The Rhythm of the Reading Eye

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This is part one of a three-part series.

Printed direct response advertising is all about reading.

Reading envelope teasers. Reading letters. Reading brochures. Reading order forms. Reading headlines. Reading coupons. Without reading - easy, effortless reading - you have no sales.

Therefore, one of the most devastating response barriers you have to fight is poor legibility.

While it's the copywriter's job to craft selling copy, it's the designer's job to encourage and support readership of that copy. A designer should make every effort to work with the realities of how people read and to make the process as easy and transparent as possible.

Here are the basics of the reading process:

• Eye rhythm. In Western culture, we print written materials with the words arranged horizontally left to right. To read this material, the eye moves right along a line of type and then sweeps to the left and down to the beginning of the next line.

• Fixations. As the eye moves along a line of type, it stops at certain points to allow the eye to see and the brain to comprehend one or more words. These stops are called fixations, jumps or saccades, from the French word "saquer," meaning to pull. Each fixation is about one-fourth of a second.

• Eye span. During each fixation, the eye sees the word or words upon which it fixates as well as an area around that point. A reader's eye span may be as small as a single word or as large as a whole phrase. A good reader will see about two and a half words per fixation, but the average reader may see less. The ordinary radius maximum is two inches around a fixation point. With standard text, this translates to about 29 letter spaces, 17 of which are seen clearly.

• Thought units. The eye span isn't arbitrary. The brain naturally divides sentences into thought units or idea chunks. For example: Bill caught the ball. Here, the two thought units are Bill and caught the ball.

• Configuration. Every word has a particular shape. With repeated exposure to a word, a reader is able to recognize and interpret it instantly.

When you see a stop sign, for example, you don't mentally sound out S-T-O-P. You perceive the whole word by its shape and instantly understand its meaning. Because numerals have less distinctive configurations, the eye fixates more on numbers than words. Also, since there are more shape differences with lowercase letters than with capitals, configurations in lowercase are generally recognized faster than those in all caps.

• Familiarity. The more familiar a reader is with the type and the appearance of the words used, the easier the reading. Roman or serif faces are generally more familiar to readers. They also tend to have more irregular features, which give words more distinct and recognizable configurations.

• Reading rates. The average person shows a constant increase in reading rate throughout the school years, followed by a sudden drop after graduation. In junior high, the average reading rate is 200 words per minute. In high school, it's 250 wpm. In college, it rises to 325 wpm and then to 400 wpm in graduate school. In adulthood, it drops to 200 wpm, with reading comprehension around 50 percent. This is just a little faster than the average rate of speech, which is 140 wpm to 160 wpm. In other words, most adults read slowly.

• Regression. To compensate for any difficulties in the reading process, a reader often will move his eyes back over previously read material. Not only does this lower the reading rate, but it also alters the sequence of information flowing into the brain and lowers comprehension.

• Eye fatigue. The average adult eye travels about 1,600 feet per day - that's 584,000 feet or 111 miles per year! It's no wonder that a reader's eyes get tired.

Next month we'll see how these principles translate into common-sense rules for reader-friendly design.

• Dean Rieck is a direct response copywriter, designer, consultant and president of Direct Creative, Columbus, OH.
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