Stop shouting at me… the excessive use of capitals and other readability issues

In today’s episode we’re sharing one of John’s pet peeves with you… we’re going to talk all about capitalisation, fonts and layouts that reduce readability and comprehension.  

Like us, you probably put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into a well-written article. Whether it be a fact sheet, a case study or a simple newsletter article, all your effort can be undermined by how you actually print the words on paper.

Back in the day, John created a printed newsletter for the Queensland nursery and cut flower industry, called Ornamentals Update. The aim was to share information relevant to the then expanding ornamentals industry. As an indication of how long ago that was, the first few editions were typed on manual typewriters and John still remembers the excitement of a fancy new electric typewriter arriving in the front office! 

He was always curious about whether it was better to use all capital letters in headlines, or to go for what he thought was more visually appealing, sentence capitalisation, where just the first letter is a capital. John fondly remembers long conversations with Alan Ernst, the Senior Editor of the DPI Publications Unit back in the 1980s. They each had their own preferences and strongly held opinions, but they were merely that, as they were untested.

It was only some years later that John stumbled across this lovely booklet, Communicating or just making pretty shapes. What set it apart was that it was based on empirical research conducted over several years, not just one person’s opinions. 

Colin Wheildon, the author of this book, conducted his initial research in 1982. There were subsequent editions and now the latest version, printed as a book, is called Type & Layout: Are you communicating or just making pretty shapes? His first few editions were free, and there is a link to a PDF of one of those below, so you can read the results yourself. 

So let’s get to some of the interesting results! Firstly, the use of all capitals. As enablers of change, we really want people to be able to understand what we’ve written, otherwise it’s a pointless endeavour. Wheildon’s research showed that legibility dropped from 90% for a headline in lower case to just 57% when presented as all capitals. That’s a drop of 33%! 

So stop thinking you’re using all caps to get your message across more effectively. That’s akin to a person shouting at someone who doesn’t speak their language, thinking that somehow that improves their comprehension of the foreign language. Talking of shouting, we should be aware that our younger generation use all caps in their text messages to signify shouting at someone. Is that how we want to be seen?

If you really wanted to reduce comprehension, another way of doing that is to place shading behind the text. No matter the colour of the shading, it always reduces the readability of the text. Sadly we have often seen people put a 10% grey shade behind a block of really important text, thinking it makes it stand out and be easier to read. But it has the reverse effect and reduces comprehension – so please don’t do this!

And what about the age old dilemma, which font is better to use for our printed materials: serif or sans serif? Serif typefaces, such as Times New Roman, are those that have the extra flourishes on the letters that makes them look a little bit fancy. Sans serif fonts, such as Arial, don’t have those extra flourishes, making them look cleaner and simpler. An easy way to remember this is that sans means without in French, so sans serif fonts are those without flourishes. 

As enablers of change, while we may be interested in how the words look on the page, it is surely more important to have material that is easier for the reader to comprehend. A test article was composed in serif and sans serif typefaces, and Wheildon had 224 participants read the text and then answer some comprehension questions. The results were stunning. Five times more readers achieved good comprehension with the serif typeface over the sans serif. So those little flourishes not only look pretty, they help increase the comprehension of the text as well. 

Some say the opposite is true with headlines, that you should use sans serif text. It turns out it makes little difference. But whatever you do, don’t use reversed text, as in white text on a black background, as it has a negative effect on readability.

Finally, what colour should we make the text? Perhaps a nice tone of red, blue or green? No, if you want to make it easiest for people to comprehend the text, follow Henry Ford’s approach and make it black, black or black. That was repeatedly shown to have the highest readability in Wheildon’s exhaustive tests.   

You have read our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below this blog post and tell us about your experiences with fonts and layout, including any tips and further ideas about it. Please join the conversation by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change blog post. Remember to subscribe if you’d like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you’ve heard, tell a friend! 

Resources

Wheildon, C 1986, Communicating or just making pretty shapes, Newspaper Advertising Bureau of Australia.

Wheildon, C 2005, Type & Layout: Communicating or just making pretty shapes? Worsley Press, Mentone Australia. 

Additional reading (19 MB PDF): Communicating or just making pretty shapes Colin Wheildon 1990

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Roy Murray-Prior
Roy Murray-Prior
4 months ago

Great stuff John and Denise. Good to hear about the research on what works best.
We are in extension so presentation is and should be very important.
Was surprised about the finding that serif was better than sans serif. Your blog is in sans serif as are some web sites? Looked on my computer comparing the same text in Calibiri (sans) and Times New Roman (avec) & thought the sans looked cleaner? By the way the link doesn’t seem to work – says expired?

Aaron Meikle
Aaron Meikle
4 months ago

The link seems to have been suspended, John?

Don SHaw
Don SHaw
4 months ago

Thanks – Interesting!

Roy Murray-Prior
Roy Murray-Prior
4 months ago

Interesting that the AUSTRALIAN & THE AGE use caps in headings. Does the research actually say that sans is better for screen and avec better for print? Interesting. Sans is definitely clearer on screen.
I have always hated the default styles with blue etc. in Word, Powerpoint and Excel (graphs particularly).

David Bicknell
David Bicknell
4 months ago

Hi John and Denise – Fonts and capitals and grammatical bits are always a great topic of conversation, and I agree that going over the basics is worth repeating. There are a few other references, new and old, that are worth using: the Australian Government Style Manual; The Australian Editing Handbook; On Writing Well (Zinsser); and Don Watson’s Death Sentence!   Most of my work is on the web, but I also help to review and edit hard copy reports. For the web, Steve Krug’s Don’t make me think is really good, as is his Rocket surgery made easy; an… Read more »

Chrissy Stokes
Chrissy Stokes
4 months ago

You guys are just getting better and better. Great episode – and some super useful tips in here!
 
Of our three corporate “brand fonts,” two are all caps, and I struggle when using them because they seem very “shouty” and lack dimension. They may create a nice visual contrast with the other elements in a design, but that’s not what’s must important for my work – I want people to read and understand – not get bored and walk away!
 
I’m off to update my powerpoint slides for tomorrow now – to swap out some of those caps!

David Jago
4 months ago

Thanks folks. Likewise with some of the other comments, good to see some evidence basis!
 
As I understand it, serifs work by slightly blending letters: leading the eye from one letter to the next. The word becomes more of a whole than a set of letters. Happy to be corrected.
 
I have a colleague who jams multiple typefaces onto a page. This arises from in the fond belief that putting an important item into Old German Black will make it stand out and therefore make the page more comprehensible.
 
This is a blind spot for him, as it were…