I n the early years of a child’s reading development, the attainment of mechanical skills is gained initially with the aid of a finger to help left to right progression and accurate return sweeps from the end of one line on to the beginning of the next. By reminding ourselves of what were the perfunctory difficulties of childhood reading, we give ourselves an insight into the fundamental mechanics and principles of setting text.

Alongside this is the recognition of words and the functions of spaces and accompanying punctuation. These essential skills are gained with great effort, but they must, as soon as possible, become automatic; eventually, the reader should not normally be aware of the activity of reading at all.

We also learn the various reading skills necessary for acquiring differing kinds of information. Documents such as directories, catalogs, indices, encyclopedias, flyers, forms, junk mail, etc. require an adjustment to learned reading skills. In effect, we learn how to find and select, and how to respond.

The ability to read quickly and to be able to select in order to use time efficiently depends very much on the order and arrangement of type being normal. Surprises are disruptive to the mechanics of reading.


Despite the thousands of typefaces available today, those typefaces most appropriate for textual setting fall into a narrow category and, on the whole, follow a traditional pattern. Typefaces designed to incorporate old face characteristics are traditionally considered easiest to read (Caslon), transitional are less easy (Baskerville), and modern (Bodoni) are hardest to read. Of course, all are normally perfectly legible, and with careful application all can be made readable (although some less efficiently than others).


Choice of typeface will depend on several factors, including economic, color (the overall tone of gray when set as text), and which characteristics (visual, cultural, historic) best suit the subject matter. In the twentieth century, each change of technology has brought with it new typefaces and the adaptation of older typefaces, some more successful than others. The characteristics commonly required of a readable typeface are openness of form, prominent ascenders and descenders, modeled serifs, and directional momentum.

Today, sans serifs (type without serifs) vary so much in form that one cannot generalize about their readability. The rule was that sans-serif type was less efficient for reading, but better for legibility—initial character recognition—hence its use in early reading books and for signage. Notable efforts have been made to design sans-serif fonts with calligraphic characteristics, providing a distinct left to right emphasis.

Lowercase characters, unlike capitals, are designed to work in close proximity with each other, providing an uninterrupted visual flow, a dynamic left to right momentum, the idea being that the reader’s eye is able to skim, without hesitation, along a line of type, recognizing the essential and distinctively unique shapes of each individual word. Consistency of style must be adhered to if the reader is to feel comfortable. It is not surprising then that the rule for good textual setting is that it should be so predictable, so normal, as to be invisible to the reader (while for display type the opposite must apply).

The oft-repeated truism “a type which is read most is read easiest” only serves to emphasize that the appearance of textual setting, once established, must remain predictable.

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