Design and legibility: 10 basic principles of reading

This is part 1 of a 2-part post on ad design and legibility. In this part, we take a look at how people read.

With no special instruction, people instinctively learn spoken language. In fact, within just three years, an infant will master a vocabulary of about 1,000 words. Reading, however, must be taught. It’s a difficult process, and even after years of instruction, most people remain relatively poor readers into adulthood.

Reading is literally an unnatural act.

This is crucial for you to understand, since so many marketing efforts, and most especially direct mail and print ads, depend on your getting people to READ. In fact, I would go as far to say:

Direct mail and print advertising is all about READING.

Reading envelope teasers. Reading letters. Reading brochures. Reading order forms. Reading headlines. Reading coupons. Without reading — easy, effortless reading — you have no sales.

Therefore, one of the most devastating response barriers is simple legibility. Can your prospects read your message? Can they read it effortlessly?

Don’t confuse “legibility” with “readability.” Readability is about content comprehension and is the responsibility of the copywriter. Legibility, on the other hand, is about form presentation. This is the designer’s responsibility.

Assuming the copywriter does a good job of writing copy, the designer can encourage or discourage readership with layout and type treatment. So, a designer must understand the basics of reading.

The Reading Process

To understand legibility and how design affects readership — and thereby sales — we must first understand how people read. (Forget how people “should” read. We are only concerned with how the average person actually does read.)

Here are the basics of the reading process:

Eye Rhythm — In Western culture, we print written materials with the words arranged horizontally left to right. To read this material, the eye moves left to right along a line of type and then sweeps to the left and down to the beginning of the next line.

Fixations — As the eye moves along a line of type, it stops at certain points to allow the eye to see and the brain to comprehend one or more words. These stops are called fixations, jumps, or “saccades” from the French saquer meaning to pull. Each fixation is about 1/4 second.

Eye Span — During each fixation, the eye sees the word or words upon which it fixates as well as an area around that point. A reader’s eye span may be as small as a single word or as large as whole phrase. A good reader will see about 2 1/2 words per fixation, but the average reader may see less. The ordinary radius maximum is 2 inches around a fixation point. With standard text, this translates to about 29 letter spaces, 17 of which are clearly seen.

Thought Units — The eye span isn’t arbitrary. The brain naturally divides sentences into thought units or idea chunks. In the sentence “Bill caught the ball,” the two thought units are “Bill” — the person who did something — and “caught the ball” — the thing he did.

Configuration — Every word has a particular shape. With constant, repeated exposure to a word, reading stops and instant recognition begins. When you see a stop sign, for example, you don’t mentally sound out S-T-O-P, you perceive the whole word by its shape and instantaneously understand its meaning. Because numerals have little configuration, the eye fixates more on numbers than words. Also, since there are more shape differences with lower case letters than with capitals, configurations in lower case are recognized faster than all caps.

Recognition Rate — How fast a reader understands words during reading is called the recognition rate (or word response rate or rate of perception). Obviously, the faster a person recognizes a word, the faster and more effortless the reading. In the previous sentence, you probably whizzed over words like “the” and “a,” but paused for a split second on “recognizes” and “effortless.”

Familiarity — The more familiar a reader is with the type and the appearance of the words used, the easier the reading. Roman or serif faces are generally more familiar to readers. Type that gives words irregular features give words a more distinct and recognizable shape.

Reading Rates — The average person shows a constant increase in reading rate throughout the school years, followed by a sudden drop after graduation. In Junior High, the average reading rate is 200 words per minute (wpm). In High School, it’s 250 wpm. In College it rises to 325 wpm and then to 400 wpm in Graduate School. Then it drops back to 200 wpm in adulthood, with reading comprehension at about 50%.

Compare this to the average rate of speech, which is 140 to 160 wpm, and you’ll see that most people read slowly. (By the way, for most people, anything above 600 to 700 wpm is scanning, not reading.)

Regression — Moving the eye back over previously read material is called Regression. Not only does this lower the reading rate, it actually alters the sequence of information into the brain and lowers comprehension.

Eye Fatigue — The average adult eye travels approximately 1,600 feet per day — that’s 584,000 feet or 110 miles per year! So, it doesn’t take much to produce Eye Fatigue, which in turn slows the recognition rate and generally makes reading slow and even more difficult.

In part 2, we’ll look at how these reading principles should be used to help improve the readership of marketing and advertising materials.

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5 Responses to “Design and legibility: 10 basic principles of reading”

  1. Ted Grigg on September 30th, 2009 6:43 pm

    Good things to know Dean.

    Writing should avoid “stop actions.” These include long, rarely used words and overly complex paragraphs or sentences that stop the reader in their tracks.

    Great writers cause few, if any slowdowns in the reader’s eyes.

    Thanks for sharing this important information. You’re a great craftsman of the art of writing sales copy.
    .-= Ted Grigg’s last blog … Think Big when Testing =-.

  2. Dean Rieck on September 30th, 2009 7:40 pm

    So I should avoid a headline like this?
    “Stop your floccinaucinihilipilification of ordinary widgets. Now there’s a widget you will love!”

  3. Ted Grigg on September 30th, 2009 10:17 pm

    Naw. :) Just using the word does not make it a stop action. Your headline uses the word for emphasis.

    If you said, “Take a look at the enclosed announcement…” in your first line or even the the middle of your letter, then that is a stop action and not a good move IMHO.
    .-= Ted Grigg’s last blog … Think Big when Testing =-.

  4. Terry: Hollister Design on November 23rd, 2009 7:16 pm

    Wow, you really addressed details that I don’t think that I’ve consciously thought about for some time. Ultimately, it’s all about creating a design that’s easy to read and understand.

  5. Tips for Strategic Positioning on January 4th, 2010 11:17 pm

    GR8 Info, what are other good sites to confirm this info?

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