With re­ten­tion in mind, team of re­searchers crafts new font

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - INSCIENCE - BY TAY­LOR TELFORD

A new font can help lodge in­for­ma­tion deeper in your brain, re­searchers say, but it’s not magic — just the sci­ence of ef­fort.

Psy­chol­ogy and de­sign re­searchers at RMIT Univer­sity in Mel­bourne cre­ated a font called Sans For­get­ica, which was de­signed to boost in­for­ma­tion re­ten­tion for read­ers. It’s based on a the­ory called “de­sir­able dif­fi­culty,” which sug­gests that peo­ple re­mem­ber things bet­ter when their brains have to over­come mi­nor ob­sta­cles while pro­cess­ing in­for­ma­tion. Sans For­get­ica is sleek and back-slanted with in­ter­mit­tent gaps in each let­ter, which serve as a “sim­ple puz­zle” for the reader, ac­cord­ing to Stephen Ban­ham, a de­signer and RMIT lec­turer who helped cre­ate the font.

“It should be dif­fi­cult to read but not too dif­fi­cult,” Ban­ham said. “In de­mand­ing this ad­di­tional act, mem­ory is more likely to be trig­gered.”

In de­sign­ing Sans For­get­ica, Ban­ham said he had to over­ride his in­stincts, in­grained from 25 years of study­ing ty­pog­ra­phy. Clar­ity, the ease of pro­cess­ing and fa­mil­iar­ity are usu­ally guid­ing prin­ci­ples in the field. The back-slant­ing in Sans For­get­ica would be for­eign to most read­ers, as back­slant­ing in type is typ­i­cally only used by car­tog­ra­phers to in­di­cate rivers. The open­ings in the let­ters make the brain pause to iden­tify the shapes.

The team tested the font’s ef­fi­cacy along with other in­ten­tion­ally com­pli­cated fonts on 400 stu­dents in lab and on­line ex­per­i­ments and found that “Sans For­get­ica broke just enough de­sign prin­ci­ples without be­com­ing too il­leg­i­ble and aided mem­ory re­ten­tion,” ac­cord­ing to a news re­lease on the univer­sity’s web­site.

In some ways, Sans For­get­ica is a con­tin­u­a­tion of work by Daniel Op­pen­heimer, a Carnegie Mel­lon psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor who pre­sented a sim­i­lar idea about “de­sir­able dif­fi­culty” called “dis­flu­ency” while do­ing work at Prince­ton Univer­sity in 2011. The terms are dif­fer­ent, but the prin­ci­ple is the same: Mi­nor men­tal gym­nas­tics help read­ers re­mem­ber things bet­ter.

Op­pen­heimer’s team re­lied on con­trast and size for the men­tal hur­dles rather than on a for­eign font. In one ex­per­i­ment, the team had 28 col­lege stu­dents read in­for­ma­tion about two made-up crea­tures, the pan­ger­ish and the nor­gletti. The pan­ger­ish in­for­ma­tion was printed in gray, 12-point Comic Sans or Bodoni fonts. The nor­gletti pro­file was printed in 16-point, plain, black Arial font.

The team dis­tracted stu­dents for 15 min­utes af­ter they read about the an­i­mals, then quizzed them; the stu­dents re­mem­bered 87 per­cent of the pan­ger­ish facts, whose in­for­ma­tion had been tougher to read, and 73 per­cent of the nor­gletti facts.

They ex­panded their re­search over the course of a se­mes­ter at a high school in Ch­ester­land, Ohio. They changed the fonts on teach­ing ma­te­ri­als — hand­outs, Power Point slides and work­sheets — in sev­eral classes and sub­jects to un­com­mon ones, such as ital­i­cized Comic Sans, Mono­type Cor­siva and Hat­tensh­weiler. Af­ter sev­eral weeks of in­struc­tion, re­searchers found that in all sub­jects ex­cept chem­istry, stu­dents who had read the “dis­flu­ent” ma­te­ri­als per­formed far bet­ter on as­sign­ments.

“This re­search shows that be­hav­ioral in­ter­ven­tions can be an im­por­tant el­e­ment in school re­form,” Op­pen­heimer said in an in­ter­view with Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view.

Sans For­get­ica is the first font cre­ated with re­ten­tion in mind, the re­searchers at RMIT said. But Jan­neke Bli­jlevens, an­other re­searcher on the project, stressed that the font should be used spar­ingly for it to stay ef­fec­tive. If the reader’s brain gets too com­fort­able, it will glaze over Sans For­get­ica just as eas­ily as if it were Arial or Times New Ro­man, some of the world’s most ubiq­ui­tous fonts.

“We be­lieve it is best used to em­pha­size key sec­tions, like a def­i­ni­tion, in texts rather than con­vert­ing en­tire texts or books,” Bli­jlevens said.

Want to test it for your­self? Sans For­get­ica is avail­able as a Google Chrome ex­ten­sion through an RMIT web­site.

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The font was de­signed by Aus­tralian re­searchers as a read­ing re­ten­tion tool.

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