In their paper titled The Aesthetics of Reading, Kevin Larson and Rosalind Picard present their findings on the effects of typography on reader mood and cognitive performance. They conducted two studies, each involving 20 people. The participants were divided into two groups of 10 and were given 20 minutes to read a specially typeset issue of The New Yorker on a tablet device. One of the groups got a badly typeset version (using Courier, with spaced out words), the other a properly typeset one.
Three metrics were taken:
Participants were interrupted during the experiment and asked to estimate how much time they thought has passed since the experiment began. People who find their task enjoyable and are in a positive mood experience a faster flow of time and so are likely to underestimate the amount of time that has passed.
Participants were asked to rate their experience of the text using a questionnaire.
Participants were asked to perform a cognitive task after their reading. A different task was used in each of the two studies. The first involved the candle problem, in which you are asked to attach a candle to the wall using a box of thumbtacks in a way that the wax won’t drip down to the table below (the solution is to use the empty box as the stand). The second task involved showing the participant groups of three words and asking them to provide another word that will create a common compound with each of the three (e.g. ‘ice’ for the three words: ‘water’, ‘skate’, and ‘cream’).
Here’s what the researchers found.
1. Time flies when you’re reading beautiful text
The researchers found significant differences in perceived time spent reading. Those reading the properly typeset version of the magazine consistently underestimated the amount of time that has elapsed before they were interrupted. In the first study, the bad typography group underestimated the time by 24 seconds on average. On the other hand, the good typography group underestimated it by 3 minutes and 18 seconds on average.
The second study showed similar results, with the bad typography group underestimating the time by 2 minutes and 21 seconds on average, and the good typography group underestimating it by 5 minutes and 12 seconds on average. The second study increased the time before interruption, but the difference is significant and consistent.
2. What they say may not reflect how they feel
The questionnaire proved less reliable. The first study showed little differences. The second study, however, turned out in favor of the good typography group. It’s not clear why the second group rated their experience of the text so differently from the first, but it is possible the changes in the content played a part.
3. Good typography boosts cognitive performance
— at least for some tasks
In the cognitive tasks, the results were mixed. In the candle task, 4 participants from the good typography group solved the task. None were able to do it from the bad typography group. The difference in performance in the second study was not enough to yield reliable conclusions, though the good typography group did perform better again.
The lesson here is twofold. First, good typography has a clear impact on the mood of the reader. People who are reading a well typeset page are more engaged in the experience and find that time flies by faster. Second, research has shown that positive mood improves creative problem solving1, and since typography can be used to influence mood, it is possible that good typography also has direct effect on our productivity, at least in the sphere of certain creative tasks. Good typographic design then is not just a way to communicate the character of your text and strengthen reader engagement, it could boost their cognitive performance, too.
- Isen, A.M., Daubman, K.A., Nowicki, G.P. (1987). Positive Affect facilitates creative problem solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology