how the brain processes information. Research shows that to a large degree, we read by the shape of the word, rather than letter by letter. Our eyes scan a page in a rapid movement (otherwise known as a saccade), picking up word shapes along the way while our brains convert those forms into meaning.

How fast we saccade is based on our own reading experience, of course, but once we are used to seeing a word, we can instantly recognize the word based on that shape for the rest of our life (this is why logo marks are so memorable).

The outer shape outlines the unique shape around the ascenders and descenders of a word. The more unique the shape, the easier it is to read. Therefore, type set in all capital letters is a little harder to read. To make all-caps more readable, space out the letters to slow the reader down.


2. Provide clues for faster scanning.

A good hierarchical system uses the Gestalt Law of Similarity  to tell the reader which areas to scan to find what they may be looking for. The Law of Similarity, one of the Gestalt Laws of Perceptual Organization does just that, tells the brain that items that are similar tend to be grouped together.

If certain visuals look similar, the brain groups together in the similar context. Consistency is important for how we format headers, sub-headers, footnotes and other elements of hierarchy. Choose one typeface, one size, and one style for these items. Change the system, and the brain will perceive it otherwise.

For example, I might choose to set my headers Miller Text Roman Small Caps set in 12 points across a whole document. Once that style is established, then the person reading knows now to jump to each set of text in small caps to read what the next block of copy is about.


3. Help people to read more competently.

As a designer, you can actually change the reading experience altogether; slow reading down, speed reading up and so on. Do your readers a favor and help them to read by choosing typefaces that encourage them to keep reading your body copy without distraction.

One way to do this is to choose a typeface that has a little bit of contrast. Monotone, or uniform stroke letterforms are less readable than ones with some level of contrast. A modest variety of width in the strokes, transitions and stress of a letterform helps to inform the eye what the letter is, and provide an immediate identification of the word to the reader. If possible, choose a typeface that has minor to medium contrast. Once letterforms have extreme contrast in strokes and stress, they become difficult to read again.

I hope you’ll design for your audience and encourage your readers to act! Let me know if you have questions about designing for readability on Twitter at @TypeEd.

Michael Stinson is a co-founder and instructor at TypeEd, where he helps designers implement better typography, efficiently. Get more typography in your inbox when you sign up for more updates about TypeEd.