Clarity Is Overrated: Could Opacity Be the New Transparency?

The Enlightenment faith in scientific lucidity bites itself back again, as psychological experiments suggest that we learn more from harder-to-read texts. Could opacity be the new transparency? Consider Jonah Lehrer's blog post on "The Educational Benefit of Ugly Fonts" at Wired.com:

A few months ago, I wrote a speculative blog post about e-readers. Although I love my Kindle, I worried that these new gadgets made the act of reading a little bit too easy, and that this visual ease might lead, one day, to a shallower engagement with our texts. It was a rather tortured argument, an awkward mash-up of McLuhan and fMRI research.

I'm happy to report that a brand-new paper in Cognition by a team of Princeton psychologists (Connor Diemand-Yauman, Daniel M. Oppenheimer and Erikka B. Vaughan) makes the same point I was trying to make, only much, much better. (They also have, you know, actual evidence.)

Interestingly, they frame the issue in terms of classroom technique, as they take aim at a core assumption of educators:

Many education researchers and practitioners believe that reducing extraneous cognitive load is always beneficial for the learner.

That sounds reasonable, right? Shouldn't learning be as easy and effortless as possible? Unfortunately, this assumption turns out to be mostly wrong, as numerous studies have found that making material harder to learn -- what the researchers call disfluency -- can actually improve long-term learning and retention:

There is strong theoretical justification to believe that disfluency could lead to improved retention and classroom performance. Disfluency has been shown to lead people to process information more deeply, more abstractly, more carefully, and yield better comprehension, all of which are critical to effective learning.

Morris Fuller Benton, the prolific typographer who designed Century Schoolbook almost 100 years ago, must be turning in his grave about the new research Lehrer reports. According to Wikipedia:

Century Schoolbook is familiar to many in North America as being the typeface many first learned to read with. Morris Fuller Benton utilized research done by Clark University that showed young readers more quickly identified letterforms with contrasting weight, but with the lighter strokes maintaining presence. Tests also showed the importance of maintaining counter-form (the white space around the black letterform) in recognizing the face at smaller sizes.

Benton probably would have considered the German fonts of the day as among the hardest to read. But many German readers of 100 years ago felt otherwise. Their Blackletter fonts started out as modern and efficient, like other medieval innovations, not archaic. Roger Drouet writes in UNESCO Courier:

With the foundation of universities in Europe in the twelfth century, parchment became scarce. A new script, known as black-letter or Gothic, as angular and narrow as the Gothic pointed arch, answered the needs of the moment in that it took up a minimum of space. The expression of thought seemed to be channeled through a kind of grid. This design gave rise to two basic scripts: the rigid, vertical Textura, used primarily for liturgical texts; and a more flexible script, Rotunda. In the fifteenth century, the angular Gothic script, having been appropriated by the lettered classes in France, became known as batarde or Bastarda.

Yet just as the originally German poodle became quintessentially French, the offspring of Textura, Fraktur, became the ur-German style. In the 19th and early 20th century, when German students still learned to read their own language in Fraktur, Roman letters were at first harder to read. Even the noted 19th century Breslau ophthalmologist Hermann Cohn, a crusader for children's eyesight as well as an ardent German nationalist, wrote:

Many physicians, particularly those who are not Germans, believe that the shape of the German letters is more tiresome to the eyes than that of the Roman letters, I have never been able to perceive this, nor any reason why it should be so, provided the German print is large and thick enough, and the lines are far enough apart. Use has doubtless much to do with the matter. For myself, it is always pleasant, after a long reading of the monotonous Roman print, to return to "our beloved German."

So in typography as in other matters, beauty and clarity are partly a matter of habit and custom. And tastes and fluency can change in bizarre ways. The Nazis at first promoted Fraktur as authentically German design, then when Roman letters were more convenient in conquered Europe, the regime denounced them as the nefarious work of the Jewish printers of Schwabach! 

If, despite all this, deliberately rough design is good for you, what about content? Maybe it's time to reconsider Strunk and White, too. I already posted about this last fall, and now the Washington Post reports that the leading contender to be Silvio Berlusconi's replacement as prime minister of Italy, Nichi Vendola, has declared "proudly:" "I don't speak easy. I speak difficult." One of my graduate teachers had a sign on his desk, "Eschew Obfuscation." Could its successor be "Embrace Circumlocution"?

Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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