05.02.15 — Design

An Overview of Typographic Features of Text

Parts of a text are not mere objects of varying shapes and sizes to be arranged like ornaments on a mantelshelf or pictures on a wall.

Hartley & Burnhill

Maria dos Santos Lonsdale includes this very valid observation in the opening of her paper, “Typographic Features of Text: Outcomes from Research & Practice”. A typography specialist, graphic designer and researcher, Maria recently joined us to teach on our course at the University of Leeds after time spent teaching at the University of Hull, in Portugal and completing a PhD at the University of Reading.

Maria noted in her introductory speech to us that she had recently had this article published, and I immediately headed off to the library to source a copy, as this kind of research into typographic practices and legibility has become of increasing interest to me. I also decided to give it a read and quick review on here for my typography module, which I am blogging in between my usual posts, however you can access the collated typography related posts here.

An interesting point which Maria makes in the opening chapter of her paper is the claim that typeface choice, be it serif or sans-serif, is almost irrelevant (discounting decorative typefaces) and does not affect the legibility of a piece of type. Rather, the argument transpires, it is the construct and spacing of the set type which can serve to either hinder or aid legibility.

I was once again reminded of Jan Tschichold’s argument in “The New Typography” that sans-serif is the sole reasonable choice for the ‘new typography’, a point which Maria brings up by referencing one of Tschichold’s later works.

Another argument that seems to again call into question the way in which we approach type is that it is not the point size of the type which is important, rather the size of the x-height. By this logic, typefaces such as Futura with a relatively small x-height will need to be set at a slightly larger size to be as legible as typefaces such as Helvetica. I have always pondered this issue, but Maria here provides detailed study and explanation as to why this is the case, which was for me quite exciting to read.

The paper also provided me with unbeknownst tips and advice on setting type, such as suggesting that a typeface is set in a slighter thicker weight when it is to be set in white on a black background. Also of note was Maria’s choice to concentrate solely on legibility in printed typography, the reasoning behind which came apparent later in the paper, where the effect of typography on examination and educational papers is explored.

A concept which is prevalent throughout the paper is one which I have battled with on multiple occasions, and that is line length. Maria’s approach in the paper drew on sources which I have already read such as Bringhurst’s “The Elements of Typographic Style”, amongst others, to come to a conclusion (60-70 characters per line) which I have already adhered to for some time. However what I found the most interesting was the scientific reasoning behind why such line lengths are more suitable, namely the ‘visual span’ and the use of peripheral vision whilst reading, as well as the difficulty of making a ‘return sweep’ (returning to the left hand side of the page) when moving on to the next line of text.

As I read over the entire paper, a question which I kept asking myself was whether some of the theories and recommendations were transposable to web/screen-based typesetting. I was aware that Maria had chosen to omit such studies, however I believe that I may be interested in pursuing a research project/essay which challenges the use of conventional typesetting techniques on the internet.


  1. Hartley, J. and Burnhill, P. 1976. “Explorations in space: a critique of the typography of BPS publications.” Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 29, 100.
  2. Lonsdale, M. dos S. 2014. “Typographic Features of Text: Outcomes from Research & Practice.” Visible language, 48(3), 28.