Perhaps you should make your website hard to read

Film Director James CameronJames Cameron (right), the director of blockbuster movies Titanic and Avatar, is well-known for being a perfectionist. So, you can imagine he would not let the choice of typefaces for his movies go without his personal attention. Both Titanic and Avatar use individual fonts – indeed, there has been much uproar from graphic designers about his choice of typefaces. According to designers and font aficionados, type matters. Indeed it does, it helps us read things more easily and quickly and helps us understand things. And therein lies the problem online – the most common fonts used appear to be the ones which do not aid understanding.

New research shows that when a typeface is difficult to read it makes it EASIER to learn. That’s right – it’s the reverse of what we think. Online – indeed in print – designers and users want clarity. We want to be able to read things quickly and engage with pages without difficulty. After all, when you see a web page with a tricky font, you probably move on, clicking away to something more readable.

But this fascinating new study from Princeton University shows that this is not necessarily a good idea. Students were presented with written material in different fonts and then later tested on their knowledge. Guess what? The students who were given the most difficult to read font were the ones who achieved the highest marks. The everyday font used (Arial) actually led to the lowest marks. In other words there was an inverse relationship between readability and learning. The more difficult it was to read, the more the students learned.

The researchers explain this by suggesting that when something is easy to read our brains simply are tricked into believing that we have “got it”. But when we face something more troubling, we have to pay attention, commit more brain processing effort and thereby learn more.

Few website owners appear to pay any attention to the choice of fonts online – the plethora of sites in Arial is testament to that. But if you have information that people need to learn, or you have material that your customers need to “get”, then choosing a less readable font looks like it will pay off. Accepting your designer’s suggestion for readability of fonts may sound logical, but as this study suggests they could well be wrong.

Perhaps part of the success of Avatar is down to the fact that we had to concentrate to read the sub-titles; they were such a difficult font to read we were forced to engage with the movie more. Perhaps James Cameron is more than a perfectionist; perhaps he just thinks about how to engage his viewers – and that’s a lesson for every website owner.

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