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Readability Rules

A magazine can be a wonderful read—if you can read it.



John Brady By John Brady
03/31/2009

One of my favorite magazines used to be Esquire. I just wish I could read more of it. For me, the text type is often too small, the lines too lengthy. And then there are the blocks of weenie reversed-out type. Readability be damned. This is art direction for art director’s sake.

After throwing a few award-winning issues away, I began to wonder if I was either turning into an Andy Rooney (with curmudgeonly growl and magnifying glass in hand), or if I was just not hip enough for a magazine aimed at a younger audience trained to read the miniscule type on hotel mattress labels and CD jackets.

Then last week I came across a letter to the editor in Wired (March ‘09), complaining about the weenie type in that publication, also aimed at youthful hipsters. Sent by reader Fred Fury (appropriately enough), the letter, complete with asterisks, ran as follows:

Oh, aren’t you children so clever with the tiny type on silver background. Maybe the copy was so pointless that you figured you’d hide it in tiny type. Why are you stupid **** so stupid?

You offer to renew my subscription, but the inane bull*** makes any scrap of info too much trouble. I’ll be glad to see all you stupid **** on the unemployment line, begging your parents for pot money. Way to kill a once-relevant rag, you trend-worshipping, consumerist little self-entitled ****.

Fred Fury, San Francisco

PS -- ****you.
PPS – Did I remember to say “**** you”? If not, **** you, losers.


One possible reason for Esquire’s readability problem (and mine) is the stories are not edited for space available. It’s a writers’ book. When copy is too long, it sometimes means reducing the type size in order to squeeze it all in. Extensive copy also means that headlines, illustrations, photos and other elements that are attention getters must be reduced—along with the likelihood of capturing a reader’s attention.

Designers sometimes lose track of the magazine’s primary goal: to relay information. To do so, the information must be readable and legible.

Readability means the ease with which a message can be read. Legibility means the speed with which each letter or word form can be perceived and recognized. Both depend on the right typefaces for a magazine’s layouts.

Words to Read By

For readability to rule, we have to look at type from the reader’s point of view, not the designer’s. One book that does this is Colin Wheildon’s Type & Layout: How Typography and Design Can Get Your Message Across—Or Get in the Way (Worsley Press, 1995). The author conducted a series of tests in which 224 readers were presented with magazine stories in alternative formats. Wheildon found that 10 to 12 point type is the optimal size for text type, that 38 percent of readers found body type set wider than 60 characters hard to read, and 22 percent said they wouldn’t read wide-measure body type at all.

“Long lines of copy should be broken up into more readable, shorter columns,” observes that old standby, The Lithographers Manual (Graphic Arts, 1988). “The optimal range of line length is 34 to 36 characters. Anything over 54 characters requires extra effort to read.”

And what about reversed type? Studies by Williams-Sonoma indicate that when black on white type was substituted for reverse type in identical layouts, catalog sales increased by 33 percent. Designer Poppy Evans, in her Designer’s Survival Manual (How Design Books, 2001), says that, according to one study, you lose 20 percent of your readers when a graf is in reverse. “In smaller sizes, avoid serif typefaces altogether; small thin-lined serifs will fill in on press and make readability difficult. In larger sizes, and in headlines, thin-lined sans serifs will work in reverse, but in general the bolder or heavier your typeface, the more legible it will be in reverse.”

Evans adds a helpful suggestion on leading (the distance between lines of type), which is generally one or two points larger than typeface size. “Use extra leading to improve legibility when column widths are more than 40 characters; when typeface has a tall x-height; when typeface is sans serif; and when type is reversed.”


John Brady is visiting professional at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy, and conducts editorial workshops for professionals. For information on his workshop text Magazine Editing: The Practical Approach and his Interviewer’s Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, his web site is johnbrady.info, or you may e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.

John Brady By John Brady
03/31/2009







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