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The Psychology of Text

The written word. The primary source through which we share our knowledge. From ancient religious texts and history books, to learning of our friend’s adventures on Facebook. It is this marvelous medium that allows us to express emotions, share thoughts and tell stories. It has done for centuries.

Unfortunately Text, of course, has it’s pitfalls. It is a static medium. We often forget that – for the majority of us English speakers – all we read, all that we’ve ever read, is merely a different arrangement of a specific 26 characters with some punctuation thrown in and syntactic rules applied.

In comparison to the comparatively new mediums of Image, or Video, Text is extremely limiting. The old adage goes that a picture tells 1000 words and (depending on the picture!) it usually isn’t too far from the truth. Images and Video are able to capture and represent a scene far more succinctly than words could ever hope to. The recent boom in sites such as Instagram, Vine and Pinterest just goes to show how people find these mediums far more practical when sharing elements of their everyday life. Twitter has even begun pushing photo and video to the fore, refreshing a previously textually-predominant experience.


Source: liesdamnedliesstatistics.com

Image and video can never truly replace text however – just ask any keen novelist for their thoughts on a film adaptation. The written word will always be required to convey information, just as I am doing now.

Text is everywhere and an essential component in shaping user experiences. Users do not want to be confronted with a wall of text. We don’t want to be reading TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) in our comments. We want to keep our readers gripped, and make their experience as hassle free as possible. We also want to convey the emotional elements that text may lack in comparison to image or video.


To remedy this, it is possible to employ certain techniques to ease your reader’s, your user’s experience. Be it a blurb on a book, product information on a webpage, a blog or a full length novel. We want to ensure readers take notice, read the important information, and stay gripped.

Font

Personality

The pseudo scientific practice of Graphology has been around for over 200 years. Practitioners attempt to interpret people’s handwriting to judge personality, and even detect neurological issues.

Since the demise of personal handwriting, experts have transferred to typefaces to search for clues to our identities – using the fonts we use in emails or personal letters to deduce personality.

In 2001, Lexmark commissioned Psychologist Dr. Aric Sigman to study how a typeface influences what a reader thinks of the author. Within this article – ‘The Psychology of Fonts’ – Sigman suggested that certain fonts could be matched to specific top personalities:


Fonts appropriate to famous personalities

In Sigman’s own words: “Using the wrong font may give people the wrong impression about you and could affect decisions that will shape your future.”

Specific fonts apply to certain situations. For example, when applying for a job we may use Times for a traditional company, or Verdana for somewhere more contemporary. This brilliant infographic offers a list of fonts, the impression they give to your reader, and the situation to which they are most appropriate.


Psychology of Font Infographic by weems

Emphasis

The size of the font is also significant. It is obvious, but we use larger fonts for important, eye-catching elements of our text such as titles. With a smaller size for the general body in order to conserve space. This is a tradition carried over from historic print publishing. Through differentiating font sizes we can draw attention to the parts of the text that are most important for us to convey to our reader. Word maps make use of this, showing commonly used words in a larger size to convey their prominence in the analyzed text.


An example of a wordmap

Tone of Conversation

Your choice of font then is empirical in setting up your conversation with the reader. It reflects who you are. It is your tone of voice in textual form and creates a persona to your reader. It is therefore essential that the right font is used for the right occasion. This will allow your reader to better understand the context of the situation and gain an insight into your character. It allows you turn a conversation from formal to friendly, aggressive to consolatory.

Colour

Colour is arguably the most influential psychological tool a web designer has at their disposal. A splash of the relevant spectrum of light instantly alerting the viewer to what the situation entails.


How colour is perceived in the West. This is a cultural phenomenon, with relationships potentially holding stark differences in Asia or elsewhere.

Emphasis

Colour’s main use within text is to highlight and create emphasis for the reader, helping the eyes to distinguish differing elements and draw attention. Historically,writers had two tools at their disposal: italics and boldness. Colour was at a premium before the digital age, reserved for the cover or maybe for accompanying pictures if you were lucky. Instead, to denote a change of context the writer could write in italics, though this struggles to stand out in a large body of text. Simply adding boldness attracts the readers eyes, allowing the writer to highlight key words.

