Are the fonts aging?

If you’re older, you may have noticed that you don’t read as fast as you used to. This may be due to vision loss or cognitive changes. Or it could be something else: aging fonts.

A major new study has found that fonts are important in determining how quickly a person is able to read on screens. But they matter more if you’re over 35.

Shaun Wallace, a PhD student in computer science at Brown University, set out to glean “what gains in reading efficiencies are possible by manipulating font choice alone,” according to the study. Wallace’s team tasked 352 participants, ages 18 to 71, with reading text on their own personal devices to mimic a natural reading environment. Sixteen fonts were tested based on their popularity online, in newsprint, in PDF files, and among readability experts. These were Avenir Next, Arial, Avant Garde, Calibri, Franklin Gothic, EB Garamond, Helvetica Neue, Lato, Montserrat, Noto Sans, Open Sans, Oswald, Poynter Gothic Text, Roboto, Times and Utopia.

The biggest find is somehow unsatisfying, as usability expert Jakob Nielsen points out in a research summary. There is no one font to rule them all. Some people read better with Arial. Others read better with Avant Garde. Individual differences were more significant than any overall effect. Curiously, the fonts people said they liked best weren’t necessarily the ones that helped them read the fastest. You might like the look of set text in Helvetica, for example, but Open Sans is more likely to turn you into a fast reader.

An observation been clear: Older participants, or those 35 and older, read slower on average than younger participants with all fonts except EB Garamond and Montserrat. This chart says it all. The red line represents participants aged 35 and over; the blue line represents the under 35s.

[Photo: ACM Digital Library]

What is it about Garamond EB and Montserrat that works so well for older readers? Of all the typefaces studied, Montserrat has the tallest x-height (which refers to the height of a lowercase “x”). “Type designers have designed fonts with larger x-heights to increase readability in the past,” Wallace told Co.Design, pointing to popular web fonts like Georgia and Verdana. “A larger x-height can improve readability with smaller font sizes. As we get older and need larger font sizes, Monsterrat’s design might help.

But the study attempted to control the font size, so Monsterrat must have other attributes that help older users. As for EB Garamond: it has serifs, which gives it a classic look, but it’s “a modern design compared to the other serif fonts in our study,” Wallace says. So maybe this resonates with older readers who are familiar with serif fonts but benefit from more contemporary features, like a larger x-height.

The study’s findings point to a design problem that extends well beyond typography: there is no such thing as an “average” user. Even if there were, designing for that person would exclude countless others.

For reading on screens, Wallace suggests the answer lies in personalized experiences. “We believe everyone should have a digital design token that developers and publishers can embed into apps and websites to support custom readability,” he says. It’s an ambitious idea, with sensitive privacy implications, which Wallace readily admits, noting: “An alternative is to explore tools that users can install and control that will redistribute or reformat the text they read.

Until there? If you’re over 35 and find yourself skimming through a block of text, don’t blame yourself. Blame the font.

About Nell Love

Check Also

How to Change the Font Size on Your Kindle

Here we will show you how to change the font size on your Kindle in …