Can ugly fonts help us to learn and remember?

A new study has refuted the suggestion that we learn better when information is written in an easy to read font. Research carried out by psychologists from Princeton tested schoolchildren’s ability to remember information presented to them in both a conventional and less legible font. Results showed that a significant number of those tested could recall more information from the passages which were written in the unusual typefaces rarely used in text books such as Comic Sans Italicized.

The study suggested that introducing ‘disfluency’ by making information superficially harder to understand deepens the process of learning and leads to better retention. The research raises questions over how much fonts like Times New Roman and Arial, which are used in the majority of academic books, help readers revise for tests.

American author and psychologist Jonah Lehrer had written about the idea of disfluency in his Wired.com blog before the research was published. He believes that the study showed the whole history of typography had missed the point when it comes to learning and that e-Readers like the Kindle are making matters worse.

Lehrer said:

“When we see a font that is easy to read we’re able to process that in a mindless way, but when we see an unfamiliar font, one full of weird squiggles, we have to work a little bit harder. That extra effort is a signal to the brain that this might be something worth remembering.”

He also has wider concerns:

“My larger anxiety has to do with the sprawling influence of technology. Sooner or later, every medium starts to influence the message. I worry that, before long, we’ll become so used to the mindless clarity of e-ink – to these screens that keep on getting better – that the technology will feedback onto the content, making us less willing to endure harder texts. We’ll forget what it’s like to flex those dorsal muscles, to consciously decipher a literate clause. And that would be a shame, because not every sentence should be easy to read.”

The research “Fortune favours the Bold (and the Italicised): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes” was conducted by Connor Diemand-Yauman, Daniel M. Oppenheimer and Erikka B. Vaughan and published in the Princeton journal Cognition (no doubt in a fairly legible font!).

Read more of Jonathan Lehrer’s related blogposts here:

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/01/the-benefit-of-ugly-fonts/

and here:

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/09/the-future-of-reading-2/

What do you think? Should publishers be enlisting the services of David Carson as Lehrer suggests??

Julia Mortimer, Assistant Director, The Policy Press

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