Chapter 3
Mary C. Dyson

3. Perspectives on legibility

Historical perspective

What are the origins of legibility research? A few landmarks are worth reporting as they formed the foundations for subsequent research and are frequently cited. Various writers (Spencer, 1968; Rehe, 1979; Tinker, 1965) propose that scientific legibility research began with Javal around 1880, a French ophthalmologist who studied eye movements in reading. In particular, Huey wrote a book on The psychology and pedagogy of reading in 1908 (reprinted 1968) which credits Javal with discovering the pattern of eye movements in reading (described in Chapter 2).

Closer examination of the original sources by psychologists reveals a different story (Wade, Tatler and Heller, 2003). In 1879, a physiologist Hering first discovered that reading involves saccadic eye movements and Lamare in 1892, a colleague of Javal, noted the jerky, rather than continuous, movements. Dodge (a psychologist) was able to develop a photographic technique which enabled more accurate measures of the speed of saccades and the length of fixations. These developments were the start of eye movement recording technologies.

Shortly after the discoveries concerning eye movements, Cattell (1886) claimed to have found the word superiority effect (as mentioned in Chapter 2). Other work around this time that is often cited includes:

Research directions

Although the above research looking at visual mechanisms in reading began in the late nineteenth century, visual science moved away from applied research and therefore lost a connection with legibility research. The psychology of reading became the province of cognitive psychology, education, and psycholinguistics with less interest in typographic and graphic aspects of text. From around 1980, computational models of reading were developed aiming to simulate the recognition of words through mathematical modelling with computers.

An extensive programme of legibility research was conducted by Tinker and his colleagues, which did not attempt to explain the underlying visual mechanisms for the results. To some extent, this reflected the state of knowledge at that time, and separation of theoretical and applied research. ‘Theoretical’, ‘basic or ‘pure’ research has the aim of investigating the visual processes involved in reading whereas applied research aims to evaluate which typographic solutions are better for reading. Tinker and colleagues carried out numerous experiments between the 1920s and 1950s which provide a substantial body of findings. Given our current knowledge of how we read, and more recent interest in visual processing relevant to legibility (Legge, 2007, p108), these results from traditional legibility research can now be more thoroughly evaluated and interpreted.

Reviews of legibility research summarise what is known at the time by discussing research published by others, and which might also include research by the author (e.g. Ovink, 1938; Tinker, 1963, 1965; Zachrisson, 1965; Spencer, 1968; Foster, 1980; Reynolds, 1984; Lund, 1999; Dyson, 2005; Beier, 2012). These can be useful texts for gaining an overview of research findings, which should again be critically evaluated.

Design perspective

Legibility research has not typically been carried out by designers, as they are unlikely to have a detailed knowledge of scientific method, normally acquired over the course of a psychology degree. However, designers have views on what should be researched and how it should be researched. These views do not necessarily fit with scientific approaches to research. The objectives of the research usually differ across disciplines and these can determine the methods used.

The primary method used by the psychologist concerned with reading research is empirical experimentation (Rayner and Pollatsek, 1989, p8). Within the psychology of reading there are various perspectives including cognitive and linguistic constructs (e.g. Kintsch and van Dijk, 1978), perceptual factors related to text legibility (e.g. Tinker, 1963, 1965), and the nature of visual information processing in reading (e.g. Legge, 2007).

A designer’s primary motivation is to make text more legible, i.e. easier to read, and also aesthetically pleasing — a practical approach. Designers often express dissatisfaction with certain aspects of empirical research, typically carried out by psychologists without consulting designers. Many of the reasons, raised in the past and still debated, are reviewed and summarised by Lund (1999) and Beier (2016). Below I list a few of these criticisms (from a design standpoint) of legibility research and then try to address these criticisms. These focus on the value and the relevance of the research to design practice. Issues which relate to the research methods are dealt with in the next chapter.

 Part of the first page of an article by Legge and Bigelow

Figure 3.1: Part of the first page of an article by Legge and Bigelow (2011) published in the Journal of Vision listing the affiliations of the two authors and therefore indicating their contrasting disciplines. In this particular instance, the title also makes this very clear.

Questions: If you were asked to debate the value of legibility research, which side would you prefer to argue: for or against?
Which of the points above do you think are the strongest?
Can you add any other points?

Combining resources across disciplines

Collaboration between people with diverse backgrounds and expertise can lead to mutual understanding of the important and different contribution that comes from another discipline. Engaging in discussion can help us understand the other’s viewpoint which should make us less dismissive of alternative perspectives.


Fernand Baudin (1918–2005), a Belgian book designer, author, typographer, and teacher, objected to Tinker’s description of typographers as aesthetes when reviewing the book ‘Bases for effective reading’ (Baudin, 1967). I have extracted excerpts from the pages listed by Baudin, which I think are the parts in the book that he references.

Consider whether you think Baudin was justified in being upset by the statements (quotations) below from Tinker’s book.

Do you think Baudin was right in interpreting the statements as: ‘…all typographers en bloc, whether expert or not, are presented merely as introspective aesthetes deserving, on the whole, of contempt’ (p204–205).

Is Tinker criticising typographers with these statements?
Is it an insult to be concerned with aesthetics?

If we look at the above quotations from a more neutral perspective, we might suggest that Tinker was wishing to make a clear distinction between scientific research (admittedly, his own) and the craft knowledge of typographic experts. The comments are not limited to aesthetics as legibility is included. However, it is unfortunate that Tinker uses quotation marks around the word “experts” which might be seen as an ironic comment.

Fortunately, we have moved on from Tinker and recognise that combining skills and knowledge across disciplines can result in more relevant and robust research. An example of an excellent collaboration between vision scientist and type designer is the article illustrated in Figure 3.1 and described in Panel 3.1. Other examples of collaborations where design expertise combines with scientific knowledge include:


Legibility research started with eye movement research over 100 years ago. Some of these discoveries and writings are still valid today, whilst others have been superseded as research has enabled more precise measurements and a larger body of knowledge has developed.

Legibility straddles disciplines, broadly science and design, and in the past, this has caused tension due to different objectives and, at times, insensitive appraisal of other perspectives. As more collaborations are developed, richer, more relevant, and more robust research findings emerge to inform typographic practice.