Reconsidering Legibility in Lettering

Legibility has depth that goes unaccounted for because it’s regarded too often as two-dimensional. We suggest that legibility has to do with our ability to understand and read what is in front of us, but why shouldn’t legibility expand beyond that and into how text should make us feel or prompt us for action?

Before going any further, let’s look at the suspiciously similar and confusing definitions of legibility (or legible) and readability.

Legible: capable of being read or deciphered, especially with ease, as writing or printing; easily readable.

Readability: the quality of being legible or decipherable.

Weirdly similar, right?

Legibility: the quality of being clear enough to read.

Readability: the quality of being easy or enjoyable to read.

This is still very confusing.

The real difference between the two is that legibility is concerned with the ability to distinguish individual letters or characters from each other, while readability regards the ease in which text can be read and highly dependent on its context.

For example, let’s imagine two children’s books are set in Clarendon but one is set in 9pt and the other in 24pt. They both have the same level of legibility because the typefaces are the exact same so the ability to distinguish individual letters from each other, in theory, should be the same. The context, however, is what affects their readability. Considering these books are intended for children, their reading comprehension level is much lower than adults. Given this context, the book set in 9pt Clarendon is likely to be considered less readable than the book set in 24pt Clarendon as the larger type will be easier for children to read.

While I may have taken the time to explain the “real difference” between legibility and readability, I don’t really care to constantly understand and abide by their distinction. While their levels may fluctuate from case to case, through type itself the two qualities are bound together despite their ability to complement or oppose each other.

I’m writing on this topic because I was recently asked, “What are your thoughts on the importance of legibility when it comes to hand-lettering, calligraphy or typography? I’ve seen so many gorgeous calligraphic works that I just can barely make out.”

Veering away from a tradition serif or a conventional sans-serif is always risky, but it’s important to note that we’ve grown accustomed to these styles of type which is what further enhances our preference towards them and makes them “safe” in the first place.

While the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century pushed for the use of Antiqua type, many Germans including the philosopher Immanuel Kant objected the notions. Kant, largely known for his philosophy regarding morality and reason along with his publications on aesthetics, proclaimed that German texts printed in Antiqua were tiring to read, and expressed the supremacy of blackletter.1

If we now look at blackletter and textura type as difficult to read, can it then be argued that legibility and readability are subject to circumstance and familiarity more so than some proposed objective or absolute reasoning?

In regards to the importance of legibility or readability in lettering and calligraphy, we need to look beyond just our ability to distinguish individual characters from one another or the ease in which the text can be read. While these two have their importance, I’d argue they’re less important than we make them out to be.

I’m writing on this topic because I believe there is an opportunity to address type, lettering, legibility, and readability in the same way that we address and regard art—with varying value and intent. It’d be foolish to address and value a Jackson Pollock piece through the same means/conventions we do with the work of Leonardo Da Vinci.

There’s a depth to art and the way in which it’s not only expressed but how it’s also interpreted, received, and reacted to. Similarly, legibility in regards to type and lettering isn’t as two-dimensional as we make it out to be and instead has that very same depth.

Why is legibility and readability only about “Can I make out this letter or can I read what this says?” Why can’t it also be about: Do I want to read this? Is it beautiful? Is it revolting? What does this tell me? How does this inform the piece at large? How does this make me feel?

When we ask these questions, the weight of legibility as the ability to distinguish individual characters carries less weight. It’s important to remember that reading is not understanding.

  1. Gerald Newton, Deutsche Schrift: The Demise and Rise of German Black Letter (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003), PDF, 188.