Readability and point size (LONG SUMMARY)

Subject: Readability and point size (LONG SUMMARY)
From: Jill Burgchardt <jburgcha -at- PESTILENCE -dot- FTC -dot- NRCS -dot- USDA -dot- GOV>
Date: Fri, 17 Jan 1997 08:59:24 -0700

Hi all,

A few days ago I asked if anyone knew of research on readabilty and point size. I've received many
replies and decided it was time to summarize them for the list. Thanks to all of you for some very
helpful comments.

I do want to mention that I left out a few pertinent facts in my original post because I wanted to
keep it short. We're in the process of converting a small page manual (approx. 6 x 9) to an 8.5 by 11
page. We are doing so reluctantly, because the current manual is the result of three years of working
closely with the users. But, 8.5 x 11 fits easily into a standard 3-ring binder and allows inexpensive
page updates. Besides which the government doesn't like nonstandard and we are being told to make
the manual compliant. The current manual is 9 point Times Roman body text with Arial used for
headings and callouts. Actually, we've gotten very positive feedback with no comments on the font
being too small. I think this works because the manual consists of getting started and tutorial
material only. Sentences are short and procedural. There are lots of graphics and white space even
on the small page. So, my assumptions about the readers were based on experience. Also, I have
over-40 eyes, extreme myopia, and bifocals. I don't have a problem seeing/reading our current manual, even though many documents I deal with are a problem. (I'm new here, so I have to give credit for a
great manual to my co-worker.)

I did make an assumption that would have gotten us in trouble, if I hadn't consulted the list.
Several people pointed out that a bigger page requires a bigger font so the total characters per line
is no more than 50-60. Now that we know that, we won't be making an argument to stick with our
small font size when we increase the page size.

And now for the summary (sorry for the length, I didn't have time to do any more than remove headers
and trailer material):

> My personal favourite is New Century Schoolbook 11pt. Wherever it doesn't look
> too odd [quite a number of fonts don't *have* an 11pt] I use 11pt. New Century
> Schoolbook works good with this size because it has a good x-height [the height
> of the letter x; and thus of the lower parts of letters, say the 'n'-shaped
> thing in an 'h' and so on]. You might have a standard font you have to use. In
> that case experiment with font size as well as 'leading'; or in
> computer-wordprocessing terms "line spacing".
> Sabahat

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I don't have my references with me, but my reading suggests that there is
actually a loss of readibility with increasing point size after a certain
point, just as there is with decreasing point size.

Optimum readability is 10-11 pts with most serif type faces. The reason for
the recent popularity of 12 point has more to do with the use of computers than
with readability on the printed page. Most monitors display 12 point text
much better than they display 10 or 11 point. Of course, monitors also
display sans-serif better than serif type faces, which may account for
the recent trend toward the readable sans serif Ariel, too.

The main point is, it depends on where the text will be read. If you
plan to display the text on a monitor, such as with html or help systems,
12 point sans serif is more readable. If you plan to print the text on
paper and deliver it in the traditional manner 10 or 11 point serif is
more readable ... to the point of actually increasing reading spead
for the average reader.

Misti Anslin Tucker

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Don't know about research, but I would like to share a few points
regarding this subject with you. (If you summarize to the list,
please omit my name from these comments.)

Point size readability varies with type face. A 10-point in one
style often is totally different from another. So, don't focus
on the point size only. Also consider type face, leading between
lines, kerning, sentence/paragraph length, and the like.

How is your documentation used? If your users have to refer to
it while they are at a PC or a workstation, remember that they have
very little space to set up a comfortable way to use the keyboard
and the manaul. It can be very hard to use if it's not in "bigger"
type, especially is they're trying to copy stuff like commands or
values. If it's just read, like literature, because it's
conceptual in nature, smaller type size may be OK.

What are your users like? Are they all blessed with great lighting.
ergonomic workplaces, young eyes, no bifocals, no visual
disabilities? If so, it isn't going to be as much of an issue.
I would be surprised if you have a user group with all 20/20
vision, etc., however. Type size and face are issues almost all
of the time, but we just don't hear about it, because this minority isn't very
vocal. (I've seen users with magnifying glasses trying
to decipher tables that didn't have to be so small, for example,
and it's really stupid of the vendor. I'm not talking about
stuff smaller than 10 point here either.)

I can't recall ever hearing anyone complain about big type sizes,
but I've heard lots of negative comments about small type sizes.
Think about it.

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Jill, I don't have any studies handy but I did at one time. As for
point size, it is related to the size of your page AND the style/make
of the font (among other things). We use a 10-point Palatino on a
8.5x11 page with a large left white margin. Our customers have
commented very favorably on the look of our docs (ahem!). However, a
10-point Times Roman is smaller. Any docs we have to use Times
Roman, I pop it to 11-point. Generally, 12 point in anything is
rather large, but it depends on the x-height, ascenders, descenders,
margins, page size, etc. so there is no hard and fast rule.

