In a recent study published in the journal Cognition, psychologists at Princeton and Indiana University had 28 men and women read about three species of aliens, each of which had seven characteristics, like “has blue eyes,” and “eats flower petals and pollen.” Half the participants studied the text in 16-point Arial font, and the other half in 12-point Comic Sans MS or 12-point Bodoni MT, both of which are relatively unfamiliar and harder for the brain to process.
After a short break, the participants took an exam, and those who had studied in the harder-to-read fonts outperformed the others on the test, 85.5 percent to 72.8 percent, on average.
To test the approach in the classroom, the researchers conducted a large experiment involving 222 students at a public school in Chesterland, Ohio. One group had all its supplementary study materials, in English, history and science courses, reset in an unusual font, like Monotype Corsiva. The others studied as before. After the lessons were completed, the researchers evaluated the classes’ relevant tests and found that those students who’d been squinting at the stranger typefaces did significantly better than the others in all the classes — particularly in physics.
“The reason that the unusual fonts are effective is that it causes us to think more deeply about the material,” a co-author of the study, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton, wrote in an e-mail. “But we are capable of thinking deeply without being subjected to unusual fonts. Think of it this way, you can’t skim material in a hard to read font, so putting text in a hard-to-read font will force you to read more carefully.”
Difficulty builds mental muscle, while ease often builds only confidence.
Interesting thought on what this means for design, especially service design, learning material, wayfinding, etc. For inspiration, here a link to David Carson’s website
Read the full article on www.readability.com
A version of that article appeared in print on April 19, 2011, on page D5 of the New York edition with the headline: Come On, I Thought I Knew That!.