How Humans Read


Humans are the only beings on the planet that have developed a written from of language. We use this written form to communicate with one another. Most of us have been reading for a very long time, so it seems natural. This week we unpacked the psychology of how our brains process written language and how typography can either help or hinder our abilities to process that information.

When we read, our brains skim across the top of the words in what are called saccades. We then stop at certain points in the text for a fraction of a second while our brains make sense of what we just read. This is called a fixation.


Have you ever wondered why it is difficult to read all caps? This is because the majority of the visual information contained in letters that make them unique is contained in the top half of the letter. Even the shapes that letters form when next to each other is being processed by our brains at lighting speeds. This is partially why using all caps to indicate a button or interactivity has become a common web convention. In the figure below you can see that the all caps letters look more like a rectangular block while the sentence case letters have a more visually distinct shape.

OWT-fig1-7 (1).png

While there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to use typography, there are some great guidelines that we can use to make reading as easy as possibly for our users. Some guidelines are:

  1. Keep the number of fonts used at a minimum
  2. Try to use standard fonts
  3. Limit line length
  4. Choose a typeface that works well in various sizes
  5. Use fonts with distinguishable letters
  6. Avoid all caps
  7. Don’t minimize spacing between lines
  8. Make sure you have sufficient color contrast
  9. Avoid coloring text in red or green
  10. Avoid using blinking text

One thing that wasn’t in these tips is to establish a type system that encourages the visual hierarchy. For example, headers and callouts should be sufficiently distinct from body copy by using size, color, and various typefaces to do so.  These tips along with the utilizing the gestalt principles from week 2 will help your readers absorb your content.