There are a ton of good references on typography, but few relate
directly to technical documentation. You might try searching on the
web for "typography" to see what you can find. To establish our
styles, we looked at lots of commercial documentation and borrowed a
concept here, a concept there, until we finally settled on something
we could live with. I even made my own "clip book" of samples (good
and bad).

Hope that helps.

Jane Bergen

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Type size is only part of the equation. Any manual of typography will
suggest these other considerations:

Type face: Different type faces have different legibility quotients even
when the size is the same.

Type style: Condensed print is harder to read than normal.

Leading: Interline spacing affects legibility.

Line length: Appropriate type size is partially determined by the length of
the line. If the line is long and the type size small, the eye will fall at
the end of the line and reduce comprehension.

Regarding your audience: Do you really care about how they read or are you
trying to save space? How old are they? Do they use reading glasses (which
may affect your decision to drop the point size)?

A personal note: 12 point type can seem too large, especially if it's New
Century Schoolbook, which was designed for grade school readers (hence its
name). I like using a odd number for a type face, which I read somewhere is
usually easier to read. I fall back on 11 point type when I have a choice.

Two good type books as resources:

James Craig, Phototypesetting: A Design Manual
Allan Haley, Phototypography: A Guide to In-house Typesetting and Design

On the Web, check out

--Wayne Douglass

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Correct font size depends on several things including the font used, the
width of the column(s), vertical spacing (leading), and the resolution of
the final output device (laser printer, image setter, monitor, etc.). The
most common mistake I have seen is to use a small font with a wide
column. You can avoid this by using a simple rule of thumb: Your
column(s) should be about 50 to 60 characters wide (including spaces).
This means that on an 8.5 x 11 inch page with a single column, you
should not use a font smaller than 10 to 13 points (depending on the

If you want to use a small font, you must maintain the line width by using
more columns. This is why journals, newspapers, and magazines use
mutiple columns.

Bob Bench
Technical Writer
bobb -at- slc -dot- twc -dot- com

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Check with your audience. Ability to read small type varies with age,
you know! <G>

Readability is a product of more than type size. Line width and
leading (distance between lines of type), x-height (height of the
lower case letters), amount of white space on the page, and the
typeface involved all affect readability.

Line Width

I think the old typesetters value was 40-60 characters per line ...
There's a formula can be used to pick line width vs point size, but I
don't remember what it was. You might search the TECHWR-L archives,
someone posted it awhile back.


Very much depends on the typeface chosen. Some typefaces are taller
at a given point size than others, so you need more space between the
lines. Also, smaller type benefits from more line spacing. I usually
set 10 pt type on 14 pt line spacing, and 12 pt type on 16 pt


Some typefaces have larger lowercase letters (compared to the point
size and/or upper case letters) than others. Generally, a typeface
with a larger x-height is easier to read at small sizes. One example
of a face with large x-height is Booknan. (You don't mention what
typeface you're thinking of using, but you should be aware of it.)

Amount of White Space

Good use of white space can make things easier to read. Check some
good design books for further information.


Some typefaces work best in narrow columns (like Times Roman), others
work better in wider blocks of text (like Garamond or Bookman).

Suggestions re design books

_Editing By Design_ does a very good job of explaining layout issues
and how they influence communication (I know, not exactly what you
were looking for!) without miring itself down in the specifics of
specific software. In fact, it's written for non-computer using

_The PC Is Not A Typewriter_ and it's companion for the Mac (both by
the same author, note that there is a different publisher's book out
there for the Mac with the same title!) are very good.

Most of the readability studies I've seen have suffered from flaws. I
prefer the empirical knowledge that the typesetting industry has
accumulated over the centuries to the Johnny-come-lately readability

I think the STC site has a link to a large list of books for
technical writers. That list has a section of books covering design
and readability. You might check

and see what you find.

David Jones, Technical Writer
dvjones -at- ksbe -dot- edu

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One good reference for this information is "Writing Better
Computer User Documentation - From Paper to Hypertext" by
R. John Brockmann. It's published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,
ISBN 0-471-62259-1 or 0-471-62260-5 (paperback).

There's some pretty lengthly discussion about font size for
both paper and on-line. But, as Jane said, there's nothing
hard and fast.

Hope this helps.

John Fisher
Senior Technical Writer
EPIC Design Technology, Inc.
Sunnyvale, CA

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Is your primary concern saving space (i.e., saving printing costs) or
helping the user read your documentation? My research and experience would
indicate that 12-point is optimum for most audiences. Just because other
technical publications make a mistake and decrease font size is no reason
for you to do so. By the way, what is the average age of your doc reader?
The older the user, the larger the point size. And don't assume anything
because it makes an ass out you and me.

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From: Mitch Berg <mberg -at- is -dot- com>
Articles? Who has time to research?

