The emotional accessibility of reading

David Bailey

Balancing emotion with function is essential when choosing a typeface for your brand.

How we speak when meeting someone for the first time influences their first impression. It’s the same with written communication. From a logo or slogan to more complex messaging or instructions — your typeface paints a picture of who you are and why you’re worth knowing. It isn’t merely a branding element. It’s your visual tone of voice and therefore central to your brand. And remember; your brand is your reputation.

Why am I telling you this?

As a design director it’s fair to say that type design is often on my mind. In fact it’s un-switch-off’able. I expect I’ll be pondering typefaces and their usage right up to my last breath.

The Readability Group is a research initiative established by myself, Bruno Maag and Gareth Ford Williams. We came together through our day jobs when designing the BBC Reith typeface. That project surfaced many questions about the human reading experience that we’ve decided to pursue further. We want to understand how to truly optimise the process of reading for everyone! To do this, we are surfacing data that until now has been notable by its absence, causing otherwise rigorous practitioners to fall back on hearsay and anecdote. But as our friend Jamie Knight reminds us; ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’.

Our work is underpinned by the three pillars of accessibility — Emotional accessibility (Is it appealing?), Technical accessibility (Is it built correctly?), and Functional accessibility (Is it working?).

The 3 pillars of accessibility — Emotional; Technical; Functional

When one considers the impact a typeface can have on a brand, it’s becomes clear just how important it is to balance emotion with function. We believe emotional accessibility should come first. Why? Because if something lacks appeal in the first place, it’s already failing.

Increasingly we see visual design decisions being made based on data. The knock-on effect of which is a need to qualify all emotional choices and remove subjectivity as much as possible. But making something technically and functionally sound is meaningless if it looks rubbish and no one wants it.

When it comes to branding, fashion plays a key role. Let’s take an actual fashion brand to help explain this. Burberry have been repositioning their brand from high-society affluence to high-end streetwear. In the process they redesigned their logo. Its elegant illustrative detail was replaced with bold neutral typography.

The Burberry logo redesign (2018)

By replacing personality with pure information they have somewhat paradoxically made their marque more invisible, despite improving its legibility.

This logo change caused heated debate among designers at the time — the big question being, “Are logos still relevant?”. There is no simple answer to this, eg. if a logo isn’t important then where’s the harm in changing it? Though conversely, why bother changing it at all?

Might this redesign have reduced Burberry’s appeal? Maybe. Maybe not. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all. But it signals that functional design is in fashion.

Functionality isn’t the end-all and be-all. It’s a means to an end. A solution to a problem. Typographic ‘fashion’ began in Western Europe in the mid thirteenth century with the emergence of gothic manuscript lettering. This later evolved into so-called ‘blackletter’ typefaces.

Gothic manuscript lettering which evolved into the ‘blackletter’ type style

This elaborate style would later be appropriated by the Nazis in the 1930s and helped define their “brand” through visually aggressive propaganda. And sadly for many years after, blackletter would be associated with this dark chapter in our history.

But time is a healer and the blackletter style would be reclaimed through media and popular culture. Its use on newspaper mastheads conveys an authoritative and learned personality. In the 1970s and 80s it was adopted by heavy metal bands to convey the drama and complexity of their music. And in the 90s, blackletter became ubiquitous in urban streetwear and remains a cool “bad boy” fashion choice.

Reclaiming the blackletter style through media and pop culture

So emotionally we see the blackletter style being very effective. But functionally it struggles. Its unusual shapes make it hard to read — we’re unfamiliar with them, causing our brain to make mistakes.

Granted, the new Burberry logo and the blackletter style are extreme examples. But they help illustrate the difference between functional and emotional typography.

We know accessibility can’t be perfect. It can only be optimal. So to optimise a reading experience we must balance the emotional with the functional. That means identifying a suitably expressive typeface, applying it considerately, and testing it on a wide variety of users, contexts and canvases — from paper to pixel.

The x20 fonts tested by The Readability Group, (Feb 2021)

This is where The Readability Group’s research can help. On the 9th of February 2021 we launched our first online study into font accessibility. It garnered a huge response and surfaced a massive amount of data, much of which challenges many commonly held beliefs. This is helping us fill in the blanks on what truly makes a readable typeface. And what the emotional and functional barriers are when they’re read by specific user groups. It also allowed us to evaluate a testing methodology and framework.

If you’re interested to learn more about the survey, please do get in touch.