Taigan screengrab

7 September 2013

Going Against Type: How Legibility Gets Sacrificed to the Design Gods

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who Thinks That Words Matter…

And unto the Gods the art directors did offer the copywriter's first born...

And unto the Gods the art directors did offer the copywriter’s first born…

“The most important factor in selecting type is its readability. Type should be clear, easy on the eye, friendly, and inviting. Style is important — the choice of font is one of many elements that contributes to the image conveyed by the ad — but readability always comes first. Always… Never do anything to make the copy difficult to read. Type should be set in black against a clear white background – not a tint, not white on black, not in color.”
– Robert Bly, The Copywriter’s Handbook

“In a recent issue of a magazine I found 47 advertisements with the copy set in reverse — white type on a black background. It is almost impossible to read.”
– David Ogilvy, Ogilvy on Advertising

I love art directors….

  • I love them as vivacious characters who live and breathe creativity.
  • I love how they can turn my pedestrian ideas into mouthwatering cornea candy.
  • And I love commiserating with them over drinks about all the conservative clients who want to bore the world into a coma.

I just wish they always loved words as much as I do.

Art directors do love text… but usually as a design element, not necessarily as something that contains meaning and needs to be read. I’ve seen words condensed without space to breathe, their serifs hacked off, their bodies bleached and flung against a dark background and sometimes even hung sideways or upside down. Consequently, the artwork looks fantastic, but the words require hardcore squinting that permanently embed crows-feet around my eyes.

As if I need more.

I agree that certain words deserve that treatment — and worse. Trying to read most business writing is like trying to chew sand, even when it’s clearly laid out. That point conceded, when it comes to words that people might want to read, textual harassment hurts everyone.

Look At What Some Yahoo! Did…

Yahoo! Sports used to offer one of the cleanest sports experiences online, with clear black text on a white background, few special effects, and little drilling required. Whatever you wanted was quick to find and easy to read. What more could a sports fan want?


Yes, that’s how new management often makes its mark: futzing around with aesthetics, which is a lot easier than fixing business fundamentals. That’s why Yahoo! recently modified its perfectly adequate logo — a process that entailed a poll of company employees, a design team, and micromanaging by CEO Marissa Mayer, all for a visual tweak that most consumers couldn’t care less about. (Incidentally, in discussing her design skills, Mayer uttered the words that strike fear into the hearts of designers everywhere: “I’m not a pro, but I know enough to be dangerous.”)

Beyond the logo, Yahoo! also decided to “refresh” several of their online properties. While the new designs are more picturesque, they now completely fail to communicate. Here’s what Yahoo! Sports looked like in 2011 (thanks to Kyle Snyder for the image)…

Yahoo Sports 2011 screengrab (click to enlarge)

Yahoo Sports 2011 screengrab (click to enlarge)

And here’s what Yahoo! Sports looks like now…

Yahoo! Sports screengrab (click to enlarge)

Yahoo! Sports 2013 screengrab (click to enlarge)

Just try to read all that small text, reversed against a blurred photo background. Note: that this is an improvement over an earlier redesign, which had a sharp photo in the background completely conflicting with the text. But after users complained, Yahoo! upped the legibility a notch — but hardly enough.

Compare that to a similar page over at ESPN, which is extremely cluttered, but far easier on the eyes.

ESPN screengrab (click to enlarge)

ESPN screengrab (click to enlarge)

Say what you will about which site has a “cooler” design; the point is that sports fans want news and stats, not art. I love creative design, but a news site must also serve its functional purpose. Sorry, Yahoo!, I’m now an ESPN guy.

Now, if you think Yahoo! Sports is a site that creates sore eyes, take a glance at the luxury-boutique site Taigan:

Taigan screengrab (click to enlarge)

Taigan screengrab (click to enlarge)

Yes, nothing says “an unpretentious companion with such a discerning eye and keen awareness” like extremely wide paragraphs of tiny reverse text against a scarlet background. That page makes me want to avert my eyes.

