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Monotype, Google and MIT AgeLab team up to research how we read at a glance

Image from a study by MIT AgeLab and Monotype into legibility in quick glance environments. Courtesy Thunder Sky
Image from a study by MIT AgeLab and Monotype into legibility in quick glance environments. Courtesy Thunder Sky

The way we read has changed dramatically in the past few decades. Our default method is no longer to read ink on paper but digital type on screens of all sizes – from handheld phones and tablets to large-scale billboards. Most of us now consume information at a glance: a brief look at a text message, a pop-up notification on your desktop, the screen of your smartwatch or the Sat Nav in your car. We often read on the move and in visually noisier environments than ever before.

There is a great deal of research into legibility – how fonts and typography styles affect our ability to consume information – but much of it dates back to a time when the predominant form of reading was in print or at a desk. A new research consortium founded by MIT’s AgeLab, Google and Monotype, however, is hoping to investigate how we read in ‘glance-based’ environments: in particular, on digital screens, HUD displays and in VR and AR environments.

The Clear Information Presentation consortium, or Clear-IP, aims to gather evidence on how typography and design decisions affect our ability to read and retain content at a glance. Studies will be used to create a best practice toolkit for designers, helping them understand how design choices impact legibility.

In a statement announcing the initiative, Clear-IP says it hopes to become a “publicly recognised authority on best practices for the application of typography in graphic design”. Through “data-driven research”, it plans to help designers and interface designers address “the technological challenges and psychological implications of a fast-paced lifestyle that has fundamentally altered how information is perceived and processed”.

“Many of the principles we’re talking about [will] carry forward to long-term reading, but our focus is on uncovering the fundamentals of clear information presentation in a modern, fast-paced, quick-glance environment,” says Bryan Reimer, Ph.D. Research Scientist at MIT AgeLab and a member of Clear-IP’s board of directors.

If you look at the legibility literature, most of the fundamental [findings] are based on traditional long-form reading

“If you look at the legibility literature, most of the fundamental [findings] are based on traditional long-form reading, looking at information presented on paper, but we don’t design for paper anymore. Designing for digital applications allows us to change colours and shape things in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago,” he continues. “Design intuition tells us a tremendous amount, but how do we inform designers with information that can help them make more strategic decisions?… We don’t want to constrain the artistic process, but just provide more scientific evidence that designers can use.”

AgeLab was founded in 1999. It works with partner organisations to research how technology and design can help people live more independent and active lives as they age. Past studies have looked at the design of retirement communities, how assistive technologies can help people with dementia and their carers and how in-car speech interfaces can be optimised for older drivers.

The organisation has been working with Monotype to research legibility since 2012. Studies conducted in driving simulators examined the effects of type size, style, weight, widths and line-spacing as well as ambient light on drivers’ ability to read information at a glance. (Research concluded that humanist typeface Frutiger was easier to read than square grotesque Eurostile). Monotype’s Nadine Chahine and AgeLab researcher Jonathan Dobres also conducted desktop studies to understand how quickly people could recognise whether an assortment of letters was a word or not.

Glance reading is predominant now, with so many notifications, the constant clamouring for attention from every single device … it’s much more frequent

While useful, these studies have raised more questions than Monotype and AgeLab say they can answer without additional support. The consortium is now looking for more members to invest in wider research looking at typography and designing for quick-glance environments.

“Glance reading is predominant now, with so many notifications, the constant clamouring for attention from every single device beeping and vibrating and trying to tell us to look at this and look at that. It’s much more frequent, and we need to understand more about what factors are important and what are not [when it comes to design],” says Chahine.

“There is quite a fair amount of research on legibility per se, some of it more relevant than others, but most of it is within an environment of long reading,” she continues. “When you’re looking at books and newspapers, text is almost always a dark colour on a light background … but when you’re reading on screens, that’s not [always the case]. Sometimes you’re reading white text on a black background, and we need to understand if there is a cost for switching colours. [We also need to understand] the difference between nighttime conditions and daytime conditions. You can’t read a book in a dark room, there has to be some kind of light, but you can read a device, and we need to know if there is a cost to that.” 

We want people to understand the importance of balancing design and science

Reimer doesn’t expect Clear-IP’s research to result in a radical rethink of design practices. Instead, he hopes the consortium’s findings will encourage designers to take “small steps” to improve visual communications “across the digital ecosystem”. Upcoming studies will include a look at text against video and another on how to maintain legibility regardless of background content – for example, in music streaming interfaces or systems featuring maps.

Members will have early access to findings but the results of studies will eventually be made public. “Part of the benefit of being in the research consortium is getting first pass, exclusive access to these findings but it’s not our goal to hang on to them forever,” says Reimer. The hope is to eventually create a set of best practice guidelines or “10 commandments” of legibility, he says.

“We want people to understand the importance of balancing design and science and understanding that design decisions have an impact beyond aesthetics, especially in situations where safety is an issue,” adds Chahine. “We’d love to recruit more members – the more members we have, the more resources we can put together for testing – but just encouraging people to take the issue of legibility more seriously, or making them more curious [about it] would be a big win for us.”

You can find out more about Clear-IP and AgeLab’s work here.

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