Email: “Legibility — Grading, Testing, and Standards”

I received the most curious email this morning. At first I thought it was spam, but after reading through it I think it’s a legitimate question for me and may be based on my previous post on Helvetica. I’m not sure what to make of it so I’m posting it here. Leave your thoughts in the comments and I’ll be sure to share them with the email’s author, G F Mueden.

From: G F Mueden [email address redacted]

Date: Sun, 21 Sep 2008 08:55:34 -0700

To: [email protected]

Subject: Legibility — Grading, Testing, and Standards

Ms. Hess, this is much too long for email, and I beg your tolerance. Please be so kind to read to the end

My eyes are at the margin, the minimum commercial standard, as defined by the newspapers. If they can’t read them, they don’t buy them. I read them with difficulty and only in very good light. A year or so ago I was so put out by annual reports created more as monuments to the designer’s ego than to helping express the message. They were glitzy and harder to read than the workaday stuff in the proxy statement. I have found nobody testing or grading and only two standards. There is one for labels on aircraft wiring and one for material that State sends to the President

Without a way of grading printed samples I have no way of saying what percent of an audience is offended (lost?) by hard to read copy. I have been saving small samples of printed material with the object of building a catalog of them, graded for legibility. The professionals who study legibility seem to be in university psychology departments and they study it it a minute level, experimental, and are not producing something that I can use to get McGraw-Hill to make its publications easier to read. [They are’nt all bad, but some, e.g., tables in Outlook are faint and Business Week’s choice of fonts and backgrounds offend frequently.]

I have emailed Lighthouse Internationl and have been given scholarly reasons why I should give up. It is as if I was trying to rain on their parade, a “not invented here” rejection of an idea. I met with their legibility guru, Dr. Aries Arditi, on Friday. He said that we can’t measure legibility, it is too complicated, we don’t have the instruments. After a while he admitted that he had been a judge in a legibility congtest and it had all been done by eyball. This is not a six sigma problem. My feeling is that any standard, even imperfect and subject to challenge, will be better than none. I want a way to say, e.g., this sample can be read by only 85% of the population. The pros jump on me and ask what do you mean by population. I refuse to go beyond everybody in the US who wants to read and has the smarts to do it, even though their eyes are not up to it.
At Lighthouse you are nobdy unless you have a doctorate.

I need to know more about the distribution of near-vision acuity in the population and can find no good numbers. I would like to tie legibility to the clinicians standards. E.g., where on your eye chart (there are many others than his) does the newspaper stand? I asked Dr Bruce Rosenthal who heads the Lighthouse Low-vision Clinic to comment on te significance of each line on his chart and got no response.

Dr August Colenbrander (with an organization out West (K…-…?) offered two useful comments.
One was that my greatest difficlty will be with well sughted people. They don’t understand what low-vision people see. “I can see it, why can’t you?” The other was that there actually is a minimum standard, the newspaper. He has developed a near nision chart that takes contrast into account. He was the only one to ask about me and why I was asking.

You may be able to use this: I have found it easier to let my eyes rest in a small space on the screen and scroll the headlies to my eyes than to search the page of an imitation “paper paper”
for the headlines in order to decide what to read. The NYTimes emails me the headlines with a short paragraph for each, I scroll though them (one column with ads on the right) and love it. Not perfect because they pick only what they consider the top story. I would like to see what it would be like to have the whole paper delivered that way. It is like the old story that ends with “You tell that dog to come around to where my eyes is restin'”.

I have found no place where the legibility of printed material is the principal subject I have gone so far as to buy the right to use “legibility” as a domain name, but have not wanted to go to the cost in money and frustration of setting up a website.

Enough. Comments welcome.

G F Mueden [number and email address redacted] ===gm===

So what do you think?

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