Typographically Speaking

Alexander S. Lawson

Alexander S. Lawson

Printing Impressions is pleased to announce the addition of Alexander S. Lawson to its staff of contributing editors. His column “Typographically Speaking” will appear as a regular monthly feature in Printing Impressions.

Lawson entered the printing industry in 1928 and served his apprenticeship in the composing room. After naval service during the war he attended Rochester Institute of Technology. Upon graduation in 1947 he became an instructor in typography for R.I.T. and a professor in 1959.

He is currently at work on “A Printer’s Almanac,” a compendium of lore on printing and typography, scheduled for publication this year by North American Publishing Co.

Mrs. Beatrice Warde, writing in the Monotype Recorder as long ago as 1933, stated, “What the book critic calls readability is not a synonym for what the optician calls legibility.”

In the past 30 years there has been no change in the confusion which governs the acceptance of such terms as “legibility” an “readability,” and with the emergence of a considerable literature upon the subject, most of which purports to meet the problem head-on.

Since 1963 there have been three books published which attempt to summarize contemporary thinking on the matter. Two of these are written by the foremost American authority on readability-legibility studies, Miles A. Tinker, professor emeritus in the psychology department of the University of Minnesota: Legibility of Print, University of Iowa Press, 1963, and Bases of Effective Reading, University of Minnesota Press, 1965. The third book, written by Dr. Bror Zachrisson, Director of the Graphic Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, was published late in 1965.

Tinker refers to legibility as a term used prior to 1940 by investigators studying the factors which affect the ease and speed of reading. At that time the word readability was employed by writers engaged in numerous studies in that subject, and it appeared that perhaps the term would become the dominant one. But the waters were muddied when psychologists came up with the “readability formula,” and used it to describe certain stages of mental difficulty encountered by some readers. Professor Tinker therefore prefers to limit his terminology to the word, legibility.

“Legibility, then,” he states, “is concerned with perceiving letters and words, and with the reading of continuous textual material . . . In other words, legibility deals with the coordination of those typographical factors inherent in letters and other symbols, words, and connected textual material which affect ease and speed of reading.”

On the other hand, Dr. Zachrisson, a practical printer, concerns himself solely with defining legibility, which he feels implies primarily the “response of a reader to a text.” He believes that the reader is stimulated by the physical appearance of the reading material and is additionally influenced by his surroundings so that in effect legibility is the end result of a number of variable conditions. “Legibility is the speed and accuracy of visually receiving and comprehending meaningful running text.”

It is less than a dozen years since Sir Cyril Burt completed his study entitle A Psychological Study of Typography, which first appeared in the British journal of Statistical Psychology and later was published by Cambridge University Press. This study, which almost immediately went out of print, has become a landmark in the literature of readability-legibility investigations. What Burt considered to be merely a preliminary exposition, was hailed by most typographers as a considered accomplishment, simply because a psychologist of the first rank had declared that individual esthetic preferences of readers represented an important factor in any study of legibility.

Burt, however, declined to consider the term readability, and was content to list as factors of legibility such characteristics as the design, size, and boldness of type, along with line length, margins, and interlinear spacing. He summarized his systematic exploration by saying, “The study of preferences for different styles of printing appears to be an unduly neglected branch of the psychology of industrial design, possessing considerable practical importance for the printer and advertiser and much theoretical interest for the psychologist.”

The important fact to emerge from Burt’s report was of course that while the laboratory studies could continue along the lines of visual acuity tests, the measuring of eye-blinks, and the like, the typographer could, for the first time, consider himself to have some measure of control over the many factors which are vital to the ease and speed with which type matter may be read. In the continuing are vs. technics conflict it was no longer necessary for the graphic artist to rely completely upon the scientist to measure the effectiveness of the printed word.

There are no doubt grounds for an occasional wish that the designers pay more attention to the mechanics of reading as pointed out by the psychologists, particularly when a fad makes its appearance and is worked to death by all the modish stylists. It is probably safer, and more reassuring, however, to listen to the traditional typographers who bring to their work the accumulated good sense of generations of printers who have fully understood their function in the preparation of print. But during the post-war years, the trend designers a[[ear to have been dominant, and there has been very little opportunity to listen to the more rational typographers.

Rather than attempt to define such terms as readability and legibility, it might be more reasonable to state principles, such as the justly famous quotation of Stanley Morison, who, 40 years ago, wrote, “Typography may be defined as the craft of rightly disposing printing material in accordance with specific purpose; of so arranging the letters, distributing the space and controlling the type as to aid to the maximum the reader’s comprehension of the text.”

It was reassuring indeed to hear the distinguished typographer, Sir Francis Meynell, founder of the Nonesuch Press, in his recent visit to the United States. In a talk, “The Design of Books: Function and Fashion,” presented on March 23rd at Rockefeller University in New York City, Sir Francis echoed the philosophy of the humanist printer in his definition of legibility.

“By legibility, I mean a proper observance in all its infinite details of that principle of order and convention which is the basis of written communication. Printing is the vehicle: legibility is the well-greased bearing that allows the wheels of sense to revolve without squeaking. . . . Legibility is shape, is due precedence, is order, not merely in the forms of letters but in the very shape and organization of the whole book. the legibility is the bare necessity. It stands between use and meaninglessness. It stands between us and chaos. . . .”

This article first appeared in the “Typographically Speaking” column of the July 1966 issue of Printing Impressions.

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