Re: A science of typography? Comments on Wheildon's _Type &

Subject: Re: A science of typography? Comments on Wheildon's _Type &
From: Emily Skarzenski <eskarzenski -at- DTTUS -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 6 Feb 1996 14:33:36 CST

Stan Brown <stbrown -at- NACS -dot- NET> wrote:

> I question how far Wheildon's work is applicable to tech writing.
> Some comments I've seen on the TECHWR-L Digest claim, for instance,
> that Wheildon proved that we should be setting technical manuals
> justified rather than ragged right. In fact, his work does not
> warrant such a conclusion.

Hmm. I have not seen any posts on TECHWR-L asserting that technical
manuals should be set in justified type. In fact, the only posts I saw
on TECHWR-L about Wheildon's book were my own... and I never stated
that tech manuals should be set justified. (I don't do it in my own!)

> The types of writing that Wheildon studied differ from technical
> writing in several ways <snip>
> tech writing is quite often of book length; its purpose
> is at least 95% informative; at least some parts of a given piece
> will often be read many times; and readers typically jump into the
> middle and expect to find what they need. This last point seems to
> me the most important.

Essentially, Wheildon's study looked for things that readers
considered to be *obstacles* to reading/understanding. As Stan points
out, readers of manuals actually require texts to be even *more*
readable/understandable than the average person reading an article.

So I would think that his principles might easily apply to manuals.
After all, if a certain typographical element is an obstacle in "easy"
reading, wouldn't it be even more an obstacle in a difficult reading
situation?

> we must remain wary of interpreting Wheildon's findings outside
> their proper sphere. To take an extreme example, Wheildon's
> principle of Reading Gravity (pages 37-51) is stated as a universal.
> But would it be valid in Israel, where right-to-left reading is a
> significant tradition? or in Japan, where reading is in columns?

Yes, of course. In the comments following my summary, I mentioned that
his sample was both small and too homogeneous (in terms of education
level and geography). Part of what I meant was that the sample was too
ethnically homogeneous. His study didn't name the ethnic backgrounds
of participants, but I assume they are descended mainly from
Australian, British, or other western cultures that use a reading
system similar to our own.

Of course Wheildon's study of 224 Australians can't be universalized
to the rest of the world. I'm not even sure they can be universalized
to anything, considering the sample size; I don't know enough about
statistics to know what a statistically signicant sample size would be
for a study of this kind.

> Similar questions need to be asked about his other conclusions,
> including his deprecation of ragged right text and headings in
> color.

Actually, I don't this his research on headlines conflicts with our
situation. Most of the manuals I see printed in two or more colors use
the color for subheads, so that the subheads stand out from the rest
of the text.

Wheildon's findings on colored headlines were: (p. 79)

- 61% of readers found high chroma colors attractive, drawing their
attention quickly to the text.

- 47% said they then found the headings hard to read.

As Stan pointed out earlier, our readers tend to use a "random-access"
approach; they want to find something quickly and then close the book.
Therefore, I would say it's more important for subheads to draw the
reader's attention than that they be particularly easy to read
(especially considering their short length).

> Before we are in a position to adopt his rules, we must see studies
> of technical writing along the same lines as his studies of
> advertising.

I would love to see similar studies done on the technical writing
genre. Anyone want to tackle it?


Emily Skarzenski
Deloitte & Touche/ICS - Chadds Ford, PA
eskarzenski -at- dttus -dot- com


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