Portrait of Laura Battiferri, by Angelo Bronzino
Portrait of Laura Battiferri, by Angelo Bronzino

Eyes on the Text, Mind on the Type

Saccade, the French word for jerk, is a quick movement of the eyes between points of fixation. The saccade and fixation are used to gather information and build a mental map of an environment. Saccadic movement is due to the very small area of high resolution vision in humans, only about two degrees at the center of the field of view. It’s what we do when we read: jump between sections of text.

Types of the 16th century are categorized as Humanist, having evolved out of handwritten forms. They’re marked among other things by angled stress, low to medium stroke contrast, moderate x-height, and often an angled rising crossbar on the upright lowercase e.AaeAae

The faster we’re able to read the more info we take in between saccades. A child begins reading letter by letter while a skilled reader can take in up to 20 letters at a time. Experience clearly helps. Zuzana Licko famously said “Readers read best what they read most.” It could be a particular author’s style, a common layout, a specific typeface, or just something you’ve read more than a few times. Presented with the familiar we’re better able to take in more information. But as we take in more information, our eyes actually see less of the text. We skim, skip, and fill in what we think we missed.

We project onto text what we already know: existing knowledge of language and dialect, writing styles, even details of letterforms. It is said that 20% of words are skipped by experienced readers. That missing 20% is left up to the imagination. When we read on autopilot — where the text disappears and the subconscious takes over — the eyes skim the text as the mind constructs memories, filling in what we skipped over based on context and past experience. But while we’re busy skipping text, we’re actually paying significant attention to the type.

The Magdalen Reading, by Rogier van der Weyden, 1435–1438The Magdalen Reading, by Rogier van der Weyden, 1435–1438

Humans take in a staggering amount of data about their surroundings. Having very little information to go on, we have an uncanny ability to recognize things. For example, a friend from the cadence of their footsteps. We make these connections without realizing it. It’s truly remarkable. It’s also a significant component of how typography works. We subconsciously take in the tiniest details of letterforms, giving content a much deeper presence than we realize.

It’s knowing the tiny details of a typeface that we’re able to recognize words and phrases through a glancing read. Within the strokes and details of letters exist hints of the whole. Not unlike a fractal, a good typeface is designed to instantly guide the reader to an understanding of that particular type’s relation to itself.

Type designer Matthew Carter described it best: “Type is a beautiful group of letters, not a group of beautiful letters.

Luckily you don’t have to be a professional designer to use or appreciate type. Actually those not versed in typography possess a fairly sophisticated level of typographic know-how. Non-designers are surprisingly able to read without trouble, previously unseen and drastically unique letterforms. They’ll read such things and only afterward question the odd glyphs they just successfully read! In each of us exists this inherent typographic knowledge, self taught by a lifetime of reading.

Martin Luther with his “95 Thesis,” by Ferdinand Pauwels, 1873Martin Luther with his “95 Thesis,” by Ferdinand Pauwels, 1873

While the everyday reader might not be able to articulate the reasons for a good or bad type composition, they nonetheless sense it. We all rely on consistency and our own expectations to read. It’s when these expectations aren’t met that typography begins to fail. A good text composition requires a certain level of ergonomics in size and spacing, unique to the type being used. Each typeface has its own particular needs that a setting should satisfy in order to be familiar to the reader.

But just as the ability to read doesn’t make a writer, sensing the quality of typesetting isn’t the same as knowing what makes it good or bad. This is why good design requires skilled typographers to see the work through to all contexts.

For a more in-depth, fascinating read on the subject see “While You’re Reading” by Gerard Unger.

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