Seriously, the answer, as to most questions, is "It Depends". A few
* Run a few samples by sample audience members at various type sizes.
Get reactions.
* A rule of thumb is: you should be able to type the alphabet twice on a
line of text.
If you can type it more than twice, increase your size. If you can't
get thru twice,
crank it down a notch.

Ugh. 10 points is bad enough - nine points should make even a sleazy
lawyer gag.

Know your audience, and know your design considerations. Any older
engineers? Tiny type might not agree with 'em.

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An amusing (?) concept, of which I was informed, some time ago is the
'rule' that people over the age of 40 have difficulty in reading
anything under 12 point. Therefore, and this is NOT me saying this,
anyone over the age of 40 receiving text that is less than 12 point
has to put on their spectacles to read it. You are therefore, by
sending them this 'small' print, also sending them a subliminal
(sic) message that you don't like them.

Whether or not this has any validity, I would not like to comment in
polite company . . . however, I did have a 40+ programmer who
complained that he had to put on his spectacles to read the 10 point
Courier that we used for program extracts. I agreed to increase the
point size if he restricted his lines of code to less than 40

General point size is a rough guide; I think that x-height is more

Regards to all . . .
Danny Dresner
Publications/NCC Quality Manager

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Your thoughts follow ours. We have been using 9.5 points with New
Century School Book font for our manuals during the last 3 or 4 years.
This is with a page size of 5.5 by 8.5 inches. We have not receieved
any complaints of "the printing is too small", up to now.

For larger (8.5 x 11) manuals we are using (not my idea!) 12 points.

Very best regards,

Don Smith
Sr. Technical Writer

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I'm not trying to be funny, but why don't you survey your audience?
You could send them the same one-page sample; one printed at 10 pt and
the other at 12 pt. Ask them which one they prefer. You do know that
the font you use also has an effect on how large the characters print.
For example, we used to use New Century Schoolbook at 11 pt. We now
use Times at 12 pt.

Good luck,

Don Timmerman

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Someone mentioned age as a factor in whether small print is readable. This
is a valid issue.

However, I'd also like to remind everyone that even young people can have
difficulty reading small type, whether on paper or on screen. I have worn
specs since I was 7 years old, and have had severe myopia (>11 diopters)
for many years. I am now over 50 and having trouble reading things close up
as well.

I have complained for years about software interfaces with tiny type that I
cannot change (other than by changing the screen resolution). Fortunately
in much modern s/w, I can change the size of type on user-editable things.
Unfortunately this does not include the online help!

Please spare a thought for the millions of people with poor eyesight, when
deciding on a point size for anything. I realise it's a tradeoff with a lot
of other factors, but don't just assume that because people are "used to
reading small print," that they are comfortable doing so.

Regards from Sydney, Australia
Jean Weber, Technical Writing, Editing and Publishing Consultant

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From: Mitch Berg <mberg -at- IS -dot- COM>

Jean Weber wrote:
> Someone mentioned age as a factor in whether small print is readable. This
> is a valid issue.

I'm the one who brought it up. BTW, I did it as an example of someone
who _might_ have trouble with smaller type, not as a blanket statement
about older people.

Yes, it IS valid. I've had to write for older audiences - it's an issue
for many of them...

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While many people over 40 do have vision problems, almost all
wear corrective lenses to improve their vision to normal.
Vision for the over 40 crowd is not a reason to use 12 pt.
We always use 12 pt because it is easier to read than smaller text.
I not not believe that using 12 pt is a waste of space.

Bob Morrisette
writer -at- sabu -dot-

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Mitch Berg <mberg -at- IS -dot- COM>wrote:

>Ugh. 10 points is bad enough - nine points should make even a >sleazy lawyer gag.

Partly, it depends on what font is used. Aldus was designed for use at
smaller sizes; Stone Serif also works very well at 8 to 10 points.

Bruce Byfield (bbyfield -at- axionet -dot- com)
Technical Writer
Burnaby, BC, Canada
(604) 421-7189

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Quite a bit of research supports an 11-point font as preferred by
most readers with 10- or 12-point also quite readable. This has
some dependency on the font style itself. For example, an
11-point Palatino has a lot more size to it than an 11-point

In one newsletter I do, we use 10.5 point (laid out with
PageMaker) and the audience finds it very readable. In another
newsletter, different format/different audience, I use a 10-point
font because I've got a lot to cover in a little space. You can
probably easily drop down to 10-point but I think 9-point is
getting a little iffy. That depends, of course, on how readable
the particular 9-point font is that you'd be using.

Font size, of course, is only one consideration. Other stuff to
consider is: how motivated a reader is your audience (if they
really want to know about whatever you're writing about, they'll
put up with more inconveniences like too-small type); how is the
information laid out on the page (if it's quite dense, the larger
type makes it more accessible); how much white space is there;
what do other publications your audience is used to reading look
like; how do they use the document--tutorial, user guide, or
reference? You probably get the idea.

Hope this helps. Would be happy to offer citations or whatever.

Marie Mayer, Publications Editor (515) 294-2787

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