Note that I’m NOT making up these rules about readability. You saw the quotes at the beginning of this article by two advertising icons. There’s also an oft-referenced study by magazine editor Colin Wheildon, Type and Layout: Are You Communicating Or Just Making Pretty Shapes?, who tested different type-background combinations (black text on white, white text on black, etc.) and found that reverse type utterly destroyed reader comprehension.

And yet bad typography perseveres.

Because All The Other Kids Are Doing It…

Bad typography is like smoking cigarettes: sure, it may eventually kill you and alienate non-smokers, but people do it if they think it makes them look cool and everyone else is doing it.

And, sadly, it appears that everyone is doing it. Here are the very first three ads that appeared in a recent issue of Wired:

Apple — which is actually celebrating design with reversed gray text on a gray photo…

Apple Designed in California Ad

Right page of ad only (click to enlarge)

Cadillac is even worse — the text is italicized, pretty much begging everyone to ignore a truly interesting story…

Cadillac ATS print ad

Right page of ad only (click to enlarge)

And Cartier gives us white on burgundy in illegible ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, which might make you wonder, why is a classic luxury watch company shouting?

Cartier watch ad

Full ad (click to enlarge)

If these three esteemed brands, all known for exquisite product design, are perpetrating crimes against the written word, no wonder hip young designers who read attempt to read Wired are doing the same. They think they’ll reach a higher order of their profession by sacrificing legibility to the Design Gods, but they’re committing cardinal sins.

To again quote David Ogilvy, “You may think that I exaggerate the importance of good typography… But do you think an advertisement can sell if nobody can read it? You can’t save souls in an empty church. As Mies van der Rohe said of architecture, ‘God is in the details.'”

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

25 Responses

  1. Hey Freddy–Yes, this drives me nuts too. It’s design 101: Black on white reads easiest. Serifs. And most of all, copy in all caps is terrible on the eyes! I forgive designers for not wanting to use serif typefaces because sans seems cleaner. OK. But the rest . . . it’s just crazy.
    By the way, I always enjoy reading your posts because you don’t write unless you have something interesting to say–and you’re really fun to read.

  2. Great write-up! It would seem that far too many designers believe the purpose of an ad is to win awards rather than to sell product.

    I found a screenshot of Yahoo!’s previous, much cleaner sports page design in case you want to provide a side-by-side. https://web.archive.org/web/20110420002536/https://sports.yahoo.com/

  3. I think Mies vdR also mumbled something about form following function… What do you think about the view that sans serif fonts are or can be easier to read on digital screens with relatively low resolution, such as a bog standard computer screen? Perhaps ‘easier’ might be a leap, but I think that readability may perhaps depend on whether the sans serif typeface on the screen is proportional (horizontally) or not? Looking at your blog, the proportional sans serif typeface is not difficult to read. However, I do not think it’s easier. Your thoughts?

    • I think you’re right, it does depend on the monitor.

      The test would be reading speed and comprehension of various fonts on a sharp monitor. My blog is currently readable – given an adequate monitor, would it resonate more with serifs? Would it be more appealing to the eye?

      My main criticism of sans-serif fonts is when they’re used for body copy in print.

      • I realise that you were referring to print, which I agree and also which is why I brought up the question about digital. I don’t know whether a change in typeface will make your blog resonate more. As for readability, I suppose the only way to find out is to test it, like pulling the radio advert. I did notice that on a relatively low res device like an iPhone 5, everything seems to be sans serif, and I have no problems reading things or have a particular dislike for how texts appear. This is despite styles like Arial being one of my least favourite, to put it charitably. However, I do tend to procrastinate reading emails that are typed up in Arial. I read your blogs because I expect them to be interesting, so if there is a readability hurdle, I have already overcome it for content reasons. Therefore, I don’t qualify as an impartial observer.

