Can An Arial Attack Produce High Calibri Guidance?

If an article I read in the paper this week is correct, you need to immediately uninstall Arial, Verdana, Calibri, and Tahoma fonts from your computer; and instead use Comic Sans, Boldini, Old English, Magneto, Rage Italic, or one of those semi-indecipherable handwriting-style script fonts for all of your documents. According to experts, it will also be advantageous to turn off the spelling checker; and endeavour to include plenty of unfamiliar words and a sprinkling of tortuous grammatical constructs.

It seems researchers funded by Princeton University have discovered that people are 14% less likely to remember things they read when they are written in a clean and easy-to-read font and use a simple grammatical style. By making material "harder to read and understand" they say you can "improve long term learning and retention." In particular, they suggest, reading anything on screen - especially on a device such as a Kindle or Sony Reader that provides a relaxing and easy to read display - makes that content instantly forgettable. In contrast, reading hand-written text, text in a non-standard font, and text that is difficult to parse and comprehend provides a more challenging experience that forces the brain to remember the content.

There's a lot more in the article about frontal lobes and dorsal fins (or something like that) to explain the mechanics of the process. As they say in the trade, "here comes the science bit". Unfortunately it was printed in a nice clear Times Roman font using unchallenging sentence structure and grammar, so I've forgotten most of what it said. Obviously the writer didn't practice what they preached.

But this is an interesting finding. I can't argue with the bit about stuff you read on screen being instantly forgettable. After all, I write a blog that definitely proves it - nobody I speak to can remember what I wrote about last week (though there's probably plenty of other explanations for that). However, there have been several major studies that show readers skip around and don't concentrate when reading text on the Web, often jumping from one page to another without taking in the majority of the content. It's something to do with the format of the page, the instant availability, and the fundamental nature of hyperlinked text that encourages exploration; whereas printed text on paper is a controlled, straight line, consecutive reading process.

From my own experience with the user manual for our new all-singing, all-dancing mobile phones, I can only concur. I was getting nowhere trying to figure out how to configure all of the huge range of options and settings for mail, messaging, synchronization, contacts, and more despite having the laptop next to me with the online user manual open. Instead, I ended up printing out all 200 pages in booklet form and binding them with old bits of string into something that is nothing like a proper manual - but is ten times more useful.

And I always find that proof-reading my own documents on screen is never as successful as when I print them out and sit down in a comfy chair, red pen in hand, to read them. Here at p&p we are actively increasing the amount of guidance content that we publish as real books so that developers and software architects can do the same (red pen optional). The additional requirements and processes required for hard-copy printed materials (such as graphic artists, indexers, additional proof readers, layout, and the nagging realization that you only have one chance to get it right) also seem to hone the material to an even finer degree.

So what about the findings of those University boffins? Is all this effort to get the content polished to perfection and printed in beautifully laid out text actually reducing its usefulness or memorability? We go to great lengths to make our content easy to assimilate, using language and phrasing defined in our own style manuals and passing it through multiple rigorous editing processes. Would it be better if we just tossed it together, didn't bother with any editing, and then photo-copied it using a machine that's nearly run out of toner? It should, in theory, produce a more useful product that you'd remember reading - though perhaps not for the desired reasons.

Taking an excerpt from some recent guidance I've created, let's see if it works. I wrote "You can apply styles directly within the HTML of each page, either in a style section in the head section of the page or by applying the class attribute to individual elements within the page content." However, before I went back and read through and edited it, it could well have said something like "The style section in the head section, or by decorating individual elements with the class attribute in the page, can be used to apply styles within the HTML or head of each page within the page content."

Is the second version likely to be more memorable? I know that my editor would suspect I'd acquired a drug habit or finally gone (even more) senile if I submitted the second version. She'd soon have it polished up and looking more like the first one. And, no doubt, apply one of the standard "specially chosen to be easily readable" fonts and styles to it - making readers less likely to recall the factual content it contains five minutes after they've read it.

But perhaps a typical example of the way that a convoluted grammar and structure makes content more memorable is with the well-known phrase taken from a mythical motor insurance claim form: "I was driving past the hole that the men were digging at over fifty miles per hour." So that could be the answer. Sentences that look right, but then cause one of those "Hmmm .... did I actually read that right?" moments.

At the end of the article, the writer mentioned that he asked Amazon for their thoughts on the research in terms of its impact on Kindle usage, but they were "unable to comment". Perhaps he sent the request in a nice big Arial font, and the press guy at Amazon immediately forgot he'd read it...

Comments (1)

  1. Dina says:

    This totally explains why I don't remember much about my college studies…

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