Rick Poynor on legibility

“In recent years, type designers and typographers have poured scorn on the very idea of legibility. If legibility is merely a function of familiarity and nothing to do with any intrinsic properties of type itself, the argument goes, then it behooves the questioning designer to shake up our complacency and open our eyes to new possibilities by overturning these conventions. In a bizarre extension of this argument, it was even claimed that dramatically decreasing legibility would somehow increase the desire to read. Reluctant readers would be ‘intrigued’ by these optical obstacle courses, while the difficulties of the reading experience – the greater effort needed to gain access to the text – would ensure that they retained even more than they would reading conventional typography.

Unfortunately, there is no research study, no empirical evidence, to confirm that this is really the case. At best you could call it a hypothesis. Less charitably, it’s a self-serving hope used to justify some designers’ preferred ways of designing. […]

These comments are not intended as an attack on the inherent notion of a more ‘interventionist’ approach to graphic design, or as a denial of the stylistic possibilities – in other settings – of the typographic devices mentioned here. Nor should these criticisms be misconstrued as an argument for returning, in all cases, to earlier, more subdued styles of typography. Readability can undoubtably coexist with the radically new. […]

It’s clear that some of what designers have done to typography in the 1990s stems from a loss of faith in the text. Such designers do have a point. Every day global publishing pumps out an ocean of meaningless sludge. Some design responds to the text’s emptiness by elevating itself to the center of attention. But design cannot redeem empty text. If designers feel uncommitted to the material they have to design, perhaps they should design something else. It takes no talent to scramble a message. With off-putting typography fast becoming the norm, the designer who struggles to make something truly readable is engaged in a genuinely radical act.”

— Rick Poynor (via Graphis #319, 1999)