  4. Oh, and I don’t think Mies followed his own advice when it came to the Bauhaus typeface… ;-)

  5. I must disagree on a few points, being a designer myself.
    – While black type on white reads best on a spread that makes use of no images, things get more complicated when the use of image is prominent. Surrounding an image in a field of white can work in magazine spreads and such, but in ads or visual slide presentations, a lighter text on a darker backdrop is sometimes the better solution (depending on the image, if text is laid over it).

    – In design the all caps does not signify amplification, but is seen as structural as if architecture. An all caps (and I would agree) letter case has a more elegant presentation than the lower letter cases. Again this is subjective to the situation, but I have no problem with the example you’ve given frankly.

    – Agree of the right justified apple ad though, it gets in the way a little. Perhaps if the designer felt the text were more desirable as a layout on the right side, a better solution would be to center justify.

    I’ve had arguments with other designers about the differences between the serifs and the sans. I find sans serif fonts easier personally. The serif is a traditional flourish that we have gotten used to.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Glenn, but this isn’t just a matter of taste and opinion. Both experts and empirical studies have shown that reverse type:

      1. Discourages reading
      2. Causes eye strain
      3. Hurts understanding
      4. Hurts retention

      So even if “things get more complicated,” designers will just have to find a more creative solution. Making text illegible for the sake of design is simply bad for business.

      Likewise with all caps. Study after study has shown that all capital letters hinder readership. Structure, architecture and elegance don’t matter if nobody reads the ad. These are words, not just design elements.

  6. Freddy, this is a great article, but I think you are underestimating the role of a graphic designer. It seems you have the assumption that our mission is just to make things visually appealing.

    Most Graphic Design students are taught to subdue aesthetics to function, this is the heritage we got from the Bauhaus and from the Swiss Style. In this case, readability is one of the function elements. But we are not talking about designing a whole magazine with white typeface on a dark background. We are talking about short texts. These points don’t make that much sense in the ads you were posting:

    1. Discourages reading

    2. Causes eye strain

    3. Hurts understanding

    the 4th one (hurts retention) might be more relevant in those cases.

    You say those ads are “illegible”? I find this quite extreme. Wouldn’t it be more realistic to say that it is less legible? And this, is not good, I agree, but we are talking about a short text, so only point four counts. Then, one should look at the whole picture. Should one totally subdue visual attractiveness to this loss of readability? What is the point of having a perfectly readable ad if it can’t get anyone’s attention?

    A good designer is aware the whole picture and takes the optimal decision. In this specific case readability and visual appeal are opposed and harm each other. The good designer might find a way in between, being aware of what is sacrificin and of what is earning, but always avoiding fanatical statements. It would even be better, as you well say, to find creative solution that accommodates both, but this doesn’t necessarily guarantee a better result.

    I also want to say that, from my point of view, visual appeal is integrated to function, not against it. Design 101s are good as a guide to unexperienced designers, but when one understands the reason of their existence one does not have to blindly follow them anymore.

    • I agree that an ad has to attract readers, but if the text is difficult to read, then consumers just won’t read it. They barely like to read when the text is legible. Reverse type is a deterrent to reading and comprehension, as one study after another has revealed. It’s not a matter of opinion.

      Those sample ads I showed in my post are quite awful — and, yes, I would say illegible (paragraphs of reverse type in italics or all capital letters? c’mon, that’s indefensible). I fully blame the designers for putting their aesthetic whims first, and doing a gross disservice to their clients.

      If you read my other posts or take my classes, you will see that I celebrate creativity and consider boring marketers “the enemy.” But asking that an ad look good as well as have strategic value is no more “extreme” than asking that a food item taste good and be nutritious as well.

  7. Good morning,

    I am looking for the reference of the Cartier ad you displayed, and the year of its partition, do you know it ?

    Thanks !


  8. I seem to remember reading in Steven Pinker’s book “How the mind works” about how our visual system is attuned to seeing darker objects/silhouettes on lighter backgrounds. (This would also apply to white lettering on a black background.) Perhaps someone else can elaborate. My books are in storage at the moment so I can’t give the exact reference.

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