Chances are, you read words on a screen today, whether it was a letter on your laptop, a text message on your cell phone or an electronic patient record on your work computer. To do so, you may have squinted to decipher a type size that was too small or strained to make out a font that was actually designed to be read on paper — and that may have caused you to read more slowly, says Kevin Larson, PhD.

If Larson can help it, we won’t be squinting much longer. As a psychologist on the Advanced Reading Technologies team at Microsoft headquarters in Richmond, Wash. Larson and his squad of typographers and computer engineers are testing ways to reduce eye fatigue, designing easier to read fonts and exploring ways to improve the reader experience for people with visual impairments.

Larson began working at Microsoft as an intern in 1996 during graduate school and joined the Advanced Reading Technologies team in 2002 when Microsoft’s then-CEO Bill Gates asked the team to find an expert who could measure improvements to ClearType, the Microsoft technology that makes onscreen type easier to read.

The Monitor spoke with Larson about his research.

Are psychologists and typographers generally in sync about how to improve onscreen reading?

Not exactly. Reading psychologists care about what happens cognitively when people see fonts and words, whereas typographers care about the aesthetic appearance of a page.

Typographers believe that we recognize words from their word shape or outline, while research from reading psychologists suggests that we first recognize letters and then use the letters to build up to word recognition.

Psychologists have also discovered that words with more letters take longer to read than words with fewer letters, which is an interesting clue about how we read. But that type of research doesn’t offer typographers much practical information about how to design reading experiences that keep readers engaged. To study this effect, psychologists have used a monospaced font, like Courier, because it guarantees that every four-letter word is physically wider than every three-letter word. But typographers rightly point out that readers almost never see or read such monospaced fonts; they are never used in books, magazines or newspapers.

With interdisciplinary teams like yours, is that beginning to change?

Yes. Typographers and psychologists are starting to see that there is some value in using scientific measurements to look at type. Several early career typographers are conducting rigorous scientific tests now, so we are starting to see some bridging of the gap. One, Sofie Beier, who recently completed her doctorate at the Royal College of Art in London, has conducted legibility studies on three typefaces that she developed and is also starting to study whether we are faster at reading fonts that we use frequently. She also found evidence that frequency of exposure does contribute to increased reading speed.

What does your research tell us about onscreen reading?

Reading on computer screens causes more eye fatigue than reading on paper. We’ve been doing basic research with optometrist James Sheedy at Pacific University to try to understand what eye fatigue is. No one really knows what the physiological cause is or what muscles are becoming fatigued. With Sheedy, we did a bunch of studies to find out what muscles were causing it.

We started looking at the orbicularis oculi, a large muscle around the eye that’s responsible for blinking and squinting. Whenever you read text that is too light in contrast to the background or too small — anything below 12 point — the orbicularis oculi becomes more active and your blink rate decreases. If we can give higher contrast text and larger text sizes, that’s going to eliminate at least one of the causes of eye fatigue, or at least reduce it.

We’ve also done some tests to see how quickly someone can read a “good” page layout versus a “bad” page layout. The good layout used indentation to mark new paragraphs and larger text to identify a headline, while the bad one used underlining for headlines, which is an aesthetically poorer method of marking text as important, and no indentations. We were disappointed to find no differences in reading speed or comprehension.

What does make a difference?

Turns out that reading a nicely designed story can spark creativity and helps you get immersed in what you’re reading. When we found no differences in reading speed or comprehension, we wondered if the influence of design was showing up someplace else. We looked at work by psychologist Alice Isen at Cornell, who had shown that people who were induced into a good mood with a humorous video or a candy bar would perform better on certain cognitive tasks that measure creativity. We wondered if good typography could be the same type of good-mood inducer. So, we created good and bad versions of a New Yorker article. The good version used the New Yorker font with a smooth, unjagged font. The bad type was in Courier font, with wide spaces in between each word. We did two tests, and we found results similar to Isen’s. The people reading the good version solved the cognitive task at a much higher rate than the bad version. We also asked people to estimate how long they had been reading, and when they had a good layout they underestimated how long they had been reading by three minutes more than those who read with a poor layout.

What improvements to online reading are coming?

We hope to be able to improve text readability for people with vision problems and design text that is visual-perception specific. For example, we’ve found that we can design text that is easier to read if you’re colorblind than regular text is for those of us with normal vision. Colorblind readers are less sensitive than average to the differences between the red and green pixels on their monitors. Knowing colorblind readers aren’t sensitive to those differences, we can put more contrast into the red and green dimension that they can’t detect, but that makes the text sharper.

Another big thing happening right now is Web fonts. The Web is currently restricted to the handful of fonts that Microsoft offers, that you can count on being on every computer. That’s caused typography on the Web to be somewhat bland. But there’s a standardization process that all the Web browsers are implementing right now, allowing Web designers to use different fonts that will be downloaded through the browser when you request a Web page.

Once Web fonts are available, it opens up the world to thousands of fonts.

What else is your team working on?

We are relying on research to create a new font specifically for online text that could enhance reading. We are doing tests in which we show letters for a brief period of time and ask people to identify them. Then, we look at the accuracy rate and at what errors are made — whether people are confusing “i” for “j” or “a” for “o.” Drawing from that data, we can determine whether we can make each letter more legible but still conform to the font’s personality.

These tests have to be done completely in partnership with type designers so that they can make aesthetic judgment calls. It’s a true partnership between art and science.