Billboards and Novels by Jon Tan

Jon is at An Event Apart in Atlanta to talk about Billboards and Novels. That means: impact vs. immersion.

Who in the audience has ever had to explain layout and design decisions? And who has struggled to do that? Jon has. That’s why he wants to talk about the differences between designing for impact—to grab attention—and immersion—to get out of the way and allow for absorbing involvement.

Jon examines the difference between interruption and disruption. You want to grab attention, but the tone has to be right. This is how good advertising works. So sometimes impact is a good thing, but not if you’re trying to read.

The web is reading.

Understanding how people read is a core skill for anyone designing and developing for the web. First, you must understand language. There’s a great book by Robert Bringhurst called What Is Reading For?, the summation of a symposium. Paraphrasing Eric Gill, he says that words are neither things, nor pictures of things; they are gestures.

Words as gestures …there are #vss (very short stories) on Twitter that manage to create entire backstories in your mind using the gestures of words.

A study has shown that aesthetics does not affect perceived usability, but it does have an effect on post-use perceived aesthetics. Even though a “designed” and “undesigned” thing might work equally well, our memory the the designed thing is more positive.

Good typography and poor typography appear to have no affect on reading comprehension. This was tested with a New Yorker article that was typeset well, and the same article typeset badly. The people who had the nicely typeset article underestimated how long it had taken them to read it. Objectively it had taken just as long as reading the poorly-typeset version, but because it was more pleasing, it put them in a good mood.

Good typography induces a good mood. And if you are in a good mood, you perform tasks better …and you will think that the tasks took less time. Time flies when you’re having fun.

What about type on screens?

  • David Berlow describes the web as “crude media.”
  • Jonathan Hoefler describes how he produces fonts differently for different media: the idea (behind the typeface) gives rise to a variety of forms.
  • Matthew Carter designed Bell Centennial to work at one size in one environment: the crappy paper of the telephone book. He left gaps in the letterforms for the ink to spread into.
  • The Siri typeface was redrawn anew as SiriCore specifically for the screen.

When Jon is evaluating typefaces, he is aware that some fonts are more optimised for the screen than others. He tests the smallest text first, in the most adverse environment: a really old HP machine running Windows XP. He also looks at language support, and features and variants like lining numerals: what are the mechanics of the font?

We take quiet delight in the smallest details of a typeface.

Legibility is so important. Kevin Larson analysed how we read. We take a snapshot of a bunch of letters, and our brains rearrange them into a word. We read by skipping along lines in “saccades” with pauses or “fixations” that allow us to understand a group of letters before reading on.

Jon tells the story of how Seb was fooled by a spoof Twitter account for the London Olympics. The account name was London20l2 (with a letter L), not London2012 (with the letter one). Depending on the typeface, that difference can be very hard to spot. Here’s a handy string:

agh! iIl1 o0

Stick that into Fontdeck and you’ll get a good idea of the mechanics of the font you’re looking at. You’re looking out for ambiguities that would interrupt the reader.

The same goes for typesetting: use the right quotes and apostrophes; not primes. Use ligatures when they help. But some ligatures are just showing off and they interrupt your reading. Typesetting should help reading, not interrupt or disrupt.

You can use text-rendering: optimizeLegibility but test it. You can use hyphens: auto but test it. You can add a non-breaking space before the last two words in a paragraph to prevent orphans. It will improve the mood.

A good example of interruption is the Ampersand 2012 website. There’s a span on the letter that should receive a flourish. But you can also use expert subsets. You can use Opentype features. There are common and discretionary ligatures. Implement them wisely. Use discretionary ligatures when you want to draw attention, like in a headline.

Scantastic readability. We wander around the page or screen in the same way as we read with saccades: our eyes jump around the place. Our scan path is a roughly Z-shaped pattern. You can design for this scan path: deliberately interrupt …but not disrupt. Jon uses the squint test when he is designing, to see what jumps out and interrupts.

Measure (line-length) is really important. Long lines tire us out. Bringhurst mentioned 45-75 character measures. But the measure is also bound to the prose: the content might be very short and snappy.

Contrast can give you careful, deliberate interruptions. Position, density, size …these are all tools we can use to interrupt without disrupting. The I Love Typography article on The Origins of ABC is a beautiful example of this. Compare it to the disruption of faddish parallax sites.

But there are no rules, just good decisions.

It’s all so emotional. Sometimes there are no words. Think of the masterful storytelling of the first twenty minutes of Wall-E.

We react incredibly quickly to faces. We can see and recognise a human face in 40 milliseconds, before we even consciously process that we’ve seen a face.

When we try to write about music, the result can be some really purple prose.

We have an emotional reaction to faces, colour, music …and type.

Jon demonstrates the effect on us that a friendly typeface has compared to a harsh typeface …even though the friendly typeface is used for the Malay word for “hate” and the harsh typeface is used for the Malay word for “love.” Our amygdala is reacting directly. It’s a physiological, visceral reaction we have before we even understand what we’re looking at.

Fonts are wayfinding apps for emotions. There’s a difference between designing places and designing postcards of places.

The Milwaukee Police News website is very impactful …but there’s no immersion. It doesn’t communicate beyond the initial reaction.

Places are defined by type and form: New York, London, Paris. A website for Barcelona or Brooklyn should reflect the flavour of those places.

All these things combine: impact, immersion, contrast, colour, type. We can affect people’s experiences. We can put them in a better mood.

Type shapes our experience. It paints pictures that echo in our memory long after we’ve left.

Eric Spiekermann said:

Details in typefaces are not to be seen, but felt.

Those details have to work in the greater context (of colour, contrast, layout).

Bruce Lee said:

Don’t think; feel.

Have you published a response to this? :