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Designing for your audience

When I asked my trusted friend Ronnie Lipton to provide us with a comment on typography for this essay, she simply said:

"For all situations in which audience members are expected to read and comprehend type, nothing about typography is more important than legibility."

Now you really have to know Ronnie to understand that she didn't say just 22 words. Contained in that statement are about 10,000 words which would describe the complexity of legibility, and the factors that must be considered in order to make your typography ultimately legible. 99% of the graphic designers in the world will simply admit that the selection of typeface is what governs legibility, but there is a whole world of difference between simple legibility¹ and Ronnie's other keyword Comprehension². I only wish you already had Ronnie's The Practical Guide to Information Design³ because this article would be much more meaningful, and I could refer you to specific pages.

Previously, (if you're following the article) you saw how white space, alignment and relationships with graphics all affect the relative success of a visual communication. By now, everyone reading this article should already know that visual legibility, or making words decipherable or readable based on appearance, depends on the typeface. And, if per chance you do not yet know what that means, just set your type, (about 72 to 96 points should do,) tack it to the wall, and ask the next ten people who walk by to read it out loud. If there is even the slightest pause or hesitation, you'll need to go back and reconsider the type face (font) and style. But when we marry the words legibility and comprehension suddenly how it says it becomes more important than how it looks. One famous designer once said:

"Good ideas rendered in mediocre style are far better than bad ideas rendered with technical savvy."

If you're lucky enough to have, or get your hands on, the groundbreaking book Graphic Communications Today* by Theodore E. Conover you could learn the mechanics of a complete communication -- which is what all graphic designers, visual communicators and typographers hope to achieve. He names the parts that are required, writing:

"A complete communication consists of five parts: the sender, the message, the delivery system, the audience (or receiver) and, finally some way to indicate that the communication was received and understood. Leave out any of these and the communication might not be effective."

Fast forward 25 years and Ronnie brings this formula into the knowledge age to focus on the most important element in the communication, the receiver.

"The first step in designing for your audience and its needs is to find out what makes people alike. How do most humans -- those with normally functioning eyes and brains -- perceive and comprehend information? Basic principles of cognitive psychology apply. Perhaps chief among them is our selective attention."

In other words, all people in today's society see what they want to see... or are most interested in... or which captures their attention above the din. All of the above pivots on the relative importance of any single element found in the window of approach. So far we've looked at position, posture, white space and now, your audience. Assuming you've done your homework and gotten those right for the project the last hurdle is getting the reader to quickly comprehend the message. I italicize the word quickly because in today's world if you don't do it quickly you run a very high risk of losing your reader all together. Once comprehension sets in, its up to the reader's discretion whether or not to read on. The highest praise a graphic designer can get is finding out people are reading and comprehending -- when not remotely interested in the product! If your graphic design is converting people in today's society -- you're a hell of a designer. Famous ad man Leo Burnet once said:

"A really good creative person is more interested in earnestness than glibness and takes more satisfaction out of converting people than in 'wowing' them"

That was 50 years ago -- it's 50-times as true today.

Display Type functionality depends on groups of words

For this exercise, we're going to live by the basic understanding that in Western reading audiences left-aligned type is usually best for readability and understandability. We'll forget about font and style and focus just on the words.

Probably the most important aspect of understandable typography in display type is how the eye progresses through the gulp of type. The key to getting the reader to the desired conclusion is to allow them full comprehension with as little work as possible. Any barriers that stand in the way of a rapid, fluid flow through the statement substantially degrade the quality of the delivery. (One of the important elements in the complete communication.)

Jan White, Alex's father was the first to convince me that words in display type must sound like* what they say. This has to do with both look and rhythm. He always taught "If you read it out loud... or better yet, have someone else read it out loud, you'll hear if the world sound like they're supposed to." That has stuck with me for the past 35 years.

What controls the 'readability' and more importantly the 'sound' of the words is how the words are organized and where the lines break. Just like a song, if a line is too long, or out of rhyme, it instantly doesn't sound right and the listener is broken from the flow and annoyed, whether they know music or not. The same goes for reading. If you stop the flow, or use the wrong word in the flow, the reader instantly knows it and the message goes askew. Follow Ronnie's example:

"For headings and pull quotes that have more than one line, break the lines where you can give readers a complete phrase in each visual "gulp". That's news to those who fill the line before continuing to the next, or who strive for a longer second or third line. Instead, put a subject on the same line as its verb, a verb with its object, a preposition with its object."

Ronnie provides this example:

Democratic senators kill
bill in late session

Democratic senators kill bill
in late session

newspapersBy moving the word "bill" back to the first line, the headline becomes infinitely easier to read, and understand. It even gives each line a certain amount of autonomy in case the reader is skimming and only reads the first line. Read both aloud and you'll experience an uncomfortable pause in the first one.

If you want to see some really horrible headlines, look no further than your local newspaper. Is it any wonder why 56% of a ten-year survey by the Roper Organization* revealed that if participants could only have one medium it would be TV -- only 22 percent said they would keep newspapers! Only 5% said they could give up other media for magazines.

Obviously this layout editor didn't learn this famous Alexism about pyramid shapes so you can leave the readers' eye closest to the entry into the content well. Perhaps the headline would be better if it read:

Forcast calls for
Art and Whimsy

Perhaps it should be aligned left? Perhaps it shouldn't have every word capped... which brings us to the next page...

What about caps and punctuation in headlines?

 

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