Legible by gerard unger

Suddenly legibility is under siege. While printed text, just like God, has been declared dead a few times, legibility, until recently, was still considered sacred. However, during the past few yers, many doubts have surfaced. In trade magazines, panel discussions and in the hallowed halls of graphic design, new interpretations of legibility are being considered. Wim Crouwel (graphic designer and director of the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen) was recently quoted as saying that everything we knew about legibility twenty years ago is now invalid because the notion of legibility has been stretched so much since that time. We are inundated with so many different texts in such varied manifestations that we have become used to everything and can read anything without difficulty.

In Eye no.3 (May 1991), Michele-Anne Dauppe suggests that legibility relied on set rules and could be measured against absolute standards that were obtained through optical research. Those rules no longer apply, she believes. The standards are shifting and legibility is pushed to extremes. Two issues of Émigré magazine (No. 15, 1991 and No. 18, 1991) contribute to this discussion. In issue number fifteen, Jeffrey Keedy states that too many people strive to omit ambiguity (which is exactly what good, legible typography aims at). Keedy believes that life is full of ambiguity, which is what makes it interesting. His typefaces emphasize this belief.

In that same issue Zuzana Licko proclaims “You read best what you read most”. She hopes that her typefaces will eventually be as legible and easy to read as Times New Roman is today.

She also states that letters are not inherently legible but become more legible through repeated usage, and that “legibility is a dynamic process”. In issue number eighteen, Phil Baines fully agrees with these statements and goes one step further when he adds that “the Bauhaus mistook legibility for communication. “There seems to be a general consensus that the ultimate legible typography is extremely dull. It overshoots the mark because no one feels invited to read it.

Printed text is far from being dead. On the contrary, every day more and more text is being produced on paper. But don’t we have to be concerned with its legibility anymore? It is possible that the existing rules are too strict. How about those rules that Michele-Anne Dauppe believes were establishing through research? Who performed these tests and where can we find the results?

In the book The Visible Word Herbert Spencer presents a summary of over a hundred years’ worth of investigations of legibility. The conclusions in this book are very generals, such as: “Words typeset in upper case are considerably less legible than words set in lower case. Italics are also less legible and bold type can work, provided the inner spaces of the letters are clearly visible. Medium bold is very legible. Many readers prefer a text set in medium bold.” The last chapter of this book shows attempts at creating completely new letter shapes. (…) In TypG, published in June 1991, Max Kisman writes: “The institution of the letter will be abolished. The power will be defeated. Since their digital manifestation, letters have been outlawed. The prevailing conceptions have lost their value. Graphic design is a fake and aesthetic-based page filler. Graphic design and typography will be banned.” He adds: “The printed message is old-fashioned and of the past.” We will forgive him this latter nonsense. However, I do agree with Kisman that there is frequent evidence of superficiality and that much design only draws attention to the work of the designer – narcissistic design without respect for either authors or readers. And those striking new typefaces produced to offer the readers more pleasure or to impress fellow graphic designers? Kisman suggests, as a last convulsion of graphic design, “…to mix all design styles during a wild party in order to lay the rest of the profession. So that will the resulting hangover, we can position ourselves to start the restoration.”

Before the party begins I want to know where the restoration is going to come from. How do we find out what legibility really is? To break with the past does not solve anything. It isn’t possible; this is what even the most powerful revolution has taught us. By gratuitously repeating historical standpoints, the discussion is not served well, either. To live for the here-and-now and fun of it all, without concern for serious depth, as TypG suggests is oppressively restrictive.

Originally published in Émigré no.23, 1992.

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