The Aesthetics of Reading

the readersKevin Larson (Microsoft) and Rosalind Picard (MIT) have published a paper called “The Aesthetics of Reading” (pdf link) that attempts to determine whether typographic refinements result in improved reading. In the authors’ words:

In this paper we demonstrate a new methodology that can be used to measure aesthetic differences by examining the cognitive effects produced by elevated mood. Specifically in this paper we examine the benefits of good typography and find that good typography induces a good mood. When participants were asked to read text with either good or poor typography in two studies, the participants who received the good typography performed better on relative subjective duration and on certain cognitive tasks.

Preliminary results with standard measurements included the following:

  • Readers preferred good layout (duh), but this resulted in no measurable performance improvements. (The authors’ example of “good layout” would have looked better with a left-aligned head.)
  • OpenType refinements such as kerning, small caps, old style numerals, and sub/superscript features produced no reading speed, comprehension, or preference differences. (Clearly the sample did not include graphic designers.)
  • Even rather gross tracking and kerning improvements went unnoticed by readers. (When the differences were pointed out, however, the better set text was preferred.)

Theorizing that designers and typographers must know something, the authors attempted to find new ways of measuring the effects of typography and design. They came up with two measurements: time perception or “relative subjective duration” (RSD — this assumes that a more pleasurable experience will have less of a tendency to seem to drag on) and positive mood (based on studies that have shown that positive mood improves cognitive performance).

Using these measurements, good typography was found to produce statistically significant benefits. Hurray! The authors again:

We have … demonstrated that high quality typography appears to induce a positive mood, similar to earlier mood inducers such as a small gift or watching a humorous video. This is an exciting finding because there are important differences between good and poor typography that appear to have little effect on common performance measures such as reading speed and comprehension. To help move the field of typography forward we need methods that can successfully measure aesthetic differences.

Update: Kevlar at reports “We describe further progress on this line of research in issue 22 of Typo magazine.”


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  1. “[G]ood typography induces a good mood.” Gee, another brilliant revelation from MIT and Microsoft. Next we’ll find out that blinding sun glare on a portable e-book device makes readers grumpy. And so, another bajillion dollars earmarked for improved paperless solutions. Sigh.

  2. Robert, I’m not sure how much potential this line of research has, but I don’t think I would dismiss it out of hand. It offers a metric that has potential for evaluating aspects of typography and design. For Microsoft, it also provides an objective validation of typographic refinements, which is a good thing for those of us who want our typefaces to come with a full set of old style figs, small caps, ligatures, and the like.

    I haven’t seen the Typo 22 follow-up referred to by Kevlar in the update.

  3. I’m deeply wary of an, “objective validation of typographic refinements” – or any quantification of aesthetics for that matter. Kerning, sure, that aligns with geometry fairly well. But the expressed elegance inelegance of a particular font, for example, is so much a matter of taste…

  4. A sensible caution.