On the web however, colour is not an issue. We can go crazy if we’d like, however it’s not advisable. The first rule of colour is to ensure readability doesn’t suffer. To ensure this, the classic black and white sees dominant use. Around our standard black and white body, we can add all manner of colour to divert and manipulate our reader’s attention. Flat Design principles make great use of this, using colour to differentiate elements.


Example of Flat Design

Capturing Attention

As you may see on this page, elements separate to this article have been coloured separately in order to highlight call to actions – drawing your attention. The tags at the bottom of the page are a great example. Surrounded by colour to focus the reader’s attention on keywords or phrases.

This also works brilliantly for product descriptions, where important words can be highlighted to the viewer, forcing them to divert attention. Viewers will commonly not read every detail on the page – often skim-reading, so forcing them see the important parts is essential. Capturing their attention and drawing them in.


Using colour to highlight key words, monetate.com

Subconscious Thoughts

Colour also carries great cultural associations. In the western world we commonly associate green with success, and red with failure. Good and Bad, Go and Stop. These offer subconscious reactions to colours which can help lend added meaning to text. Adding a dash of red to a failure state helps enforce the situation to the reader, as adding some green to a successful transaction tells your reader that all is good.

Readability

Aside from emphasis, colour can be used in other great ways to help out the reader and writer. BeeLine Reader is an ingenious solution which claims to increase reading speed up by 30%. How?

Key to typography are two things: legibility – how distinguishable letters, words and phrases are and and readability – how easy it is for the brain to convert these into a coherent message. As our eyes scan across the page, it is possible for them to get lost on their journey. Ever read the same line twice? We train our eyes to get used to soaking lines and lines of text, yet this is still taxing and at times our eyes can get tired.

BeeLine adds a colour gradient to the text, making the transition from one line to the next easier on the eye: helping the eye to follow a set path and increasing reading speed as a result. There’s a great article on this typographic trick here

Format

Readability

Finally, the format of your text has a major influence on it’s readability. Think of newspapers, with their multiple narrow columns. This is the result of years of study and refinement. In the words of Bob Bailey, Ph.D. (UI Design Newsletter – November, 2002):

One of the best studies was done by Tinker and Paterson in 1929. Using 10-point black type on white paper, they found that line lengths between 3 inches and 3.5 inches (75 to 90 mm) yielded the fastest reading performance. Paragraphs with line lengths of 7.3 inches (185 mm) were read slowest. The authors proposed that longer line lengths obviously require greater lateral eye movements, which seemed to make it more likely that users would lose their place within the text.

This is all very logical. Remove stress from the reader’s eyes and your content instantly becomes more readable.

On the web, due to the reader’s further distance from the screen, line lengths needn’t be quite so compact, with 4-5 inches considered the optimal length. Still, it is important to ensure your reader’s eyes aren’t scanning too much.

Whitespace

The use of whitespace on the web is of great importance in improving the comprehension of a piece of text. We have a great article on how it effects the user experience here.

Takeaways

  • Ensure your text is relevant to the situation it is being presented in
  • Size matters. Logical sizing places the emphasis where it’s needed.
  • Use Fonts relevant to the conversation you want to have
  • Colour is essential in relaying subconscious messages to your reader
  • Colour can also be used to draw attention specific pieces of text.
  • Text is useless unless it is readable – help your reader out with logical formatting.

4 comments

  1. David

    Do you have a color chart or graphic for other countries? I would think purple and red have different meanings in Asian countries.

  2. Oliver McGough

    Hey David. I’m afraid I don’t, shouldn’t be too difficult to find one with a bit of Googling :) Completely neglected to add something about cultural differences, thanks for picking up on this! (I just sneakily added a disclaimer…)

  3. Tristano

    Hi David,

    here you can see the colors in cultures http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/colours-in-cultures/

  4. Sabina Idler

    Hi Tristano, Thanks for sharing. This is indeed a very useful resource when designing for different cultures.

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