A PARADOX of education is that presenting information in a way that looks easy to learn often has the opposite effect. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when people are forced to think hard about what they are shown they remember it better, so it is worth looking at ways this can be done. And a piece of research about to be published in Cognition, by Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychologist at Princeton University, and his colleagues, suggests a simple one: make the text conveying the information harder to read.
Dr Oppenheimer recruited 28 volunteers aged between 18 and 40 and asked them to learn, from written descriptions, about three “species” of extraterrestrial alien, each of which had seven features. This task was meant to be similar to learning about animal species in a biology lesson. It used aliens in place of actual species to be certain that the participants could not draw on prior knowledge.
Half of the volunteers were presented with the information in difficult-to-read fonts (12-point Comic Sans MS 75% greyscale and 12-point Bodoni MT 75% greyscale). The other half saw it in 16-point Arial pure-black font, which tests have shown is one of the easiest to read.
Participants were given 90 seconds to memorise the information in the lists. They were then distracted with unrelated tasks for a quarter of an hour or so, before being asked questions about the aliens, such as “What is the diet of the Pangerish?” and “What colour eyes does the Norgletti have?” The upshot was that those reading the Arial font got the answers right 72.8% of the time, on average. Those forced to read the more difficult fonts answered correctly 86.5% of the time.
Weirder yet, the results held when the experiment was transposed from the lab to the classroom, leading researchers to conclude that textbooks should be made harder, not easier, to read.
This of course flies in the face of everything you and I have been led to believe about newsletter, brochure, and appeal letter design, where the rule since forever has been: The infographic style of USA Today beats a 1920’s New York Times look any day.
But this weekend I had an experience that gave me some insight into the Princeton study.
I was handing out a song sheet at church.
(Yes, a song sheet. It’s like a, you know, overhead projector slide, only printed on paper.)
I wanted to give more than the lyrics to the song. I wanted to note that literally every line in every stanza of the hymn was drawn from Scripture.
So at the bottom of the sheet, below the lyrics, I reproduced each of the Scriptures keyed to each line, using a complicated three-letter matrix and eight-point type.
Hip Hymnalz this was not.
But the effect on the recipients was fascinating. Aside from having to sing the hymn with the songs sheet three centimeters from their faces, they were clearly intrigued as they reviewed it, and they kept referring back to the sheet through the rest of the evening. Several made notes on their sheets. And everyone took their song sheet with them.
Not one song sheet left behind.
So I think the lesson of the study is not to use the worst font you can find and the worst layout you can muster. Rather, I think it’s that sleek, simple design is not always the unmitigated good we have assumed it to be. Sometimes simple says, well, simple. As in, “There’s not much substantive here. We’ve got your big photo, your tear jerker headline, your oversimplified testimonial text, and your ask. Feel free to skip this and move right on to the response device (which, interestingly, is the most complicated looking piece in the package).”
So don’t use this as an excuse for bad design. But do take this as a vote for substantive communication that looks substantive. I did a quick scan through communication I’ve sent to champions recently, and it’s fascinating how information rich it is–often an article (printed or emailed) with a post-it note (or the email equivalent) providing an index into deeper waters.
Kind of like this blog post.