Figure 1. Adrian Frutiger's letterform matrix, where he superimposed a range of what he believed to be the most common typefaces (Garamond, Baskerville, Bodoni, Excelsior, Times, Palatino, Optima, and Helvetica).

Typeface familiarity
Our research shows that after a short practice session, readers will read an uncommon typeface at the same rate as a very common typeface. However, they do not like doing so.

Some typographers have proposed that typeface familiarity is defined by the amount of time that a reader has been exposed to a typeface, as famously stated by Zuzana Licko: ‘People read best what they read most.’

Other typographers have proposed that familiarity is defined by commonalities in letter shapes. One example of this is Adrian Frutiger’s letterform matrix model. Frutiger argued that every character has a basic skeleton that is based on a collective memory of all the different character variations a person has ever encountered. The skeleton emerges when widely read typefaces are superimposed, so that the parts of the letterform that are shared across all typefaces appear.


Figure 2. The 6 test fonts.

Top row: Times New Roman & Helvetica.
Both had a high level of previous exposure and high level of common letter shapes.

Middle row: Pyke & Spencer.
At the time of testing, both had a low level of previous exposure and high level of common letter shapes.

Lower row: PykeNew & SpenceNew.
At the time of testing, both had a low level of previous exposure and low level of common letter shapes.

We tested these two hypotheses by measuring the reading speed and preferences of participants. Participants were tested twice with common and uncommon letter shapes, once before and once after spending 20 minutes reading a story presented in the given font.

The results indicate that exposure time does impact reading speed, so that the uncommon typefaces were read almost as fast as the common typefaces after practice. The revelation that unusual letterforms do not slow down reading after a 20-minute exposure period surprisingly tells us that the presence of common letterforms in typefaces is not important to reading performance.

The outcome of the reading speed test supports the view of proactive designers advocating improvements in letter shapes.


Figure 3. Average number of paragraphs read before and after practice. We tested two groups – group-1 (left) read Times New Roman, Spencer and Pykenew, and group-2 (right) read Helvetica, Pyke and SpencerNew. 

Readers’ opinions, on the other hand, support the argument of traditionalist designers by demonstrating that readers were noticeably more critical of the fonts that had uncommon letterforms, compared to the fonts that had common letterforms. Readers simply did not enjoy reading the uncommon type.

When asked to rate statements such as ‘I will enjoy reading this typeface in the future’, both before and after the practise sessions, the subjects’ answers were negative for the uncommon fonts, even when their reading speed proved unencumbered.


Figure 4. Answers to the questionnaire on all six fonts. Note how the two orange bars (the uncommon fonts) showed negative answers both before and after practice.

Based on these findings, we conclude that the reason letter skeletons have changed so little over time has to with readers’ subjective opinions, not with legibility. In a normal reading situation outside of the laboratory setting, readers simply stop reading if the situation is uncomfortable, and thus their opinions of the reading situation will end up overruling any possible advantages in reading speed.

For more see:
Beier, S. & Larson, K. (2013) ‘How does typeface familiarity affect reading performance and reader preferences?’, Information Design Journal, 20(1), 16-31.

Other research findings


Centre for Visibility Design
The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts,
Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation
School of Design

Philip de Langes Allé 10

1435 København K

M +45 41 70 18 83