The magic of reading, e-books, and fonts

Fonts have always fascinated me. Maybe because when I was young terminals only displayed a single font - there were no font choices except a monospace green-on-black terminal font. Maybe because I dabbled with designing fonts back in the day of bitmapped fonts. Maybe because poor font choices make pages hard to read and thus render the information contained less accessible. 

Back in 1989 when everything was being printed in Times or a variant thereof, I chose to print my master's thesis in Palatino from a Mac SE 30. Thus I was fascinated by Bill Hill's paper, The Magic of Reading (blog). The paper details the development of the so-called "C" fonts by Microsoft and the ClearType technology that is intended to improve on-screen readability in conjunction with the "C" fonts.

While Microsoft touts the benefits of ClearType, even their own studies cite only small gains and then only in areas such as word recognition and affective domain surveys.

If the book of the future is on-screen, then a recent study by the Nielsen Norman Group suggests there is still research to be done on readability of on-screen materials versus paper based materials. The study, however, has a very small sample size, potentially exaggerates small differences, and may have looked at too limited a selection of technologies.

ClearType is not the last word in fonts and font rendering technologies, although ClearType may be around longer than some might expect. Microsoft still touts the "new fonts" that come with each new addition of Windows. Windows 7 bragged forty new fonts - which sounds exciting to English speakers until one learns that only two of the forty are English language characters.

I do the vast bulk of my reading on-screen, and my children are literally growing up as screen-readers from birth. The real readability tests will have to wait for their generation to mature - those who have grown up with keyboards attached to their fingers, screens ever present in front of them. They are likely to interact differently with on-screen text. My expectation is that they will read more comfortably, faster, and with more comprehension from a screen than from a printed page.

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