Why would anyone design a font that is deliberately difficult to read? The answer is simple: to help people retain the information they are reading.
A team of designers and behavioural scientists at RMIT University has created a new font for the specific purpose of aiding memory retention.
It may seem counterintuitive, but by employing design elements that make the letters more difficult to discern – such as back-slanting rather than the standard forward-slanting of italics, and leaving gaps in each letter – the Sans Forgetica font forces the reader’s brain to work harder, making the text more memorable. Or, in the words of the boffins at RMIT, ‘it uses a learning principle called ‘desirable difficulty’ to add an obstruction to the learning process in order to promote deeper cognitive processing, which results in better memory retention’.
The key was to find the sweet spot between making a font that is too easy (and familiar) to read and one that is so difficult that the brain simply can’t process the information. The researchers conducted memory tests with over 100 students to find out which one of their designs resulted in the highest level of memory retention.
RMIT’s website suggests the font is ‘scientifically designed to help you remember your study notes’. There are certain to be other applications for the Sans Forgetica font, but its very nature will also limit how useful it can be.
This conundrum was one I touched on in a previous post about a physicist’s use of the Comic Sans font in a presentation about the Higgs boson. While people might have a greater level of comprehension of text presented in a difficult-to-read font, they are also much less likely to read it in the first place.
Sans Forgetica is specifically designed to be a little bit annoying, so if you’re not particularly invested in the text, you’re likely to just give up. One of the font’s inventors, typography lecturer Stephen Banham, conceded that while it might be useful for ‘highlighting important facts that need to be recalled in an exam … you would certainly never set an entire novel in it’.
To conduct your own memory retention experiment with Sans Forgetica, download the font from the RMIT website.