Legibility: Print vs. Electronic Media


Photo by: Isaías Loaiza

If the point of readability in typography is to improve the visual flow of words, thus providing a smoother reading experience overall, ligatures can improve this flow by eliminating the problem of letter crashes and obtrusive spacing between letters to avoid the same, as in the case of ff, fl, and fi ligatures, making words containing these letter combinations simultaneously more legible and readable.

While ligatures don’t necessarily affect the legibility of individual letters, they do aid, to a certain extent, in making words more legible by unifying the tracking in whole words and kerning between pairs of letters. For example, the word ‘often’ sans ligature would, in some fonts, appear to be two words ‘of ten.’ This is jarring to both the eye and the mind, as the reader would have to mentally close the space between the letters ‘f’ and ‘t’ to arrive at the proper meaning of the text. While this may mean a time span of fractions of a second, it is enough to affect reading speed, comfort, and comprehension, making the word itself less legible as a distinct word, and less readable.

The opposite of this problem is cramming the letters too close together so they collide. Some type designers have avoided this problem by shortening the reach of the letter ‘f’ and other letters that tend to crowd, making them more narrow in design. However, ligatures solve both problems nicely with out affecting the uniformity of letter width or spacing.

Some modern applications used for web design and electronic text will automatically convert ligatures into separate letters once they pass a certain tracking level. It is also useful to keep in mind that you should not use ligatures, or use them sparingly if you plan to adjust the spacing of the text overall, as the letter combinations will retain their original spacing, leaving the text awkward-looking.

Print vs. Electronic Media
Though the dominance of electronic media cannot be disputed, there is still an abundance of printed media out there. Remembering that both readability and legibility are dependent on making the stylistic choices appropriate to the purpose of the text, there are several considerations to keep in mind for each type of media.

The layout of text in printed media such as books, magazine articles, and newspapers has different demands than with electronic media. Columns and large blocks of text are more easily managed in printed media. Font, text size, and overall layout are more standardized and uniform from publication to publication. Print media has also been around a lot longer, so these demands have largely been addressed and resolved.

There is more room for experimentation with print media which has special and limited use. Signs, posters, and menus have greater leeway for experimentation with different fonts, graphics, and layouts without detracting from legibility or readability to an extent that is detrimental to their purpose.

Electronic media is different in that the text tends to be continuous, as in the case of ebooks and PDF files. There are no pages to turn; the reader continuously scrolls down until they reach the end, though part of this problem has been solved as the technology advances. Web pages and ezine articles are broken up and must compete for attention with GIFS and other distractions, affecting both legibility and readability to a greater extent than with print media.

There is also a greater incidence of eyestrain and reader fatigue when reading online. Large blocks of text, wide tracking, and inconsistent use of fonts all detract from the readability of electronic media; though as with print media, it is less of an issue with text that will be read for a shorter duration.

With the proliferation of tablets, increasing popularity of ebooks, and the rise of telecommuting, it is important for designers to take into account the differences between print and electronic media when designing or choosing text for use online.

Typography has changed somewhat with the auto-formatting capabilities of many of today’s design software. Although some in the industry feel that these programs destroy what is considered the industry standard of what good typography is, these changes are necessary given the different requirements of this media.

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