Digital Reading: E-Books’ Great Educational Opportunity

Anne KostickBy Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND

Not for the first time, The Science Times has rocked my world. In his April 19 article, Benedict Carey discusses, among other things, new research that says that people retain information better when the font is difficult to read.

In a recent study called, appropriately, “Fortune favors the BOLD (and the Italicized),” researchers concluded that information presented in hard-to-read fonts was remembered better than information in easier-to-read fonts. Mr. Carey probably didn’t realize what a bolt of lightning that might be for producers of digital books.

Everything we believed was right, isn’t. All this time we’ve focused on the great digital-book feature of adjusting the font size of text (and as a reader with typical presbyopia, I enjoy enlarging the font size until the number of characters per line reaches a ridiculous minimum).

New research has upended our assumptions: it now appears that font size has no relevance to “ease of learning” (which I equate with “ease of reading”)—it can be as tiny as a bedbug, for all your brain cares—but UNfAmILIArITy oF FOnT makes things more learnable.

You read me right. Throw out all you know about readable fonts, be they Swiss or Metropolitan Transit Authority. Should text be white-on-black, or the other way around? It doesn’t matter.

In the early days of the Macintosh computer, we all suffered from an ailment we called MacBlab, where every document or communication contained at least five different fonts or styles, just because it was SO easy! Then we developed self-control, took the Swiss Design oath of allegiance and cultivated consistency, spareness and restraint.

Not only were we wrong about the usefulness of this approach, we were in the majority—according to another research study , most people are way off about how much they’ve actually learned from a study session.

If only we’d published our works in different fonts and STYLES, especially ones considered diFFiculT, we might have produced books (especially textbooks and other educational products) that really stuck with the sTudenT.

Here’s permission and a new opportunity for e-books: If you want your readers to retain what they read, to truly learn from their face-time with your product, make it more difficult (not easier; get me?) to read the text.  Find interesting FoNTs and mix them up. Don’t worry that you’re not a trained book designer. Feel good about yourself, knowing that you’re helping your readers learn and remember. And take a couple of ibuprofen tabs for that headache.

NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group for editors and others working in trade publishing to discuss standards, workflow, best practices, and the general Qs that most print people feel when confronted with terms like “workflow.” The Forum is moderated by Anne Kostick and David B. Schlosser. Anne’s weekly column, Digital Reading, discusses the field of User Experience and explores what it offers to trade publishers.

Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the editor in chief of Dulcinea Media, an online publisher in the educational market, and is the current president of Women’s Media Group.

5 thoughts on “Digital Reading: E-Books’ Great Educational Opportunity

  1. Christopher Wills

    Interesting research results. It seems logical that making text less fluent (harder to read) means the reader has to concentrate more which probably accounts for the increased retention of knowledge. Of course one would have to be careful that by decreasing text fluency one wasn’t making it too hard to read for students who have reading difficulties.
    And given how untidy it looks, I think we’re a long way from editors accepting this theory 🙂

  2. Pingback: Plus c’est dur à lire, plus on mémorise? « Le Blog d'EDI.PRO

  3. Karie

    My online school has just switched to ebooks. I am having growing pains to say the least and would like to find a way to get over this challenge. I am not able to connect the sentences with the whole of the chapter. I am not sure if the challenge is caused by columns or graphics but my attention to the materials is so easily disrupted that I cannot summarize what I have just read. The scrolling past images and sorting what column of what page belong to the paragraph I am trying to read causes enough break in my concentration to never allowing me see the message clearly. I find that not knowing when the chapter ends and how much of “this” belong under “that” subheading makes me not very interested in read the materials. The flow of information is not stemless, causing a misinterpretation of the message. Some sentences flow so well with another columns sentence that I never know if I missed parts. Using the portal that my school provides me there is so little ways to follow along or highlight where I am at. The book we are using now only allows for zooming in or out.
    I hope the way ebooks are published change in the future to a more seamless flow and less distracting images are placed only between separate ideas. I am severely disappointed that we are no longer allowed a copy of the actual physical book, meaning the possibly of that book being used for future is significantly decreased.
    Tuition has not decreased by this new policy.



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