Typeface Design as a Research Topic

When designers create new typefaces they have to pay attention to both legibility aspects and aesthetics, says Sofie Beier, who has chosen typeface design as her research topic. As part of her aspiration to gather practitioners’ and researchers’ knowledge in the field she recently organised a seminar at The Danish Design School where graphic designers and typeface researchers presented their views on the applicability of various categories of typefaces.

By Hans Emborg Bünemann

Which typeface characteristics determine legibility? How do we assess the legibility of a particular typeface? Those were some of the key questions at the seminar The Legible Typeface at The Danish Design School on 11 May 2010. The seminar was organised by Sofie Beier, who has a Ph.D. from the Royal College of Art in London and who is now doing research into typeface design at The Danish Design School.

Brugertest af vejskiltes læselighed, England 1961

At the seminar Ole Lund, associate professor Gjøvik University College, Norway, presented examples from the history of typeface research and the attempts to establish knowledge about typefaces and their legibility. Here an example from 1961, where user tests were carried out to assess the legibility of road signs on the basis of a heated public debate about destination signage in what was then England’s brand-new motorways.

Photo: Christie, A.W. and K.S. Rutley. The relative effectiveness of some letter types designed for use on road traffic signs. Roads and Road Construction, pp. 239-234, No. 39, August, 1961.

Legibility Is Crucial

For society and its citizens it is important that things like traffic signs and airplane manuals can be read on the fly without causing confusion. On this topic, both typeface researchers and graphic designers who create typefaces in practice have knowledge and experience to contribute. The purpose of the seminar was to promote the exchange of knowledge between the fields of research and practice.

“Practice and science within the discipline of typeface design have different approaches to assessing the legibility of typefaces,” says Sofie Beier, who is an assistant research professor at The Danish Design School. “With this seminar – and in a book that I’m currently writing – I attempt to combine scientific findings with the practitioners’ experiences to the benefit of both groups.”

Serifs or no Serifs

The practical applicability of the knowledge produced by legibility researchers is illustrated by studies of the impact of serifs. It is a widespread assumption among typeface design practitioners that sans-serif types – typefaces without serifs or “feet” as they are called in laymen’s terms – are inappropriate for body text. Thus, one of the speakers at the seminar, the Dutch type designer Gerard Unger, who has designed the typefaces used by the Danish newspapers Dagbladet Politiken and Berlingske Tidende, has a theory that the serifs have an important function and actually ease reading by defining and completing the individual letter forms. This theory is countered, however, by the knowledge that typeface researchers have established through typeface experiments.
“The collective legibility research shows no difference between serif types and sans-serif types,” says Sofie Beier.

Another example of research-based insight that is valuable to practitioners is the knowledge researchers have produced about sign legibility. For example, if a text has to be fitted to a sign of a certain width, many designers tend to choose a narrow typeface to be able to use a larger size, based on the assumption that larger sizes are easier to read at a distance than smaller sizes. However, research has documented that the best legibility is achieved with a broad typeface even if that means a smaller point size, says Sofie Beier and adds,

“It’s interesting for designers to be able to include that sort of research-based information in their dialogue with the client about the best approach to a specific task. These examples illustrate how researchers can provide knowledge to practitioners by carrying out experiments and sharing their findings.”

Et forsøg på at gøre læseligheden lille ved at modarbejde font tuning
One of the key points in the presentation by Mary Dyson, senior lecturer at the University of Reading, UK, was that the ‘translation rules’ that readers rely on for font-tuning when reading a specific typeface is stored in their long-term memory. These rules are not immediately available but can be accessed as the need arises. Thus, the use of varying typefaces reduces reading speed.

Illustration: Mary Dyson


Sofie Beier’s own research efforts in the time to come will be directed at the concept of font-tuning, which defines how and how quickly readers are able to translate letters written in a specific typeface to universal letters and thus be able to read a text. Readers have no influence on their font-tuning but in fact quickly learn to tune into a particular typeface.

“Perceptual research has found that recording a letter – simply seeing the shape – and recognising the letter are two different phenomena,” says Sofie Beier. “In my research I distinguish between visibility, that is, the visibility or clarity of the shape, including contrast conditions, and familiarity, the recognisability of the letter. I will be testing legibility before and after 20 minutes of reading two different typefaces, which I will design myself, one of which will have a very traditional serif design, while the other will have different and less traditional serifs. By ensuring the same degree of visibility in both typefaces I will be able to study familiarity as an isolated parameter. The objective is to discover whether the reader’s font-tuning during the 20 minutes of familiarisation with a typeface has a stronger effect with conservative typeface styles than with more unconventional styles.”


Et forsøg med to forskellige niveauer af familiarity i samme skrift
The typeface Pyke by Sofie Beier with two levels of familiarity. The two variations were created to study how readers react to the more unconventional letters after they have practiced reading them.

Illustration: Sofie Beier

The Designer’s Creative Latitude

The knowledge that is produced by Sofie Beier’s experiments helps shed light on the letter characteristics that affect typeface legibility. An aspect of this issue is the question of how heterogeneous the design of the letters within a single typeface can be before legibility is negatively affected. Naturally, typeface designers want to design interesting typefaces for different types of media and target groups, says Sofie Beier.

“But of course there is a limit to the creativity typeface designers can display if they want to maintain good legibility,” she says. “Researchers can offer practitioners knowledge about where that line is. Overall, my ambition for the discipline of typeface design is to create greater awareness among practitioners of the various functions of the letters. If the only objective was to achieve a problem-free reading experience, we should all stick to Times New Roman, at least for printed text, because that is the typeface that we are most familiar with. However, typeface design serves many other functions, for example to give the letters a particular personality or aesthetic value.”

Branding Versus Legibility

This objective of using the aesthetic potential in typeface design to achieve a certain visual identity for a product or a company was the topic of the last presentation at the seminar, which was given by Bo Linnemann, creative director of the branding and design agency Kontrapunkt.

“As much as possible I avoid thinking about legibility and aim to design images instead. With a characteristic typeface we can help a company build an emotional connection with the customer,” Bo Linnemann said at the seminar.
He underlined that the name of a company or a product written in a unique typeface that illustrates the industry or the product has a more durable branding effect than, for example, a symbol. This point is not least relevant in light of the growing dominance of the internet in the world of communication, since our internet-searches are based on words or names, not symbols.
“We can expect more and more companies to use custom typefaces in the future as part of their efforts to build a brand,” said Bo Linnemann. “That poses a new task for research in placing this use of typefaces into a historical context and analysing the relationship between typeface and identity.”


The seminar The Legible Typeface took place at The Danish Design School on 11 May 2010. The speakers at the seminar were

  • Ole Lund, associate professor at Gjøvik University College, Norway
  • Mary Dyson, senior lecturer at the University of Reading, UK
  • Sofie Beier, assistant research professor at The Danish Design School
  • Gerard Unger, independent typeface designer and graphic designer, professor at Leiden University, The Netherlands, and a visiting professor at the University of Reading
  • Trine Rask, independent graphic designer
  • Bo Linnemann, creative director and co-founder of the branding and design agency Kontrapunkt

As part of the research project Typeface Legibility Sofie Beier, assistant research professor at The Danish Design School, will be publishing a book in English in 2011 that brings together knowledge about type design from research and practice with a view to making this knowledge available to graphic designers.

Read the article Type design – a Part of Danish Design Tradition, Mind Design # 4, December 2007 and the article Ph.D. Scholar on a Quest for Legible Type Design, Mind Design # 8, April 2008.

Mind Design #30, 2010





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